Note: This is the second of a multipart series on the arts and philanthropy. I hope these ideas are of interest and welcome suggestions and feedback.
When we left off last week, I noted that it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the arts when we don’t all agree what it is, exactly, about the arts that makes them worth funding. Is it because they contribute to American cultural literacy, the idea being that people are somehow more erudite and interesting if they have a familiarity with what’s going on in various fields of artistic endeavor? Is it because supporting the arts in America means contributing to a body of American artistic work that we can all, as a nation, be proud of? Or is it about something more practical, like improving math and science test scores for kids, or promoting economic development in impoverished urban areas? Or is it about something completely different, like exposing underserved populations to an experience traditionally enjoyed by upper classes?
This question really gets at one of the central paradoxes in arts funding. The process of applying for grants is supposed to be objective; otherwise funders might as well pre-select the grantees themselves, right? Applicants depend on a fundamentally meritocratic system that will allow them access to resources in exchange for a quality effort on their part. But making a decision is not as simple as collecting a bunch of numbers and plugging them into a formula. Assessing the “artistic quality” or “integrity” of an applicant’s work certainly doesn’t work like that; nor does evaluating the real impact on audiences of art that has a social or political mission. Even the numbers are not always our friends. Take attendance figures, for example: 800 casual listeners at an open-air concert may not be directly comparable to 50 viewers of an experimental dance show or 100 teenagers seeing a theater piece about AIDS.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers with this, but here’s what I can tell you about my own philosophy. I believe in the intrinsic value of the arts to do all of these things and more. Furthermore, competition between organizations that are engaged in the creation or presentation of artistic work is not an issue the way it can be for service organizations. Rather than divide the market, a high concentration of organizations and artists pursuing their passions will create cumulative network effects that expand the possibilities for all who are involved, from increased cultural tourism to higher land values, to more employment opportunities and a more creative and ambitious workforce. This is the great value in having a critical mass of organizations that contribute to an active “scene” in a particular area: it can go a long way towards redefining that locality as a creative, fun, and attractive place to be.