So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times here, Isaac Butler of Parabasis has done the first part of a close reading of RAND Corporation’s recent publication State Arts Policy: Trends and Future Prospects. He stopped after page 9 a couple of weeks ago, so I’m not sure if he’s planning on continuing, but I’m happy to keep the dialogue going for as long as he writes. To give a brief synopsis of the RAND study, the gist is that state arts agencies are having difficulty keeping up with growing demand for their grants from an increasing number of arts organizations, so they are looking at strategies for helping the arts community that go beyond grantmaking. In particular, they are looking at opportunities to cultivate audience demand across generational and ethnic divides, trying to cultivate closer relationships with elected officials, and providing technical assistance and other kinds of nonfinancial support to the sector.
Isaac raises a few issues with the RAND study. First, he questions the third strategy mentioned above, the idea of transitioning to providing more nonfinancial support. The RAND study takes care to emphasize that
…this strategy does not imply that SAAs will discontinue grantmaking altogether. SAAs tend to see themselves, perhaps correctly, as the only source of funding for certain artists, arts organizations, and activities they view as vital to the healthy cultural life of their states. Their objective for strategy 3, therefore, is to make sure they use all their resources, nonfinancial as well as financial, as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that an increased focus on nonfinancial tools would result in “reducing their financial support for selected organizations and activities (exactly which organizations and activities will differ by state).” Isaac doesn’t like the sound of this:
The issue goes back to pragmatic realities… it’s not that matchmaking and information gathering are “better suited’ period but rather than they are “better suited” given that SAA budgets are likely to remain meager for the forseeable future and that even if their budgets are increased, if they’re increased following RAND’s vision for the future their grantmaking capabilities will not increase at the same pace. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing, and it actually gets to something that doesn’t really get mentioned a lot in the study thus far: the Federal Government’s role in all of this. If SAAs want to move their missions away from grantmaking and funding, but there’s no increased Federal Government support to make up for the gap, they’ll be creating the next generation of audiences while arts organizations and venues are going out of business all around them.I am definitely open to the idea that SAAs should move away from funding, that they may be better suited to accomplish other goals, but absent increased subsidies for the arts elsewhere, it might cause a whole mess of trouble.
I definitely feel where Isaac is coming from on this. When I was at the National Performing Arts Convention in June, I was surprised and slightly disturbed by how little the issue of funding in general and specifically the funding of, you know, actual artists came up as a concern during the policy discussions. (This might have had something to do with the fact that administrators far outnumbered artists at the event.) The RAND study seems to take for granted the idea that state arts budgets will inevitably continue at their paltry levels or decline in the forseeable future. While there’s clearly a possibility that this will be the case, I’m not so convinced that additional revenue generation through, for example, creative tax schemes is such a ridiculous idea (particularly since it’s already worked quite well in places like Cleveland and Denver). And as Isaac argues, sometimes the best solution really would be to throw more money at the situation.
Isaac also takes issue with the study’s assertion that arts education and creative economy work are more in line with state priorities and thus should receive more focus from state arts agencies.
At the same time, I get twitchy when I read stuff like this. Youth arts education isn’t art, it’s arts education. Development of the creative economy isn’t art, it’s economic development. Many SAAs and the NEA were set up to fund the making and showing of art not the teaching of art or the usage of art for economic development.
To me, this really gets back to the “why?” behind the arts, which as I’ve mentioned remains one of the most vexing questions we face. I think what Isaac is getting at is that there is an argument for funding art not just for social benefit, not even for “intrinsic” private benefit, but for advancement of the art form itself. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that gets pols excited, generally, but think about it: our museums, tourist attractions, etc., the ones that celebrate the great achievements of humankind, the great bulk of them are dedicated in some form or another to what a participant in Yale SOM’s recent philanthropy conference called the “eureka moment” — the product of ingenuity and creativity grounded by a dedication to craft and a persistence of vision. The eureka moment isn’t something that is easy to predict or conjure up out of thin air; you have to create systems by which those moments are easily generated and then retained for posterity. That, in my opinion, is how state arts agencies (and any grantmaker or organization involved with arts policy) can best help arts organizations with what, for most of them, is their core mission: making great art.
Isaac also makes an argument for funding smaller arts organizations, which if you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll know I would agree with as well. He also points out a weirdness in the summary that I noticed too:
On the last page of the summary, Lowell lays out that there’s serious risk in what she’s advocating: “Some long-standing grantees may find their SAA grants reduced or eliminated… these grantees may no longer be willing to support their SAAs before their state legislatures”. This seems weird to me, tell me here if I’m being bonkers. The risk involved in SAAs cutting funding to their usual grantees is that those grantees might get pissed and not support the SAA when the SAA needs it. To me, this reveals an underlying problem with the report. The purpose of SAAs is to support the arts and encourage participation in them, but as this sentence reveals, this study is (at least at times) more concerned with the interests/needs of SAAs than the artists they support. The problem with the SAAs cutting funding for longstanding grant recipients is that the longstanding grant recipients may face increased financial trouble as a result not that they might throw a hissy fit and withdraw their support for state arts funding. But the former problem isn’t mentioned at all in the summary.
I pretty much agree, though this argument assumes that longstanding grant recipients facing increased financial trouble is a bad thing, whereas in some instances that might not be the case. However, the mixing up of priorities definitely stood out to me as well.
In the second part of his critique, Isaac highlights the RAND study’s distinction between “practical” and “perceptual” barriers to arts participation, but takes care to point out that some of these “perceptual” barriers are very real (e.g., that just because you expose underprivileged youths to classical music doesn’t mean that they’ll dig it). I’m not sure that that’s any different than what RAND means; I think the terminology is just meant to emphasize the difference between practical barriers like high ticket prices etc. However, the larger point (which is expanded upon somewhat in the comments to Isaac’s post) is an important one; we don’t know that the increasing-demand-through-arts-education strategy actually works over the long term, and it would be good to have more data on that before governments make a huge investment towards that end.