Arts Policy Library: How Art Works

HAW cover

(For a brief summary of this article, check out “How Art Works: the I’m-late-for-work version.”)

With “How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Five-Year Research Agenda,” the National Endowment for the Arts is getting proactive. Acknowledging that the NEA’s research efforts have been mostly descriptive in the past, “How Art Works” is intended to usher in a new era of strategic inquiry for the agency and the sector alike.

Released in September 2012, “How Art Works” “stems from a collaborative research inquiry.” Over the course of ten months prior, the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis and the global consulting firm Monitor Institute conducted interviews and solicited input from a host of people inside and outside the arts sector. (A full list of thought partners is included in Appendix B.) The resulting report lays out a conceptual framework that is meant to aid in the planning and assessment of the NEA’s research priorities from 2012 to 2016, and to facilitate reporting to the White House Office of Management & Budget, Congress, and the public on the Endowment’s progress.

Summary 

The practical goal of “How Art Works” is actually broader than this: beyond a research agenda for the NEA itself, it “proposes a way for the nation’s cultural researchers, arts practitioners, policy-makers, and the general public to view, analyze, and discuss the arts as a dynamic, complex system.” The strategy involves stating “feasible, testable” hypotheses about all manner of arts-related impacts on individuals and society in the form of a system map. The map in turn is intended to provide a theory of change to guide arts research and to facilitate field-wide investigation and discussion.

Mapping the Impact of the Arts

The fundamental hypothesis of “How Art Works” is as follows:

[E]ngagement in arts contributes to quality of life. Quality of life contributes to society’s capacity to invent, create, and express itself. This capacity contributes back to art, both directly and indirectly.

The effects of engagement in the arts are cyclical and reciprocal, inherent and instrumental, and can be seen in artists, participants, and society at large.

To specify and organize the range of possible interactions, reactions, and transactions, the major feature of “How Art Works” is a system map, a visual representation of the parties and forces at play. According to Innovation Network, “this approach involves first visually mapping the system of interest and then identifying which parts and relationships are expected to change, and how.” A system map facilitates discussion with the goal of getting everyone on the same page.

In the “How Art Works” system map, the major components of the arts ecosystem are represented as “nodes” connected by arrows representing the relationships between those nodes.

Map

The map’s starting point – the Big Bang for the entire arts ecosystem as we know it – is the “human impulse to create and express.” This impulse is the motivation to experience or participate in artistic creation. The rest of the nodes on the map spring out of this drive and fit into four broad categories: Inputs, Art itself, Quality-of-Life Outcomes, and Broader Societal Impacts. In order to clearly define each node on the map, “How Art Works” includes a graphic representation of what the authors call a “Multi-Level Measurement Structure” for each component or variable within the main nodes, which will inform the measurement model for future research involving each part of the system. For example, here is the Measurement Structure for one of the two system Inputs, education and training:

E&T Measurement Structure

Each Measurement Structure includes a list of “definitional questions and methodological challenges” (not pictured here), which are designed to help readers imagine how one might effectively gather data on all of these various and in some cases slippery concepts. Challenges include things like “insufficient data available,” difficult-to-isolate factors of change, or the limitations of prior research.

To summarize the map, we’ll walk through each of the nodes within the four main categories and briefly touch on the methodological challenges and observations on potential future research.

Inputs. According to “How Art Works,” the translation of the universal impulse to express into actual artistic activity depends on two Inputs, education and training and arts infrastructure.

Education and training represents all manner of arts learning opportunities, “from YouTube and street jam sessions, to K-12 and adult arts education, to apprenticeships and conservatory training.” It is education, both informal and formal, that allows for skillful expression of ideas for artists and develops a stronger sense of personal taste for arts consumers.

Arts infrastructure is described as the “institutions, places, spaces, and formal and informal social support systems that facilitate the creation and consumption of art.” These support systems include venues, organizations, schools, networks, unions, and associations, as well as less concrete elements like financial and volunteer support and public policy. Of course, the quality of available infrastructure matters as much as the quantity.

Art. Given the initial spark to create and the infrastructure and training to fan the flame, the next category is the Art itself. The artistic product, represented on the map by the yellow circle, has two sub-categories: creation and participation. Arts creation is the production of an artistic work within an established or emerging set of artistic principles with “the intention of communicating richly to others.” Arts participation includes creation but extends more broadly; it is defined as “the act of producing, interpreting, curating, and experiencing arts… and the consumption of these outputs.”

Finally, we move on to outcomes of the art, of which there are two types included as part of the map: Quality-of-Life Outcomes (so-called first-order outcomes) and Broader Societal Impacts (second-order outcomes).

Quality-of-Life Outcomes. Quality-of-life outcomes are the direct effects of interaction with the arts on individuals and communities. The report acknowledges that these outcomes could be positive or negative, though the word “benefit” is consistently used to describe them. The two nodes in this category are:

  • The benefit of art to individuals, and
  • The benefit to society and communities.

The outcome called the benefit of art to individuals encompasses the “cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physiological effects” on participating individuals over time.

The second outcome, benefit to society and community, is farther-reaching than the first. This node encompasses “the role the art plays as an agent of cultural vitality, a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideal, and a promoter of political dialogue.”

Benefit to Society

The report points out a few definitional questions, methodological challenges, and issues for further exploration to keep in mind with these Quality-of-Life Outcomes:

  • In current research many of these effects are intertwined and overlapping. Determining what can be isolated and tested will be an important step in illuminating these outcomes.
  • One complication when measuring the benefit of art to individuals is the uneven distribution of participation in arts activities. Presumably some people who like the arts like them a lot and choose to engage deeply and consistently, whereas others may never feel compelled. This is a methodological challenge because it makes data about impact difficult to generalize across the entire population.
  • It is unclear whether the impact of the arts on children versus adults is different enough to demand separate evaluation strategies.

Broader Societal Impacts. The final node of the system map represents the second-order outcomes on society at large. A more detailed version of the map (immediately below) shows three new elements within this category:

  • societal capacities to innovate and express ideas,
  • new forms of self-expression, and
  • outlets for creative expression.

These outcomes are included as “works in progress” in the report, which declines to offer a measurement structure for any of them. The latter two in particular are moving targets, as new art forms, techniques, and platforms continue to emerge; the authors cite platforms such as YouTube and Facebook and forms of expressions like data visualization as examples.

Illustration 3

System Multipliers. Beyond the nodes themselves, the authors posit that certain forces act on all of the various components of the system to varying degrees, all at once, to affect the system’s environment. These so-called System Multipliers are like societal weather. They don’t necessarily change what you’re going to do in a day, but they might change how you do it, or how long it takes.

There are five multipliers proposed: markets and subsidies, politics, technology, demographics and cultural traditions, and space and time. It’s easy to imagine how these forces could shift the arts sector in big and small ways. Technology, for example, has completely changed the way we share and consume art. It has also changed the ways artists get compensated for their work, for better or worse, in ways many did not see coming even five years ago.

Obviously, the reach of these multipliers is vast. The authors explain at a high level how each multiplier could affect the arts sector, but do not provide insights on potential research applications beyond suggesting they be periodically tracked using evidence from individual research projects.

Shaping the Research to Come

In the final section of “How Art Works,” the authors assess to what extent the NEA’s current research priorities square with the hypotheses represented in the map. These pages feature a list of priority projects initiated or planned by the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis over five years beginning in 2012, with each project keyed to an element of the map.

After reviewing the opportunities and potential areas of emphasis, the authors call attention to “a research gap associated with the nodes and relationships on the left side of the map: Societal Capacities to Innovate and to Express Ideas, and, in the expanded version of the map, New Forms of Self-Expression and Outlets for Creative Expression.” These nodes “mark a vast unsettled terrain” that “ultimately may hold the most promise and profit for those seeking to measure arts-related impacts.” Despite this promise, however, “How Art Works” notes that “most of the NEA’s research agenda for the next five years will continue to focus on arts infrastructure, education/training, arts participation and creation, and individual and community-level benefits,” areas where the NEA already has significant investment. The reasoning is that there are gains to be made in the short term by building on recent findings about Inputs and the benefit of art to individuals.

The report encourages the NEA to decide whether the rapidly-evolving “work-in-progress” elements outlets for creative expression and new forms of self-expression, as well as the catalyst of the system, the human impulse to express and create, are areas the Office of Research and Analysis can address in the next five years, or whether others will need to take the lead. “A reasonable approach might be to lodge these concepts in the broader dialectic of the arts research community, so that new hypotheses, research questions, populations, data sources, and methods might be proposed by groups outside the NEA.”

Finally, the authors point to the need to strengthen structural support for this research, for example through the NEA’s ongoing efforts to partner with other federal agencies for both program delivery and data collection. These priorities include “a clear need to build national time-series (preferably longitudinal) data collections including arts variables.” Additionally, over the next few years the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis plans to consolidate arts-related data and make it publicly available to other cultural researchers.

Analysis

“How Art Works” does a good job of defining a reasonable and comprehensive model of the arts’ impact against which to consider the NEA’s own research efforts. However, the report is a bit like an impressionist painting: from far away it looks complete, but when you get close, individual features are hard to make out. It is a step forward to be sure, but its broad-brush approach and failure to build explicitly on past attempts, combined with a few untended loose ends, represent a missed opportunity to be a watershed for cultural researchers.

The Necessary Specificity

”How Art Works” is certainly not lacking in grand designs. A map of any sector from public agencies to individual consumers that fits within a report as short as this one is inevitably going to work at a high level. But there are times when the map’s lack of specificity and detail seems to call into question its value entirely. Take, for example, Illustration 5 (the second image above), the Measurement Structure for education and training. This diagram divides all of arts education and training into two sub-categories – arts subjects and non-arts subjects – and then further divides those into art itself and evaluation of art, then further into modes of instruction, and finally into discipline “types” being studied.

This framework is frustratingly generic. Arts education is an area we actually know quite a bit about. There are professional associations representing every corner of the field, from in-school arts teachers to community-based organizations to art therapists. There’s even the National Center for Creative Aging, which has a bird’s-eye view of current trends in arts education for older adults. The NEA’s own prior research is especially strong in this area, though this isn’t reflected in the text or the diagram. At some point in the process of making this and other models widely applicable, specificity – and with it utility – have been somewhat lost. If the goal is to direct further research, the system map should take full advantage of the knowledge we have already.

Doing so might have pointed out areas where the frameworks don’t quite make sense, even at the very high level on which they operate. For example, the generic language of “art as a subject” and “art in non-arts courses” brings to mind child-age learners in school settings. This seems a strange choice, since education and training according to the authors is meant to include arts learning in informal settings for learners of all ages. It may be that the map needs to be generic for universality, but it certainly shouldn’t implicitly narrow the field with imprecise language.

The audience for How Art Works is described briefly as “researchers, practitioners, policy-makers in the arts and in other sectors.” But this lack of specificity serves neither experts in the field, who are offered scant new insights into their focus areas, nor those less familiar with the arts, who will glean only the most general outlines of the work involved, even for well-established fields of practice like arts education. For those completely oblivious to the arts sector and all of its components – those who have never considered the connection between a community dance studio, what goes on inside the walls of the Kennedy Center, and, say, the economy – this report could be educational, but only to a point. Some nodes are more instructive than others. Benefit of art to society and communities for example (pictured above), could enlighten and spur new thinking for people who don’t spend all day dissecting the impact and values of the arts. But education and training wouldn’t provide much information for people who don’t already know what arts education looks like in all of its various forms.

Building on Prior Work

As a framework for understanding the effects of the arts, “How Art Works” misses important chances to incorporate and build on prior work like Gifts of the Muse. Published in 2005, Gifts is an extensive literature review that attempts to compile all of the various claimed benefits of the arts to individuals and society and evaluate and connect them in one text. It details the intrinsic benefits (captivation, pleasure, expanded capacity for empathy, cognitive growth, creation of social bonds, expression of communal meaning) and instrumental benefits (attitudinal, behavioral, health, community, economic) of the arts, assesses the available evidence, and makes recommendations on how to fill some of the gaps. Like “How Art Works,” Gifts constructed a working model of the benefits of the arts, the summary version of which is pictured here:

Gifts Diagram

A few years before Gifts, the Cultural Dynamics Project (a collaboration between The Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the consulting group National Arts Strategies, and the California non-profit Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley) likewise created a system map of the arts and cultural sector. The collaborators’ hope was that such a map would “inform our arts policy, expand our understanding as arts professionals, guide and contextualize existing and future research on the field, and drive more thoughtful funding initiatives among those seeking to support and evolve this complex system.” That sounds familiar. It’s worth noting that the individuals involved with the Cultural Dynamics Project didn’t let 8.5×11-inch paper shrink their vision or cause them to over-generalize. The map comes complete with instructions on how to attach four sheets together to reveal the full diagram. Another attempt to conceptualize the benefits of the arts was Alan Brown’s 2006 essay “An Architecture of Value.” Brown’s model explicitly builds on Gifts of the Muse and focuses on the language we use to explain “the value and benefits of arts experiences.”

While “How Art Works” has the additional mandate of providing research guidance for a particular (and important) player in the field, it’s odd that so much of the report – and presumably the effort that went into making it – was spent on ground well-covered by these and other previous works – especially since several of the individuals involved in those previous initiatives were consulted during the discovery process. “How Art Works” isn’t entirely duplicative, but it isn’t 100% additive either. With the ultimate goal of getting everyone on the same page so that arts research can proceed in a more coordinated manner, it’s ironic that these prior efforts to map the system were scarcely mentioned in even the footnotes or appendices of the report.

Neglecting the Negative

“How Art Works” sets out to “[provide] a conceptual frame for planning and assessing research priorities so that the NEA can improve its ability to meet a core goal: To Promote Knowledge and Understanding about the Contributions of the Arts.” One would expect such a report to accentuate the positive when it comes to the impact of the arts. But if the system map presented is meant to be realistic – a picture of how art really does work, and not a romantic representation of how we would like it to work – the possible negative effects of self-expression should be acknowledged more explicitly. Take, for example, this sentence from an early paragraph describing the forces at play in the system map in the simplest terms:

The impact [of the arts on a person] also flows back to the artist, directly in some instances (e.g., the artist sells a work of art) and indirectly through education, infrastructure, and society’s general embrace of creativity and freedom of expression.

In fact, creativity channeled through the arts does not always lead to an expansion of freedom of expression. Sometimes it leads to a backlash and a crackdown. We have seen widespread objections to certain works of art: the agency has been repeatedly accused of funding “pornography” (see reason number five of these Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment of the Arts). In 1998, after decades of periodic controversy over NEA grants, the Supreme Court ruled that the agency could make “decency” a consideration in funding decisions. This kind of stipulation doesn’t stop the production of controversial work, but it does send a message about the value of certain works of art, and art more generally to society, and it has real implications for artists’ ability to find financial support for their work. The impact that circles back to the artist is sometimes a structural restriction of creativity and expression.

Art itself can also be intrinsically harmful. The authors acknowledge in a footnote that, “[b]ecause communities do not all have the same values, ideals, or political inclinations, art that is seen as beneficial by one community can appear threatening to another.” But this understates the potential for art to do damage; for example, there is no shortage of racist music out there reinforcing and promoting prejudice. Finally, the arts can have unintended indirect effects, such as their ever-controversial role in neighborhood gentrification. Many observers have argued that  the influx of artists into an area can spur a kind of neighborhood change that is harmful to residents who subsequently are priced out of their homes or experience a more metaphorical sense of displacement. That kind of impact is not included in the benefits to society and communities structure, but nevertheless represents an example of a tangible outcome that could be caused by the arts.

Implications

So, what if it worked? What if we pursued this research agenda as laid out, and we really did have all of the metrics under all of the nodes defined in five years? We would know how things work now. But I can’t help wishing that this research agenda were more aspirational. If we had instead a working map of an ideal arts sector, could we be stronger at the end of five years instead of just smarter?

Such a map would show how and where we want average people to encounter the arts in their community, and what the impacts of those encounters would be. It would chart how public sector dollars can work with private and community foundations and individual donors to support a diverse and healthy arts infrastructure. It would theorize what tax structures and other policies could benefit individual artists, and those hypotheses would be tested in the research to follow, instead of simply stating that all of these elements exist.

Such a report would also draw on prior research in these specific areas. A literature review was conducted as part of the process of creating “How Art Works,” presumably for the purpose of assessing the current state of knowledge in the arts. But somehow those insights don’t seem to have made it into the final product, save for an annotated bibliography provided in Appendix A and sorted by map node. By drawing a map that got into details about what we already know and what we have yet to find out, “How Art Works” could have launched the sector into a new era of coordinated, proactive research.

Instead, we will have to be satisfied with the report’s more limited ambitions. By the time this research agenda was released, the NEA had already made an inaugural round of fourteen research grants. Fordham University studied the impact of arts programming on the social skills and mental health outcomes of at-risk youth, exploring the benefit of arts to individuals, society, and communities. Harvard looked into factors contributing to “birth” and “death” rates of arts and cultural institutions, which pertains to arts infrastructure. The University of Dayton studied the relationship between arts engagement and quality of life, investigating arts participation and arts creation. And the University of Georgia performed qualitative research to generate a hypothesis about community-built practice such as playgrounds, mosaic sculptures, murals, and community gardens, looking into the benefits of arts for societies and communities. This research is compelling, and the best examples will hopefully lead us forward as a field. Happily, the quality of that work will not be diminished by a grand vision that is, arguably, still under construction.

Further reading:

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Around the horn: Madiba edition

Don’t forget about the Createquity Fellowship deadline coming up this Friday!

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT

  • The value of the creative sector to the U.S. economy? Half a trillion dollars. The value of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s official inclusion of our sector in its GDP analysis? Priceless. Responses from the field have been mixed. Some are celebrating how full the glass is: the creative sector, led by Hollywood, advertising, and television, accounted for 3.2% of the economy – more than tourism (2.8%) – and employed 2 million workers. Others have focused on the top half of the glass: the recession hit our sector especially hard and to lasting effect, and the bulk of the economic value is from advertising, with relatively little from “independent artists and performing arts.” Still others question the value of glasses entirely: embracing economic measurements of the arts could undermine aesthetic arguments for their necessity – though Createquity’s Jena Lee recently suggested otherwise.
  • In the latest installment of the Detroit Institute of Arts saga, museum leaders have joined closed-door negotiations with several of the nation’s largest private foundations, both local and national, to protect the beleaguered institution by raising a whopping $500 million for the city’s underwater municipal pensions. Sources say they could be close to a deal. Meanwhile, efforts to raise private funds to spin the museum off from the city got a boost from biotech millionaire Paul Schaap, who has pledged $5m.
  • The Marion Ewing Kauffman Foundation has released a policy paper detailing several strategies for mayors and local government to support cultural entrepreneurship.
  • A new report published by old friend Shannon Litzenberger intends to “ignite a conversation about addressing the existing logjam in arts funding in [Canada].”
  • Arts Council England wants the the field to “transform itself into a low-carbon, sustainable and resilient sector” — so much so that it requires environmental reporting of its grantees, and is out with a summary of the first year of that effort.
  • The Seattle Department of Cultural Affairs is offering $10,000 for an action plan on a Cultural Development Certification — intended to be the arts’ parallel to the LEED designation. Proposals are due January 22.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

  • Deborah Rutter, President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will succeed Michael Kaiser as President of the Kennedy Center in DC, with potential implications for classical music programming.  This leaves a number of important vacancies at the capital’s cultural institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, the board of the Kennedy Center itself – oh, right, and both the NEH and NEA.
  • Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre has found its first President and CEO: Wayne S. Brown, current director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts. David DiChiera, the Theatre’s founder and general manager, will transition to serving as artistic director beginning January 1. Brown’s departure continues a recent exodus of top NEA officials, including the directors of Theatre & Musical Theatre, Literature, and Public Affairs/Chief of Staff.
  • John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and prominent advocate of “STEAM” education, is leaving his post at the end of the semester to join a venture capitol firm and consult for eBay – right as eBay announces plans to follow Amazon’s footsteps and launch an online art marketplace.

ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS

IN THE FIELD

  • Louisiana ArtWorks, a lavish $25 million art studio construction-project-turned-fiasco that has stood nearly empty since its completion, is up for auction. On top of the $600,000 yearly mortgage left to New Orleans taxpayers, more than $15 million state and federal funds had been sunk into the project.
  • A new 300-student charter school for the arts is set to open on the site of a former department store in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
  • In the rare positive story from Motown, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is back in the black after a lengthy and debilitating musicians’ strike three years ago. Meanwhile, musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, having spent the last year locked out in a labor dispute, are going rogue by applying for a 501(c)(3) and organizing their own concert series.
  • Philadelphia has been adjusting to the shifting priorities of three major local arts funders, and Peter Dobrin details the ramifications and changes in a three-part series.
  • The History Colorado Center takes “visitor tracking” to a new level with a “business intelligence” system that integrates and mines data from all areas of the museum, including “who is visiting, whether they’re members or donors, whether they’re coming as families or in adult pairs or alone, and from where… Whether those visitors eat in the café or shop in the store, what they ate and what they bought.” Not creepy at all…

BIG IDEAS

  • With the National Endowment for the Arts gearing up to announce new collective impact funding for arts education next month, now’s a great time to brush up on what collective impact is – and while you’re at it, dig into this new series on measuring backbone organizations’ success.
  • Beth Kanter unpacks the developmental evaluation strand of last month’s Next Generation Evaluation conference and offers some insight on its relationship to social change initiative and nonprofit practice.
  • The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is partnering with Google, Accenture and other for-profit companies to launch an art and technology lab that will “will award grants and make museum facilities available to help artists explore new boundaries in art and science.” Elsewhere in LA, though, the public school system’s efforts to equip classrooms with iPads seem to be suffering from One-Laptop-Per-Child-like problems, which one pundit blames on “innovation fatigue.”
  • Real-estate developers are increasingly cultivating artists and designers as tenants in low-rent neighborhoods who will help transform the area, raise the rents, and eventually move out. One developer calls the process “gentlefication.”
  • Now this is a different kind of conference report: Arts & Ideas has created a gorgeous interactive document of The Art of Placemaking conference hosted last month in Providence, RI by the folks at WaterFire.

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Dallas’s National Center for Arts Research has released its inaugural report on the health of America’s arts and cultural organizations. The report includes the average performance of organizations in eight indices and an examination of what drives organizations, and introduces the concept of high performance and intangible performance indicators (KIPIs). NCAR is working with IBM to create a online dashboard for organizations to access their own KIPIs.
  • Roland Kushner, co-author of Americans for the Arts’ National Arts Index, looks at the relationship between private sector giving and arts index scores between 2000 and 2011. He finds a correlation beyond charitable contributions to the arts increasing the vitality of the sector, arguing that “charitable giving and engagement in the arts may emanate from the same instincts, values, and attitudes.”
  • Americans love libraries! Nearly half of adults have visited a library in the past year, and fully 90% believe their community would be adversely affected if the local branch closed, according to a Pew study.
  • A new study from Germany suggests that the relationship between studying music and improved academic performance may be causal: when researchers controlled for differences such as parental background, student musicians still out-performed their peers on cognitive tests – especially verbal ones.
  • Some interesting findings have been reported by psychologists studying the effects of first-person shooter games. They surmise that players who enjoy these immersive and violent games are satisfying an innate desire for control and split-second decision making that is rarely achievable in today’s society. Video games also got some support from a new study out of Israel’s Center for Educational Technology.
  • Korea-Finland Connection, a collaboration between Korean Arts Management and Dance Info Finland, has published an evaluation of its three-year program intended to create long-term  relationships between Finnish and Korean artists and organizations in the performing arts.
  • Half of Equity members in Britain earned less than $8,200 in the last year, according to the union’s latest survey.  Additionally, “95.8% said they had never been pressurised to appear nude at a casting.”
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Reminder: Createquity Fellowship applications are due this Friday!

Applications for the Createquity Fellowship, formerly known as the Createquity Writing Fellowship, are closing this Friday, December 20 at 5pm EST. Get your statement of interest in while you still can! All it takes is 250 words to get started. We’re looking forward to reading what you’ve got to say!

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Value vs. Value: An inside look at appraising artworks in museums

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) was stolen along with his Madonna (1894) from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. After the theft, the combined value of the artworks was assigned retroactively at $121 million.

Christie’s auction house is wrapping up four months of appraising artworks at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which has become an unfortunate hostage in negotiations between the bankrupt City of Detroit and its creditors. When the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, brought in Christie’s in August, there was an outcry of disapproval from the public and museums across the country. Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor described the general sentiment this way:

If you allow Detroit to appraise its art… you’re simultaneously devaluing the importance of art and culture and opening the door to further kleptocratic appropriations from the “public trust.”

Orr has said that he expects the DIA to find a way to raise money from its collection, which may mean a sale of some works at auction. However, the objections are not just to potential deaccessioning (the controversial practice of selling of a work in a museum’s collection), but even to the very notion of assigning an estimate of market value to works of visual art. Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, compared Christie’s process to “the weighing of souls” and expressed concern that it would “alter…the public’s perception of artworks from being ciphers of public heritage of transcendent value, to objects for sale to pay other people’s debts.”

Protests against the valuation of art in public institutions are not new. Once an artwork has made it behind the pearly gates of a major museum, it is generally considered to be off limits to market forces forever, preserved and protected for the benefit of all. The arguments for this view usually echo the opinion that art’s intrinsic and cultural importance render it priceless, so assigning a price would profane this sacred value.

But are these fears of assigning dollar amounts to artworks warranted? As an associate in the field of fine art appraisal, I take issue with the notion that art could be kept separate from economic value and market forces, even if we would like it to be – and I question the underlying belief that assigning price and respecting “transcendent” cultural value are mutually exclusive. As one municipal bankruptcy expert asserted, “You can’t pretend the art doesn’t have monetary value.” I would go further and say that we should be glad it does.

How Much Is It Worth?

The systematic valuation of artworks in a major museum’s collection is unusual. Even in the DIA’s case, Christie’s is only appraising a select group – less than 5% of the collection – comprised of works purchased directly by the City of Detroit. However, art museums, their collections, and exhibitions have always been intertwined with the art economy. Deaccessioning is one obvious point of intersection, but even setting the sale of art to the side, museums actually assign market value to works all the time, particularly when they acquire or loan them out.

A museum typically acquires work either through a direct purchase made with a combination of its own money and donor funds or via a donation from a private owner. In both instances, the artwork enters the collection with a price attached. In the case of a purchase, curators will examine the historical and aesthetic importance of the artist and her past market activity to justify to their director and board the need to spend a certain amount on a new acquisition. In fact, rising market prices for a less established artist’s work can actually be a signal that she is worth considering for acquisition in the first place. Pop over to the website for Boston’s Museum of Fine Art for an interesting peek at one museum’s acquisition policy (and visit it again for more insights on provenance, which we’ll get to in a bit).

In the case of a charitable donation to a nonprofit institution, the Internal Revenue Service requires that the artwork be professionally appraised upon acceptance to determine its fair market value, defined as:

The price that property would sell for on the open market. It is the price that would be agreed on between a willing buyer and a willing seller, with neither being required to act, and both having reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.

This valuation provides the basis for the tax break the donor will receive. To ensure he doesn’t scam the system with an inflated value, this type of appraisal uses a market data approach that includes prices of “comparable examples” or sales of the artist’s work in recent years. The appraisal also incorporates any pertinent information on the state of the art market at the time of the gift with regard to the artist, as well as a biography and testament to her relevance in relation to a particular art movement or period. In other words, the appraiser must prove the fair market economic value of the work as it relates to its cultural value in order for the IRS to accept the designated price.

These values are not static; they change with inflation, the ebb and flow of the market, and trends in the art world, which is why private collections are reassessed on a regular basis for insurance purposes – another moment at which monetary value is assigned to art. Perhaps surprisingly, most art museums do not insure their full collections, which would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, individual artworks are insured only when they leave their permanent homes, usually as part of an exhibition or occasionally for conservation. At that time, the works are re-appraised, their value once again determined to guarantee full coverage in the case of damage or loss, such as theft. If either occurs at home where the work is uninsured, the piece will be appraised retroactively for what it would have been worth at the time of the incident.

In 2004, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) and Madonna (1894) were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. After the heist, their combined value was set at $121 million. The works were later recovered, but without an art appraisal, insurers would have been unable to determine how much to compensate the museum. By establishing the market value of an artwork, an organization can give itself options should the unforeseen occur. The money recovered from insurers will generally be put towards repairing any damages incurred, or if that’s not possible, acquiring another art piece. Both measures clearly benefit the collection and the public trust.

Exhibition History and Provenance

Museums don’t just establish the price of the art in their collections, they also help determine the value of works they never even consider buying. An artwork’s economic value is affected by its exhibition history and provenance—where it was shown, where it was written about, and by whom it was owned—so it’s in a collector’s best interest that it be seen in the right company.

When it comes to exhibitions, it is standard practice for museum curators to approach collectors about lending artworks for inclusion in upcoming shows featuring the artist’s work or area of influence. The wall text adjacent to an art piece in an exhibition can be a useful tool for illuminating the subtle presence of the art market in the room. Next time you attend a museum show, pay close attention to the last line of this catalogue description. If the provenance states, “From the collection of…” you can smile and nod with the knowledge that the lender has just added a feather to the artwork’s proverbial cap, an advantageous qualifier should he ever wish to sell it.

The cultural seal of approval that an art institution can issue extends beyond the objects within its own collection and those lent for exhibitions. It can affect an artist’s entire oeuvre, increasing the value of un-exhibited privately owned works as well as new ones offered for sale. One gallerist promoted the work of Israeli artist Leora Laor to a client by informing him in a letter that the The Jewish Museum was considering the purchase of Laor’s photograph Borderland #1006. In this case, the gallerist felt that even interest on the part of a museum would be a factor in the collector’s decision. Similarly, a well-received exhibition about a particular period or style can cause a flurry of buyer activity in the retail sector, as happened with a 2006 traveling showcase of 19th-century Biedermeier fine art and furniture that was hailed in the New York Times as a “a harbinger of many things modern.”

An installation view of “Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition highlighted a less known style of 19th-century fine and decorative arts causing an increase in collector interest and buyer activity in the market. Photo credit: Chris and/or Kevin

An installation view of “Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity” at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2006. Photo credit: Chris and/or Kevin

On occasion a museum may mount a show comprised solely of works owned or donated by one collector – a practice sometimes referred to as a “vanity exhibition.” If the collector is still living, the museum may enter into the preliminary stages of acquiring his collection or first right of refusal, wherein they show the work in exchange for donations of art or a cash gift. The collector/donor benefits by adding exhibition history and provenance to his artworks and glory to his legacy, while the museum in theory benefits by expanding its collection – although the artwork may or may not eventually end up there. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art came under fire for agreeing to a 2001 exhibition of works from trustee Eli Broad’s collection without procuring a contract ensuring that some pieces would be donated to the institution. LACMA never received any of the work—Broad decided to open his own museum—but prior to that he made a $60 million contribution for a contemporary art wing bearing his name.

The incident with Broad points to the complex relationship nearly all art museums have with deep-pocketed benefactors positioned behind the scenes as trustees, committee members, and influential donors. It’s difficult for their personal and financial interests not to get entangled with the institution and their collections, which is why museums must walk an ethical tightrope when it comes to public-private partnerships. While their presence ensures that the museum will always be indirectly tied to the marketplace, it also allows institutions a certain amount of autonomy from the limitations of government funding and it can even offer protection for works of art under threat. In the case of the DIA, for example, Emergency Manager Orr and the city’s creditors have largely shied away from the majority of the collection that was donated or acquired with private funds, lest donors and their heirs unleash a slew of lawsuits similar to the one recently filed (and later retracted) by two founders of the Dia Art Foundation in New York.

The Art in Art Appraisal

We’ve examined some of the ways market value and museums intersect, but who exactly is appraising all of this artwork? Is it a group of sticker-happy thieves who will sell world-class art like your Nana’s cheap china at a yard sale? Absolutely not. Art appraisers are also art appreciators. They have a discerning eye for the energy of the brush stroke, effect of light, complexity of composition, and artist’s intent. Most hold degrees in areas of art, history, and cultural studies, as well as economics and administration. The principal appraiser at the firm I work for is a contributing member of several Los Angeles-area art museums, an owner of a diverse collection of paintings and “tramp art,” and has consulted on several art books and catalogues. If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow or History Detectives, you get a pretty good idea of the level of an art appraiser’s interest and knowledge in the work he or she evaluates. Even auction catalogues feature special spreads that include artist’s biographies and attest to the cultural relevance of particular works for sale.

Contrary to fears that dollar signs will devalue art’s intrinsic qualities, those of us who are in the business of knowing the most about its market value are devoted museum patrons, members, collectors, and even artists ourselves – as in my own case. We are deeply aware of what makes an art piece valuable in a cultural context and worthy of its place in a museum.

But what about the broader public? Could highly publicized, often astronomical market prices for significant artworks lead to a general sense that art is only as valuable as the dollars it can be exchanged for? There is reason to believe that the risk is low. Even as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith bemoaned the “new high-water mark”—$142,000,000.00!—set by the recent sale of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, she pointed to a 1980 purchase by the Whitney Museum that made headlines at the time. The prestigious art institution bought an encaustic painting by Jasper Johns called Three Flags for an era-shocking $1 million. But no one talks about that when they see the work hanging in the museum today. It has weathered the once negative press resulting from its hefty purchase price remarkably well, becoming a popular icon of American 20th Century art.

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Jasper Johns’ iconic work Three Flags (1958) was purchased by the Whitney Museum in 1980 for $1 million.

A recent survey of Detroit citizens suggests a similar public resilience to artwork valuation. Despite the high estimates that have been tossed around in the media, reportedly 78% of locals surveyed would prefer not to sell the DIA’s art to satisfy city creditors, despite the city’s dire economic straits. And in another interesting development, Detroit’s creditors have accused Christie’s of undervaluing DIA artworks, the appraised portion of which are preliminarily estimated at $452-866 million. Their disappointment in the early assessment reveals how a prudent appraisal is less about giving the “kleptocrats” what they want than determining a value that accurately reflects the arts’ cultural and historical position within a market.

So if monetary value need not displace aesthetic or cultural value, it seems to me that we want art to be prized in the marketplace – which also means being priced. Though it may seem tasteless to talk cold hard cash when it comes to our cultural heritage, monetary worth is one of the most direct ways in which our culture speaks about things it truly values. Rather than trying to avoid pricing art all together—nearly impossible in a late-capitalist society—it might be more productive to think like an art appraiser and ask why the work is worth what it is at this particular moment in time. Examining the reasons reveals a lot about our cultural interests, state of the economy, and wealth distribution. The ability of an art collection to capture the attention of an American city’s creditors is disconcerting as a sign of culture’s vulnerability when our urban centers are poorly managed, but for a field constantly beset with worries of its declining relevance and difficulty reaching a broader audience, the public’s subsequent resistance in letting that artwork go should be something for arts lovers to celebrate – a sure sign that people really do care after all. In the opinion of this art appraisal associate, a world in which the price of certain artworks is ludicrously high is far less scary than a world in which no one is willing to put a price on art at all.

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Share All the Data? Thoughts on a National Arts Data Repository

Vault photo by Ostrograd

Vault photo by Ostrograd

(Please enjoy this guest post from Yvonne Lee, a recent UCLA MLIS graduate and information professional specializing in cultural data research. -IDM)

In late July, the National Endowment for the Arts quietly issued a request for proposals for a national arts data repository to serve as a clearing house for “high-quality datasets with arts variables.” Given my experience as a data geek, this news seemed like Christmas in July. I started daydreaming about accessing flawlessly documented datasets (perfect codebooks! detailed workflows and logbooks!) and having a dedicated repository where I could store and share all of the data from my own projects. Most of all, I thought about how this archive might transform our sector.

Many hopes sprang to mind. A one-stop shop for longitudinal and reliable datasets could change how arts researchers document, publish, share, verify, and re-use data, and have implications for policymakers, practitioners, and administrators. For one, we could deepen the current dialogue(s) on arts research and cultural vibrancy indicators to examine their utility and comprehensiveness. This in turn could help the sector develop better frameworks to define arts and culture and more transparent benchmarks for measuring the health and vitality of the arts sector. While several arts and cultural indicator projects like the Urban Institute’s Arts and Culture Indicators Project or ArtPlace’s Vibrancy Indicators utilize widely available datasets, crucial segments of the data and documentation—like the actual methodology used to derive cell phone activity for ArtPlace’s Vibrancy Indicators—are not available for wide consumption. A popular adage in the sciences is to “trust, but verify” research results. Should the arts be any different? If a critical mass of datasets and supporting documentation is included in the NEA’s repository and accessed for re-use, researchers might communicate more openly and make strides toward building a shared framework for how we understand the arts.

Still, as excited as I was, my experience with arts-related datasets has taught me that working with data archives is never rarely as simple as we’d like it to be. In my past role as a data curation consultant, I researched and advised how best to document, select, publish, and deposit research data for potential re-use on behalf of various stakeholders in the arts and humanities. As part of a digital humanities project called Visualizing Statues, I investigated research methods to develop a digital management plan (DMP), a process that is now required for all NEA and NEH research grants. The questions that came up were manifold and pretty universal to the arts and humanities sector—how to properly cite datasets, for example, or how to migrate proprietary file formats so that others could access datasets without using soon-obsolete software. One of the biggest of these questions was what constituted arts research data. The Visualizing Statues project used the National Science Board (NSB)’s Long-Lived Digital Data Collections definition of data as “any information…including text, numbers, images, video or movies.” This definition is a standard among data curators. Its chief advantage is that it provides a springboard for researchers to consider data as something with a wide and changing scope rather than something static. On the other hand, the definition is so broad that it makes articulating the exact provenance of datasets difficult as they change hands from “raw” to normalized and cleaned. In Visualizing Statues, “the data” included everything from photographs to geocoordinates to ArcGIS code to epigraphic documents in TEI XML. Citing the different types and versions of data became a major issue when it came time to select a data archive, as some have policies that are unfriendly to such a heterogeneous mix of formats.

Despite concerns over version control and the wide scope of data in Visualizing Statues, the good news was that the project reflected a trend toward data sharing and access in the arts and humanities. Our researchers uniformly expressed willingness to share and deposit their data in an archive. We were also able to access others’ research data in conjunction with this project, though all of it came directly from the principal investigators’ colleagues. This is pretty typical; in general, access to arts-related datasets varies greatly. Anyone can search for and download files from wide-access or public datasets like the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, but to access datasets from smaller projects, which typically are not publicly funded and rely on third-party consultants, interpersonal connections are often required. Even having friends in high places won’t work for everyone, as some datasets are kept for internal or highly restricted use. Given these roadblocks, arts researchers are often forced to or unknowingly duplicate efforts using precious project resources. The ability to inventory and access current and past datasets will let us better understand the scope of research in the sector while encouraging collaboration between researchers, and keeping past research data relevant.

Certain data archives and collection initiatives in the sector are already trying to address issues of access. Princeton’s Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive (CPANDA), which has been around since 2001, seems an obvious choice for depositing and retrieving arts-related datasets. CPANDA describes itself as the “world’s first interactive digital archive of policy-relevant data on the arts and cultural policy in the United States.” However, its site is like a digital ghost town, with its most recent dataset dated 2011. One reason for CPANDA’s disuse may be the rigidly hierarchical format of its finding aids and directories. Researchers can conduct a simple search of terms used in survey questions or browse by the title or subject of a study, making searches difficult unless the researcher knows exactly what he or she is looking for. Say, for example, that you are a researcher looking for past surveys on how Americans have spent their leisure time since 2008. You could type “American Time Use” in the search bar and retrieve a list of survey questions with the terms American, time, and use in them. Or, you could browse by title, assuming you have a specific study in mind. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.

The Cultural Data Project (CDP), another seemingly obvious choice, is not an archive per se as much as a longitudinal collection of participating members’ financial data. The CDP was first launched in 2004 and states that it is “the emerging national standard for data collection in the arts and cultural sector.” However, the CDP requires data deposits use the CDP’s data collection instrument (the Data Profile) which collects narrowly but deeply on financial and programming data. Unfortunately, access to CDP’s rich datasets is neither public nor wide, and researchers not otherwise affiliated with CDP or its participating members may find their request for CDP data denied.

More recently, Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School of Business announced a collaboration with CDP and others on a National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) that “will analyze the largest database of arts research ever assembled.” This “hub for critical [arts research] data” may be more in line with the NEA’s RFP than CPANDA or CDP’s efforts, though whether it will provide wide or public access to its data is unclear. The Center’s focus will be “analysis, insights, and enablement” while data gathering will be on an ad-hoc basis. While NCAR released an introduction to its inaugural report in early December, it’s too soon to tell whether it will yield viable datasets for arts researchers. In the meantime, we have a clear and timely need for an arts data archive that utilizes relevant analysis tools, regularly maintains its datasets, is simple to navigate, and allows users to easily deposit and download data.

Fortunately, the NEA solicitation addresses some of these needs. It specifies that the NEA is seeking “a contractor who has an established data archiving infrastructure and the capacity to create, maintain, update, and expand an archive of datasets, metadata, and links to related literature.” This means that not only the reports, tables, figures, codebooks, and appendices affiliated with the data will be available to the public, but (huzzah!) the actual data as well. Very importantly, the NEA’s proposal states that researchers using the repository should have access to enough resources within it to be able to verify or replicate the data. The standard of replicability is virtually unheard of in arts research, in large part because of our reliance on qualitative research methods. Requiring it for datasets deposited in this archive would go far toward ameliorating some of the trust issues with arts research that then NEA Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett referred to in an interview with Barry Hessenius earlier this year:

I think we generally have a research and data problem in the arts. Our data sets are often not as robust, and our research is not always seen as being as rigorous as other sectors.

In addition, the NEA proposal asks the consultant do the following to ensure a successful deployment and implementation of the data archive:

  • Design and develop a website to serve as a discipline-specific archive that stores arts-related datasets, metadata, and references to literature (or citations) that use the datasets
  • Acquire and process art-related datasets, metadata, and links to literature currently housed at CPANDA
  • Update, maintain, and add to this new archive of arts-related data for a base period of one year
  • Communicate the mission of the archive to the public

It seems straightforward enough: if you create a data archive with accurate research documentation, citation tracking, and simple methods for inputting and retrieving data, provide technical assistance on how to use the repository, and alert stakeholders, it should be in high demand. However, the repository will still have challenges ahead, in no small part because of the sector it intends to serve. While I don’t believe that the arts sector is inherently antagonistic to data, I do think there will be some steep learning curves for the community at large (exemplified by the Archive and Data Management Training Center’s hilarious “The five stages to data sharing” based on the Kübler-Ross model of grieving). Despite early calls for an arts database by Alvin Toffler and others, the level of data literacy in the arts sector is low. Even if researchers share their datasets more consistently, there’s still the issue of whether others will feel compelled to (re)use them. While Createquity along with WESTAF’s Barry’s Blog, LinkedIn’s Digital Curation Group, and various ArtsJournal blogs address issues of research and data literacy, the discussion still needs to reach a wider audience in the arts.

As of publication, the NEA has not yet announced the awardee of the data archiving contract, though a source there indicated the agency would “have something to say soon.” Although I am more skeptical now than I was in late July, I am cautiously optimistic that the creation of the arts data archive along with the NEA and NEH’s Digital Management Plan requirements will further data sharing and access in the sector. Although the growing pains are still evident, these measures should stimulate the arts community’s interest in data and collaborative research, and will hopefully thereby cultivate a better understanding of the nature of human creative endeavor. As stated by the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences:

We have remarkable opportunities to bring new analytic and interpretive power to bear on the materials and the methods of the humanities and the social sciences; by so doing, we can advance our understanding of human cultures past, present, and future. In the process, however, [stakeholders] will also have to re-examine their own . . . culture, rethinking its outward forms, its established practices, and its apparent assumptions.

For the arts, this emerging path may be tumultuous, but indicates great promise.

(Acknowledgments to Christine L. Borgman and Laura A. Wynholds’ s bibliography on “Data, Data Practices, and Data Curation.”)

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Uncomfortable Thoughts: Are We Missing the Point of Effective Altruism?

"I want change" by m.a.r.c.

“I want change” by m.a.r.c.

Toward the end of the summer, bioethicist Peter Singer raised the hackles of art lovers everywhere with a New York Times op-ed that considered a hypothetical dilemma: should you donate to a charity that combats blindness in the developing world or should you spend that money instead on an art museum? After running through a cost-benefit analysis of each option, he determined that the charity addressing blindness “offers [donors] at least 10 times the value” of the museum.

Ouch.

To no one’s surprise, the arts community didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for the piece, calling Singer’s argument “a shocker,” “absurd,” and “tyrannical.” Another round of alarm ensued recently when none other than megaphilanthropist Bill Gates threw his support behind Singer’s thesis. The responses from our field to date have generally coalesced around two broad counter-arguments:

As satisfying as these rebuttals may feel to arts advocates, they unfortunately miss the point. The crucial assumptions behind Singer’s argument are that

  1. there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one [sector] than in another,” and
  2. we have a moral obligation to make choices that do as much good as possible.

It’s important to understand this perspective in the context of “effective altruism,” a relatively nascent but growing area of applied ethics that has been featured more than once on this blog, not to mention a recent edition of This American Life. Besides Gates, fellow philanthropic heavyweight and past Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest has declared himself a fan. “Effective altruists,” or EAs, are on a quest to “do good” by way of hard-nosed rationality. “Doing good” doesn’t mean recycling a little more, or occasionally doling out spare change to a beggar on the street. It doesn’t mean foregoing a high-powered corporate career to work for a nonprofit. It means taking the time to analyze how to do the most amount of good possible with the resources available – or, to use a more nerdy turn of phrase, to “[use] science and rational decision-making to help as many sentient beings” as they can.

Most funders are already in search of a big “bang for your buck,” but in trying to identify the objectively best causes to support, effective altruists stray from the conventional wisdom of mainstream philanthropy. EAs cast a global net when determining where to focus, and often settle on supporting causes in faraway parts of the world, the results of which they may never see in person. They also believe that while human lives are created equal, philanthropic causes are not. Those causes that can save or improve the most lives must take first priority.

How does this play out in practice? Let’s say you donate to the free medical clinic in your area. You do this for good reasons: you care about inequities in the American healthcare system, and want to give back to your community. You like the feeling you get when you walk by that clinic every day. Maybe you even know people who benefit from the services the clinic provides. The clinic gets its donation, and you get warm fuzzies. Everybody wins. Right?

Not so, an EA would counter. Despite your good intentions, your donation amounts to a near-waste of resources:

We understand the sentiment that ‘charity starts at home,’ and we used to agree with it, until we learned just how different U.S. charity is from charity aimed at the poorest people in the world. Helping people in the U.S. usually involves tackling extremely complex, poorly understood problems… In the poorest parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems…

We estimate that it costs [Givewell’s] top-rated international charity less than $2,500 to save a human life… Compare that with even the best U.S. programs… over $10,000 per child served, and their impact is encouraging but not overwhelming.

EAs advocate making evidence-based decisions even if they don’t resonate on an emotional or intuitive level:

Effective altruism is consistent with believing that giving benefits the giver, but it’s not consistent with making this the driving goal of giving. Effective altruists often take pride in their willingness to give (either time or money) based on arguments that others might find too intellectual or abstract, and their refusal to give suboptimally even when a pitch is emotionally compelling. The primary/driving goal is to help others, not to feel good about oneself.

If this approach leaves you with an empty feeling in the back of your throat, it is by design. “Opportunity costs” – the costs of choosing not to behave in a certain way – weigh heavily on EAs. Every time you make a donation, considering where your money could have gone is as important as considering where it will ultimately go (emphasis mine):

In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease…  Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people … But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Weighing choices isn’t limited to how we spend our money – it also applies to how we spend our time. Just as EAs dispute the notion that people should support whichever charities they feel “passionate” about, they question whether channeling those passions into a nonprofit or medical career is the best way to make a difference. Many suggest instead that people “earn to give,” saying they “might be better off…in a high-earning job and making a deliberate commitment to give a large portion of what [they] earn away.“ The organization 80,000 Hours, founded to “become the world’s number one source for advice on pursuing a career that truly makes a difference in an effective way,” elaborates,

Working at a non-profit can be a great way to make a difference. But it’s no guarantee. Amazingly, lots of non-profits probably have no impact. And do workers at [a] non-profit have more impact than the people who fund them? The researchers who push forward progress? The entrepreneurs who transform the economy? Policy makers? Maybe. No one stops to ask.

Putting ideas like these on the table is a great way to make those of us in the arts squirm. While there are echoes of the effective altruism movement in some recent trends within our field, like the “universal call” for better data on the impact of the arts and the pointed questions about who ultimately benefits from arts funding, the arts are chock-full of people – artists and arts administrators alike – who were drawn to their work by that same passion that EAs claim clouds our judgment. The idea of allowing cold rationality to dictate and limit our quest to “do good” flies in the face of our artistic sensibilities, and challenges the assumptions many of us made when we entered the nonprofit sector in the first place – even those of us who have a sincere desire to address social inequities.

Tempting as it may be, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the EA movement as the pet project of a bunch of aesthetically stunted curmudgeons. It’s hard to dispute the notion that we could improve the human condition if only we could get our act together and commit our resources to a data-driven approach. After all, the nonprofit darling of the moment, collective impact, is based on the same premise. What effective altruism does is counter our cause-specific argument for the arts with a dizzying moral appeal for cause agnosticism. And to be honest, it’s hard to see how the arts win if they play the game by the EAs’ rules. The “both/and” argument mentioned previously is unlikely to sway an effective altruist who weighs each decision as a choice between two different futures, one in which a museum gets funded and some lives get saved and one in which the museum struggles and more lives get saved. Even if the museum shut down completely, its patrons could probably find or create an alternative “creative outlet and emotional oasis,” while the people dying of malaria can’t very well make the mosquito nets themselves. The “we give lives meaning” argument likewise rings hollow when we’re talking about lending privileged lives (anyone living on more than $2 a day is privileged in a global context) a dose of incremental “meaning” at the expense of giving others a shot at basic survival. It also comes across as incredibly condescending to those others considering that they would likely never get the opportunity to visit or benefit from Singer’s hypothetical museum. In any case, art is hardly the only possible delivery mechanism for meaning. In the words of one effective altruist,

Trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience. In other words, it meets the sort of non-material needs that many people have.

Whether the EA movement sputters or gathers steam, taking the time to engage with its principles, even critically, is a healthy exercise. The bottom line is that EAs may actually be onto something when they argue it’s possible to make a bigger dent in one sector than another. Rather than insisting otherwise or dodging the argument altogether, we could heed the call to examine how altruism really manifests in our work, particularly when examined through the lens of what benefits the people we engage, rather than what benefits our organizations or our donors. Might we, too, have objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more “good” in one program, or with one population, than in another? Do we, too, have a moral obligation to maximize that good? How would that change how we operate and who we serve? Do we want to change how we operate?

If the effective altruism debate makes anything clear, it’s that to be able to make art, not to mention argue about it, is to be fortunate. Taking a hard look at our assumptions about what draws and keeps us to this work may not be easy, but if we squirm a little, so be it. In the grand scheme of things, a little squirming is a luxury too.

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Around the horn: healthcare.gov edition

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT

  • A consortium of City of Detroit creditors have made the first legal move towards pressuring the Detroit Institute of Arts to sell city-owned artworks to help pay for debts owed. Executive Vice President Annemarie Erickson defends the museum against Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s demand that the museum find one way or another to contribute $500 million in assistance to the bankrupt city.
  • The California Arts Council will apply a $2-million funding windfall it received from Assembly member John Perez to several new initiatives in arts education and community improvement, including Creative California Communities, The Arts in Turnaround Schools, and Jump stARTS. In the face of a 7.6% budget cut handed down last year, the state arts council is taking a gamble on the success of these programs winning fresh credibility with policymakers and an increase in annual funding.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

  • Jamie Bennett, chief of staff and director of public affairs at the NEA, will take over as executive director of the creative placemaking funder collaboration ArtPlace America starting in January. He succeeds ArtPlace’s founding director Carol Coletta, who joined the Knight Foundation back in March, and interim head Jeremy Nowak.
  • After a decade serving Californians as president of the James Irvine Foundation, James E. Canales will step down in the spring to become the first president of another arts funder, Boston’s Barr Foundation.
  • There has been some shuffling in the world of state and local arts councils. Ohio Arts Council ED Julie Henahan has retired after thirty years; Milton Rhodes, President of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in North Carolina, has retired and been succeeded by Jim Sparrow; and Glenda Toups was dismissed from her position as ED of the Houma Regional Arts Council in Louisiana in the wake of the discovery by the board that the Council was not in compliance with state reporting law.

  • We’ve known for a while that Michael Kaiser is leaving his post as President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; now it turns out he’s taking the DeVos Institute of Arts Management with him. Both are moving to the University of Maryland, where Kaiser will be a professor of practice beginning in the fall, and hopes to expand the Institute to include a master’s program.
  • Financial news giant Bloomberg has decided to discontinue its cultural journalism brand, Muse, in favor of focusing more on leisure and luxury. Along with the reassignment of Muse editor Manuela Hoelterhoff and a cadre of employees and contracted writers, the news outlet laid off theater critic Jeremy Gerard.

ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS

  • The Hewlett Foundation has announced a rigorous new “Openness and Transparency” policy, which assumes from the outset that information the foundation creates should be made public to improve outcomes, spark debate, and foster collaboration. Hewlett’s President Larry Kramer offers context in a post on the foundation’s new blog; transparency watchdogs celebrate the policy.
  • The D5 Coalition has released a scan of best practices and a guide to online resources for foundations wishing to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at every stage of their work.

IN THE FIELD

  • Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall share profiles of El Sistema “encounters” in five of approximately 55 countries – Sweden, Austria, Korea, Japan, and Canada – that have borrowed from Venezuela’s seminal movement to realize youth development goals through “intensive investment in ensemble music.” The global umbrella for El Sistema has also released the first literature review of “research, evaluation, and critical debates” related to Sistema-inspired programs around the world.
  • The Arts Council of Lawrence, New Jersey has shut down after 42 years, having, in the words of one member, “outlived [its] usefulness.” Originally formed by a group of female volunteers, the Council struggled to recruit younger members throughout the recession.
  • The August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh is struggling mightily. After a struggle to find an audience and keep backers the organization has been forced to move further and further from its original intention to create a cultural home for the people portrayed in Wilson’s plays, working class African Americans. A conservator has been appointed to try to avoid liquidation.
  • The Warehouse, an all-ages music venue in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has filed to become a nonprofit after 22 years as a for-profit, prompting some musicians to wax lyrical about their time there. Financial pressures were the primary impetus, but owner Steve Harm has indicated he will open the space to the local community in new ways to provide a public good.
  • Fractured Atlas has added another tool to their encouraging-and-rewarding-arts-entrepreneurship tool belt. The Arts Entrepreneurs Awards will recognize artists and arts organizations who have “innovated new business practices or paradigms” or  “developed novel solutions to old problems.” Nominations will be accepted until December 22nd at 5:59pm.

BIG IDEAS

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research is about to release its inaugural report, drawing on what it calls the “most comprehensive set of data ever compiled” on arts organizations.  In addition to a statistical overview of the field – did you know that performance of an arts organization is lower in communities with a higher concentration of graduate degrees? – the report attempts to answer the question, “What makes one arts organization more successful than another?” The key turns out to be leadership.
  • Speaking of data aggregation, Markets for Good has a progress report on the BRIDGE (Basic Registry of Identified Global Entities) project, an ambitious collaborative effort to identify and map philanthropic entities across the world.
  • A new report by the Consumer Federation of America bashes “abuse of market power by a highly concentrated music sector,” argues against the need “to expand copyright holders’ rights,” and suggests that digital file-sharing (aka “piracy”) may, in some cases, actually be good for both artists and consumers. One well-circulated chart suggests that it is the proceeds of live performance, not recordings, that drives artists’ income.
  • Gold standard at Crystal Bridges? In a rare, randomized, controlled (albeit “natural”) experiment on the effects of art on students, a single school-group visit to the major new museum appears to have raised students’ scores on vague but desirable traits such as critical thinking, social tolerance, historical empathy, and likelihood of future museum visits. It’s too soon to parse out the effect of contemporary art in particular.
  • A study of STEM graduates from the Michigan State University’s Honors College found that graduates who went on to earn patents or start companies had more arts and crafts experiences than the average Americans – and believed their ability to innovate was influenced by that experience. (The paper itself is behind a paywall.)
  • How “rampant” is gentrification? New research suggests that most urban areas experienced only “moderate” gentrification in the past decade, with significant variations across cities. Unsurprisingly, gentrification was most prevalent in large and dense metro regions with solid public transit infrastructure.
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Applications are open for the Spring 2014 Createquity Fellowship!

Are you interested in joining the national conversation on arts policy? Looking for a free, structured setting to hone your writing chops while sharing your ideas with a large and highly engaged audience? Want to spend a few months working alongside the Createquity editorial team while positioning yourself for fabulous professional opportunities? The Createquity Fellowship, now entering its fourth year, is an intensive semester-long program in which participants produce a series of articles on various topics while getting experience editing and being edited. Previous Fellows have found that their work during the Fellowship has improved their communication skills, won attention from others in the arts community, and attracted offers to speak or write in other venues. Plus, correlation vs. causation notwithstanding, it’s worth noting that more than 80% of the participants in the first three Fellowship rounds have received new job opportunities or significant promotions within two years of becoming Createquity Fellows. Just for the record.

We are now accepting applications for the Spring 2014 Fellowship cycle! Please review the instructions at this link carefully and submit your 250-word statement of interest by Friday, December 20, 2013. We look forward to reading your submissions!

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Thanksgiving public arts funding update

FEDERAL

The biggest news on federal support for the arts is a lack of news. Following the 16-day shutdown in early October, the federal government was reauthorized at last year’s budget levels (post-sequester) until January 15. Which means we get to do this all over again in just a month and a half! Woohoo!

Congress has had its share of squabbles over NEA funding in recent years, but it remains remarkably steadfast in its support for the National Gallery of Art. It increased the Gallery’s federal appropriation by a whopping 70 percent between 2001 and 2011– not exactly a kind decade for arts funding. The secret to the National Gallery’s success? The original act of Congress that required the federal government to “provide such funds as may be necessary for [its] upkeep . . . administrative expenses and costs of operation.”

Meanwhile, in a decision some are hailing as a “huge victory for online innovation,” a federal judge ruled that Google’s scanning of more than 20 million books counts as “fair use” under copyright law – meaning, among other things, that the company need not compensate writers or publishers for making very short excerpts available on the Web. The Authors Guild plans to appeal.

Finally, the U.S. has lost its voting rights at UNESCO, two years after ceasing payment of dues, then 22% of the organization’s budget. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the outcome shameful, urging Congress to amend the law that bans support of organizations that recognize Palestine as a nation-state. The withdrawal of voting rights is also automatic under UNESCO rules, but it may still endanger the U.S.’s applications for World Heritage status for sites like Poverty Point in Louisiana and Spanish missions in San Antonio.

STATE AND LOCAL

According to Jay Dick of Americans for the Arts, the results of the off-year election contests in Virginia, Boston, St. Paul, and Dayton, OH, among other places bode well for the arts, with several new pro-arts officials taking power. In New York City, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio acknowledged the importance of the arts to the city by including several arts leaders in his newly-appointed transition committee. In other Big Apple news, the City Council held a public hearing on a proposed bill that would require the Department of Cultural Affairs to develop a cultural plan by 2015. Advocates believe this could coordinate cultural resources across agencies, increase available resources, and help keep artists in the increasingly-expensive city.

In other local election news, after fifteen years of attempting to find private funding for a performing arts center, the Myrtle Beach arts community won a victory at the polls this month when 54% of residents supported higher property taxes to raise the necessary $10 million. The City Council must still decide to undertake the project, but now “the rubber has met the road.”

The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, despite having its budget slashed to the bone in the most recent budget session, has been approved for $560,800 in federal matching funds from the NEA after losing out on that match for two years. The restored federal match unlocked further funding from Kansas’s regional arts agency, the Mid-America Arts Alliance. It’s unclear how the most recent budget shenanigans will affect the situation with the NEA. To raise additional funds, the Commission is trying an arts license plate scheme to replicate the success of a similar initiative pioneered in California. Speaking of California, that state’s Arts Council managed to get a donation check box back on income tax forms for 2013, although the name has been changed from the “Arts Council Fund” to “Keep Arts in Schools Fund.”

INTERNATIONAL

Our friendly neighbor to the north has made it a lot harder for American musicians to perform in small venues. The Canadian government recently established a new fee and permit system for musicians and performing artists visiting from outside of country. Interestingly the fees apply only to artists seeking to perform in bars or restaurants – and both the artists and the hosting establishment have to pony up the funds.

Across the Atlantic, Scotland deserves major props for a) unveiling its first national Youth Arts Strategy (with £5m of funding to boot);  b) releasing aforementioned strategy as a graphic novel; and c) offering open feedback sessions to arts professionals and interested public as a precursor to the April 2014 release of Creative Scotland’s 10-year strategic plan and funding program. The new initiatives coincide with a significant staff restructuring at the agency. Meanwhile, the UK as a whole has just relieved producers of the burden of health-care contributions for entertainers they employ, though it is not yet clear whether this will lead to higher salaries for artists, larger production budgets, or simply smaller losses for backers. Shocker alert: producers and Equity feel differently on the matter.

Speaking of British arts agency planning documents, Chris Unitt went through the just-released second edition of Arts Council England’s strategic framework to see where digital technology fits in. There’s a heavy emphasis on using digital tools to reach new (i.e. international) audiences; less about using them to create new work or collaborate with other artists.

Australians have elected a new government to be led by Coalition, the country’s mainstream conservative party. George Brandis, arts spokesman for Coalition, has announced the party’s arts platform, which condemns an alleged tendency to reward “inwardness, mediocrity and political correctness” and emphasizes excellence, integrity, and artistic freedom. (Under the recent Labor government, arts industries in Australia had been receiving bipartisan support with a broad, positive impact on cultural production.) Brandis claims that the country should return to funding excellence in the arts, criticizing the Labor party for using arts to advance a social agenda.

Not to end on a down note, but freedom of expression difficulties continue in the Middle East. Qatari poet Mohammed Al-Ajami’s 15-year prison sentence for reciting on YouTube a poem celebrating the Arab Spring was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court, although his family can make a final appeal to Qatar’s Emir. Despite pressure from the international community, Al-Ajami is being held in solitary confinement as a potential insurgent. And in Egypt, comedian and talk show host Bassem Youssef, considered the country’s closest analogue to Jon Stewart, had his show suspended after just one episode amid alleged pressure from the country’s new military government.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

Plaque honoring Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library's flagship building is named.

Plaque honoring financier Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library’s flagship building is named. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

Young whites poring over books, memorizin’ but never learning
And I wonder how the fuck they’ll justify genocide.
“I…I was in the library, honest to God, I didn’t even know.”
—From “The Library,” by Felipe Luciano of The Original Last Poets

On March 7 of this year, my friend and I attended a screening of the film Right On!, a seminal creation of the Harlem spoken word poetry movement of the 1960s. Featuring 28 performances by a group called The Original Last Poets, Right On! is essentially a double-album-length music video that presaged MTV by over a decade. The film’s monologues-with-a-beat offer a brutally honest window into black urban life and identity in the midst of the civil rights era. According to the movie’s producer, as relayed by the marketing copy accompanying the event, it was “the first ‘totally black film’ making ‘no concession in language and symbolism to white audiences.’” It was intense, confrontational, and not quite like anything I’d seen before. I loved it.

“The Library,” quoted above, is not even close to the angriest number in Right On!’s hit parade. But watching the images of what is now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library pass by as Felipe Luciano’s fellow Last Poets mockingly intoned “The Liiiiii-bra-ree,” I couldn’t help but revel in the irony of my location: the Museum of Modern Art.

*

As it turns out, Right On!’s run at MoMA was the world premiere of a digitally restored version of the film. Lost to the public for many years, Right On! had been little more than a fading memory until the museum’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation undertook the challenge of bringing it back to life with support from donors Celeste Bartos and Paul Newman.

The work of restoring and presenting Right On! to the public is the sort of thing that institutions like MoMA routinely cite in grant applications as proof of their commitment to diversity. Yet MoMA could hardly have been a more iconic symbol of the white establishment to serve as a setting for the Poets’ time-lapsed performance. Forged from Rockefeller privilege, MoMA was founded to promote the artistry of European modernism, and the most famous works in its collection are nearly all by dead white men. It has $1 billion in net assets, pays its (white) director a seven-figure salary that places him among the best-paid nonprofit executives in New York, and charges among the highest admission fees in the country for an art museum. It was the first target of Occupy Museums. The very room where the Right On! screening took place, The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, first gained notoriety within the filmmaking community for its D. W. Griffith retrospective in 1940, which surely must have included the racist and Ku-Klux-Klan-reviving Birth of A Nation.

Remarkably, the Poets themselves made an appearance at the opening night of the run. I can only guess that it was a heart-warming spectacle of racial healing and harmony, as Luciano didn’t respond to my request to interview him. All I know is that the following night, the night I was there, I counted two black people in the audience.

*

Earlier this year, Talia Gibas analyzed Holly Sidford’s manifesto “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” for Createquity. “Fusing” has become a rallying cry for cultural equity advocates who believe that philanthropic resources are unjustly concentrated in venerable institutions with white European roots like MoMA. The study analyzed the flow of philanthropic dollars to the arts using data from the Foundation Center, and found that less than 10% of arts grant dollars went to serve marginalized communities, including African Americans.

Interestingly, the restoration of Right On!, undertaken by MoMA with the support of individual donors, not foundations, would not have registered as a project serving a marginalized community under Sidford’s methodology. And by excavating a treasure of the black cultural canon from functional oblivion with (from all appearances) the full cooperation of the creative individuals involved, one could argue that MoMA is doing the African American community a wonderful service, fulfilling its role as custodian of heritage in a truly inclusive way. But it’s also not hard to see the transfer in setting from underground movie theater in heady 1970 to establishment art museum in 2013 as a particularly insidious kind of cultural appropriation. It was a striking experience to watch Right On! from the comfort of MoMA, of all places. It was, in fact, like being in a museum, as if there were a glass wall between the movie and me allowing me to appreciate it as a cultural object while preventing me from truly entering its world. The raw, unfiltered power and emotion directed at the camera was boxed in and partially neutered by the time it reached me on the other side of the screen, sitting next to my white college friend and the many white people in the room who could have been my friends if I’d happened to come across them in a different context. As unmistakable as the film’s point of view was, it was easy, too easy, to compartmentalize it as an artifact of a different era, a time when revolution was in the air and the evils of racism were upfront and obvious.

*

I’m not sure there is anything that has claimed as high a brain-energy-expended-to-public-output-generated ratio for me as race this past year. Way back in February, some of you might recall, I inserted myself into a discussion about race and the arts that had been started by New Beans’s Clayton Lord, then Director of Audience Development for Theatre Bay Area and now VP of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts. At the time, I noted that “virtually all of the recent discussion…in this particular corner of the blogosphere [was] happening among well-meaning white liberals who just can’t help themselves from occupying public space with their opinions.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council in Arizona and a longtime follower of this blog, thanked me for pointing it out and challenged me and five other bloggers—pale pasties, all of us—to “share with us some of [our] good thinking and deep reflection on [our] understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.” Piece of cake, right?

You can read the responses from Clay, Doug, Nina, Barry, Diane, and Roberto himself at the links provided. As eager as I was to participate (I promised I would, after all), extracting words from my brain these past months was like squeezing blood from a stone. The topic of race offers a white liberal like me a frustratingly narrow range of socially acceptable rhetoric. Like any self-respecting contrarian, I have no interest in saying what’s already been said, but at the same time I felt woefully underprepared to confidently take the conversation in a new direction. It took a long time, a lot of background research, and many discussions with family, friends and social and professional acquaintances who consciously engage with issues around race before I finally felt comfortable airing my views in public.

If there’s one positive and concrete suggestion I can offer in the wake of that learning process, it’s that we do what we can to create an open environment for talking honestly about race relations in all of their kaleidoscopic, maddening, shame-inducing complexity. The dialogue that Clay and Roberto have started is a great first step in that direction, but we need to keep it going if we truly want to achieve more than symbolic progress towards a more racially just sector. And the more I learn, the more strongly I suspect that in order to keep that dialogue going in an authentic way, we are going to need to take it into some very uncomfortable, challenging territory – for white people and non-white people alike, for anti-racism advocates and white privilege apologists both.

*

Several of my fellow bloggers who responded to Roberto’s prompt made valuable points about the need and opportunity to be more inclusive and welcoming in our institutions’ programming and audience engagement practices. And certain artistic works undoubtedly have the power to hold a mirror up to ourselves and question the assumptions of our environment, as Right On! was able to do for me. But I feel that this conversation is missing something crucial if we neglect to expand the frame outward, to grapple with how our country and society’s dysfunctional relationship with race informs and warps our lives more generally.

Art and arts organizations are not capable of solving racism on their own. It’s not that the arts have nothing to say about race or that diverse cultural expressions aren’t important, but in the absence of a clear and shared understanding of the underlying factors that perpetuate racism, I fear that arts-centric interventions can all too often end up being little more than a band-aid – a way to reassure ourselves that we’re doing something important and valuable when in reality we’re really having very little impact at all. I believe that the sooner we as a field start framing our efforts not around “what can we do as artists and arts administrators to promote diversity?” but rather “how does racial injustice manifest today, what are its root causes, and how can we as human beings most effectively be part of the solution?”, the sooner we’ll actually have something to be proud of.

For example, I’ve now been a part of several organizations that have struggled with the fact that their staffs are mostly white. One of the most visible commitments to diversity that an organization can make is to have strong representation of people of color among its staff, board, and leadership. Not surprisingly, then, managers typically have these considerations at back of mind when entering the hiring process, and sometimes even explicitly consider race as a factor in their decision. And yet they get frustrated when they are unable to find competitive candidates of color at a rate that would, as advocated by Robert Bush, make them “look like the people [they] serve.”

Simple statistics, however, quickly start to illuminate some of the reasons behind this frustration. Virtually every arts administration job I’ve ever seen requires a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum condition of employment. I’m willing to bet that most arts administrators don’t realize that fewer than a third of American adults over the age of 25 have one. More to the point, however, black and Hispanic adults are 40 to 60 percent less likely respectively to have graduated from college than whites. So if having a Bachelor’s truly is a requirement for doing the job well*, then “success” as it relates to representativeness actually means matching the proportion of people with college degrees, not the general population.

Of course, if you have any conscience at all, the above rationalization is unsatisfying. It openly admits and does absolutely nothing about a basic racial equity issue: access to opportunities based on educational attainment. But therein lies the rub: if we actually care that the disparity in college graduation rates is causing our application pool to be less diverse, that is if we care enough to do something about it, our daily work may not be the most appropriate forum in which to take action. What’s needed to close that gap, in all likelihood, goes way beyond the arts.

(*This is, of course, an important question to examine in its own right, but in the interests of not biting off more than I can chew with one article, I’m going to sidestep it for now.)

*

The stark disparity in college graduation rates described above can be seen as one manifestation of the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and black and Hispanic students. This achievement gap is present from a very early age, though not necessarily birth. One contributing factor to the achievement gap, though undoubtedly not the whole story, is the vast differential in the quality of the schools available to white students vs. students of color, especially in urban environments.

America’s cities are highly segregated geographically, in part a vestige of real estate redlining practices and white flight following the Second Great Migration in the mid-20th century. Even today, there is evidence that white homebuyers are willing to pay more money not to have to live in a neighborhood with lots of people of color. As a result, by some measures school systems in the United States are even more segregated today than they were when Brown vs. Board of Education was first implemented in the 1960s. Meanwhile, school systems are governed by local rules and jurisdictions and, crucially, paid for via local property taxes. Ever wonder why people move to the suburbs to send their kids to good schools? Well, that’s why. On a per-capita basis, suburbs are much wealthier than urban cores and therefore can afford schools that are less crowded and feature more amenities for their students.  People who don’t follow the education field may not realize that public school systems are struggling in large cities all across the country, not just where they live.

There is no magic bullet for fighting racial inequity; in the Atlantic Cities recently, for example, Emily Badger makes the case that establishing universal preschool is the best single thing we could do, but even the rosiest projections offered in that article make clear that such a measure would hardly erase the achievement gap. Nevertheless, as educated professionals, one action we could take that might actually make a difference is to locate ourselves in areas where our tax dollars will go to support these struggling school systems. And yet, many of my white peers are doing the exact opposite: explicitly shopping for real estate by school district, trying their best to ensure that their kid(s) will be less likely to end up in a bad situation – and, incidentally, a lot less likely to be surrounded by kids of color.

It’s awfully tough to ask someone to choose between fighting for racial equity and forgoing the best possible education for their child. I believe that sacrifice is a virtue, but I am not enough of a romantic to count on it as a large-scale strategy for social change. Perhaps the real enemy here, then, is not the racism-perpetuating behavior, but the system that sets up the incentives that encourage it. In this case, that system is the funding of public school systems based on local property taxes. If we really want to attack this part of the problem at its core, perhaps we should be advocating instead for a system that runs schools locally but funds them nationally, presumably through an expanded Department of Education. What can arts organizations do to push forward that outcome? And why is hardly anyone else talking about it?

Let’s take a step back for a minute and remember how we got here. We were wondering how a hiring manager could get her staff to better reflect the diversity of her community. Now, 900-some-odd words later, we’re talking about advocating for a giant expansion of the Department of Education, universal preschool, and in the meantime intentionally sending our kids to substandard schools. Does it make sense now why, despite all of our conversations about race and privilege, nothing ever seems to change?

*

I like to think of myself as a technocrat – as I get older, I find myself becoming less and less interested in what sounds good and more and more interested in what works. On this blog and at my day job alike, I advocate for “evidence-based decision-making.” I champion logic models and theories of change as tools for taking apart complex systems. I push for a big-picture, strategic approach to everything, most of all to gigantic social clusterfucks that take lifetimes to unravel.

I don’t do these things for giggles or to increase my SEO ranking. I do them because I genuinely believe in the power of analytical thinking to help us make sense of the world. Using good research methodologies can tell us useful things like the fact that even your mom smoking crack while she’s pregnant with you doesn’t screw up your life anywhere near as much as being born into poverty, or that educating parents on how to parent better might just be a way to fix some of these problems.

In order to really be able to use research, you have to keep an open mind. You’re not going to learn anything if you’re not willing to let the research surprise you. And sometimes those surprises can be an unpleasant source of cognitive dissonance.

I think this is where I have the greatest difficulty with the “discourse” around race as I’ve most often experienced it in this country. Some months ago I wrote on this blog about the phenomenon of “mood affiliation,” a term coined by economist Tyler Cowen to refer (as I interpret it) to a tendency among participants in debates to ally themselves with a certain “side” and subordinate new facts or information to the preferred interpretation of their “team.” A more widely recognized name for this sort of thing is confirmation bias.

I feel like there’s a whole lot of mood affiliation that goes on in conversations about race. The population subgroups that are active in these conversations place a high value on coordinated action and messaging. That means that, if you consider yourself an anti-racist and would like for others to perceive you that way as well, there are very real social and even professional risks associated with taking certain positions on issues that may not be clear-cut at all. Something like stop-and-frisk may not be good policy (it’s not), but we need to be able to ask the question of whether it actually works before dismissing it on moral grounds – and, more importantly, be prepared to answer the question of what if it does? Alas, stories about race become politicized so quickly that it becomes much more difficult to take an unbiased, critical look at the situation than it is to rely on whatever position one’s identity group has rallied behind.

For that reason, what I crave the most is to see conversations about race imbued with the complexity and nuance they deserve. I’m not talking about the throw-up-our-hands-and-declare-defeat kind of acknowledgement of complexity, but the okay-let’s-get-into-the-weeds-and-figure-this-shit-out kind. In order for that to happen, critiques that question conventional wisdom about race are going to have to play a bigger role. Critiques like these:

  • How important is race relative to other forms of difference? Race gets a lot of attention, but is it the most relevant lens through which to view social justice in the present-day United States? I’ve noticed that the idea of comparing injustices to each other gets a lot of pushback from anti-racists; the phrase “oppression Olympics” gets thrown about a lot. And I understand how, from an advocacy perspective, this line of thinking is counterproductive and can be used as a rhetorical device to turn underprivileged groups against each other. But from a policy perspective, asking these kinds of questions is essential. Policy always involves making tradeoffs among finite alternatives – taking one approach can often mean not taking another, so you have to choose priorities and emphases carefully. There are lots of unearned inequities among different segments of people in this life, many of which have established places in national dialogue and many of which have not. Did you know, for example, that height is significantly correlated with earning power? On the strength of a study conducted for his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell even claims that “being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think it makes sense to try to identify and target leverage points that trigger lots of injustices at once. One of those leverage points might be socioeconomic class, given that economic security touches so many areas of life. In no small part due to the legacies of historical discrimination, race and class today are closely intertwined: white families are on average an astounding six times wealthier than black and Hispanic families. But this means that a strategy to address class inequities, which can benefit from some existing infrastructure in the form of progressive taxation, will have the benefit of addressing many (albeit not all) of the racial inequities as well.
  • Can we stop talking as if there are only two sides to this story? Too many of the mainstream narratives about race in the United States are stuck in mid-twentieth-century paradigms of black vs. white. The classic archetypes of the oppressor and the oppressed make for good movies, but the racial groups that feature in conversations about race today are insanely reductive visions of reality. Hispanic/Latino makes lots of sense as a language-based subculture (superculture?), but it’s not an actual race even though we often talk about it as if it is. Arab Americans are considered Caucasian by the Census, but try talking to them about white privilege while they’re going through US Customs. Most African Americans are actually mixed race, and first-generation African immigrants often have little in common with descendents of American slaves beyond their skin color. There are Jewish Venezuelans and white Africans and black Dutch. People of color are not a monolithic group, and don’t always like each other; there is a long and ugly history, for example, of East Asian bigotry against black people. Nor do they face the same challenges: whereas the college graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics are 20% and 14% respectively, Asians have been north of 50% since 2005. We are prone to equate gentrification with “white people taking over the neighborhood” but ignore the role that people of color play in that process.  Even within the arts, we oversimplify the racial identities of our institutions, casually applying the adjective “white” to orchestras for example, in spite of a huge influx of Korean, Chinese and Japanese instrumentalists in recent decades. The anti-racist movement is fond of pointing out that race is an artificial social construct—maybe we should all start treating it like one?
  • What is the role of assimilation in defining racial power structures? White people are not a monolithic group either. In the United States alone, there used to be bitter hatred towards ethnic Germans, rampant discrimination against Jews, and immigration restrictions erected against Italians, to name a few. What we think of as “white privilege” today was WASP privilege 100 years ago. What lessons can we learn from the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in the meantime? And how much of a role has intermarriage between white ethnic groups (see below for more) had in making that shift possible? Moreover, does talking about white people as one group – since no white ethnic group would constitute a majority on its own – serve only to solidify the sense of whiteness as the majority default? In a long piece for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Heinz Foundation arts program officer Justin Laing criticizes “the normativeness of White people’s arts and culture experience that is often implied when ALANA [African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American] work is referred to as ‘culturally specific’ or ‘ethnic arts’ or ‘folk arts,’ as though White artists’ and arts organizations’ work is less specific, ethnic, or folksy.” Laing goes on to write, “This false idea, Whiteness, is maybe the most damaging of all of the race-based fallacies because it plants deep within us the idea that White people are both separate and the standard; it’s a particularly harmful idea in our field that treats the best of White culture as classical not only for Europeans but also for the world.” To what extent does the diversity conversation in the arts perpetuate the very inequities we’re trying to dismantle?
  • How is demographic change going to affect the way we think about race? The United States will be a majority-minority country within 30 years. Four states – California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii – along with the District of Columbia already hold this status. The vast splits between racial and ethnic groups in recent presidential elections remind us that in a democracy, having a baby is not just a personal decision, it’s also a political act. Of course, just increasing the numbers of brown people won’t necessarily lead to the end of white hegemony – see the early-20th-century South or mid-20th-century South Africa for proof of that. Perhaps more important, then, is the increasing trend toward multiracial families via adoption (especially by increasingly visible gay parents) and widespread intermarriage, both of which are and will continue to be facilitated by the growing numbers of non-white individuals in the U.S. Could this blurring of racial categories smooth over old tensions to the point that no one cares about them anymore? I wouldn’t discount the possibility, especially when you consider how much the drive towards acceptance of gay marriage has been driven by loved ones coming out as gay. The elevation of a mixed-race President may not signal a society that has moved beyond race, as some have over-optimistically claimed, but it may yet be a harbinger of America’s post-racial future.
  • How committed are anti-racist white people to ending white privilege? This is an important point that I really don’t think we ever talk about. Merely recognizing that white privilege exists and feeling bad about it is not a recipe for change. Real change, all else being equal, must involve actual sacrifices on the part of those in power, with the white majority being the party in power when it comes to white privilege. Power is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but relative power is – and the privileged position in which white people find themselves in the United States is a result of the exercise of asymmetric power dynamics in the past. My questions for those who fancy that they would like to end white privilege are as follows: why don’t we ever talk about giving large swaths of land back to the Indian tribes who once occupied them, and whose value system is so rooted in the land itself? Why don’t we ever talk seriously anymore about reparations for slavery, the reverberations of which are still very much being felt today? (Such reparations would be hardly unprecedented, by the way.) Wouldn’t such things represent much more meaningful change than reminding oneself to make eye contact when one sees a person of color coming the other way?
  • Would we be better off as a society if we were actually less conscious of race, not more? Even if that’s not the right or a realistic goal for the short term, is it what we should be working towards in the end? If so, how would that change how we approach conversations about race? In a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace eight years ago, Morgan Freeman famously called Black History Month “ridiculous” and called for its dissolution. Wallace asked how we can get rid of racism otherwise, and Freeman responded, “Stop talking about it! I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace, you know me as Morgan Freeman.” I imagine that many people reading this are familiar with the concept of priming in psychology – the idea that subtle stimuli can (often unconsciously) affect our behaviors and performance. There’s even a significant literature exploring the racial dimensions of priming; for example, one study found that simply identifying their race on a pretest questionnaire cut black students’ performance on GRE questions in half. Well, what happens when we continually prime white people to believe that they’re racist, and people of color that they are victims of racism? Does that in any way exacerbate the problem?

Introducing this sort of complexity into the equation may come off as an invitation to chaos. But think about it this way: would we be satisfied with a map of the world that just had the seven continents on it and a vague notation of which direction they are relative to each other? No, we do what we need to as a society to have hyper-specific geographic markers down to a few hundred feet, all connected, continually updated, existing within an ecosystem of other information like traffic patterns and mountain heights and vote totals.

I believe that the frame for our discussion must be both that large and that fine-grained in order to make real progress. On the large end of the scale, what do we care about most? Is containing racism, rather than ending it, acceptable? And if ending it is paramount, then is equality of opportunity sufficient for ending racism, or is equality of outcomes necessary? At the micro scale, who benefits and who suffers from racial constructs, to what extent and in what ways? In each case, down to the individual level, how much of that benefit or suffering is the product of socially-constructed and mutable ideas of race and how much is tethered to immutable realities of race? And what of those inequities are solely attributable to race rather than tied up in other kinds of disadvantage/privilege?

What can I say, it turns out that understanding and dealing with race is really hard! But I truly believe that only the hard work of identifying what our true values are and articulating how we resolve dilemmas when they come into conflict with other values can help us resolve the large-scale questions. And only the hard work of mapping out all of these intimidating complexities as they play out in individual lives will enable us to make the changes to our societal rules and behaviors that will end up serving the most people the most fairly. In fact, I don’t see how anything other than hard work, strategically focused, will make any difference at all. So let’s get to work.

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(I am deeply grateful to Talia Gibas, Selena Juneau-Vogel, Daniel Reid, Hayley Roberts, F. Javier Torres, and Jason Tseng for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to many others for their conversations and perspectives that helped expand my world these past nine months.)

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