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On Vision, Ripples, Expression, and the Mysterious Other

Alarm bells are nothing new in arts circles. For as long as anyone can remember, arts practitioners have been fretting about the future. It's understandable; after all, the arts have never been an especially profitable enterprise on the whole, and ever since the concept of the nonprofit arts institution resulted in the separation of our more commercially viable brothers and sisters into their own industry category, it's almost been a law of nature that arts activities must bleed cash. That's all well and good, so long as you have some sort of philanthropic subsidy coming in - whether in the form of private donations from individuals and foundations, or from local, state and national grantmaking agencies. Of course, the recent economic trauma our country has experienced has put a bit of a damper on the amount of  help that can be reasonably expected from such sources in the past year or so.

While this is all going on, along comes the NEA late last year and delivers some even more depressing news: not only are the arts suffering in economic terms, but their cultural profile is shrinking too. It would be one thing if lots of people were engaging with the arts and just not paying for the privilege - at least arts organizations would be fulfilling their missions in that case. Yet the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that participation by American adults in so-called "benchmark" activities fell nearly five percentage points in the past six years to its lowest point since the survey was inaugurated in 1982. [Note: the NEA report has come under criticism, some of it justified, for not measuring a more expansive definition of arts activity, but make no mistake: it still covers the vast majority of activities undertaken by nonprofit arts producing and presenting organizations in this country, as well as those of many for-profit entities such as jazz clubs.] Survey after survey finds that hardcore arts practitioners and fans are limited to a small, affluent, highly educated, middle-aged, and mostly white subsection of the nation's population. In the face of projections showing that the United States will be a majority-minority country by 2050 (and that some southwestern states like California will actually be majority Hispanic by then), the largely affluent, highly educated, middle-aged, and mostly white people charged with ensuring the health of the arts are, well, starting to freak out a little bit.

Hence we have the recent onslaught of studies, retreats, and conversations this month focused on finding new ways to communicate the value of the arts to the majority of our fellow citizens who don't experience it every day. It's telling that many of these are coming from an advocacy angle: one obvious hoped-for result, despite any larger-minded intentions at play, would be an increased share of public money available to the arts and philanthropy directed towards the arts. But the individuals and organizations leading these charges clearly want to do something more than achieve a superficial and possibly temporary victory in the legislative halls; what they really want is a paradigm shift that results in a much, much broader base of support for the arts - and to their credit, many of them recognize that a narrow-minded focus on what we already do is not going to be enough to shift the paradigm more than an inch or two. I'm going to write primarily about three of these efforts in this essay: an Arts Visioning Retreat in Sacramento, CA led by California Arts Advocates; the Arts Ripple Effect report recently released by Cincinnati's Fine Arts Fund; and the Expressive Life discussion going on this week at ArtsJournal.

The Arts Visioning Retreat

I had the pleasure of attending this event in Sacramento two weeks ago. Hosted by California Arts Advocates and facilitated by Eric Booth, the retreat (as much as an Elks Club ballroom can be called a retreat) set out an ambitious goal: specifically, pondering what it would take to make the arts an "integral part of life for all Californians." Booth and CAA warned us from the beginning that the process would likely not yield easy answers or a satisfying resolution by the end of the two days, and I would say he was right. But after a dozen hours' worth of keynote speeches and World Café-style roundtable discussions (rather like the caucuses at the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention, for anyone who was there), it did result in commitments from many of those in the room to carry forth dialogues in their communities about the future of the arts. in what was billed as an 18-month statewide listening initiative of sorts. Though it strove to incorporate the viewpoints of those assembled, whatever they happened to be, it was clear that the convening in Sacramento was brought together with the intention of moving things forward in a particular direction. Booth himself doesn't mince words on the CAA's website:

For 30,000 years the arts answered a variety of humankind's most basic needs. In recent decades something odd happened. We allowed the arts to become specialized, peripheralized. We allowed "the arts" to change their fundamental definition so that they resonate with relevance for a few. It isn't that the arts changed; it is that we lost the vital connection between the purpose of the arts as they are generally understood, and the human needs of the broader community of people they used to, and still can, serve.

Indeed, the sense that something is wrong, and that that something has to do with a lost connection between the arts and the broader community, ran through the entire session. As the invitation stated, "We have allowed ourselves as a field to communicate in fitful, reactive, problem-solving focused, dialogue that has gotten tired and repetitive; we are discouraged, weaker as a field, and running out of time."

The problem is that, other than this strong charge to widen the focus, there didn't seem to be a lot of specificity or agreement in the discussions themselves about what that might look like - or even who we were doing it for. Our gathering struck me as a most curious sort of phenomenon: here we were, representatives of nonprofit arts organizations, fretting about how to change our ways to serve this mysterious "other" who is not coming to our shows, not joining our ranks, and seemingly indifferent to whether nonprofit arts organizations thrive or die on the vine. Several participants in the room made this point repeatedly: that until we can have an honest conversation with these people who in some fundamental way(s) are very different from us, it's going to be very hard to know what (if anything) we can do for them. It's to their credit, then, that California Arts Advocates is seeking just such a dialogue as the first step of its process, but it seems premature to be looking for answers of any kind until that happens.

The Expressive Life

One of the materials we were asked to read in advance for the visioning retreat, as it happens, was Bill Ivey's essay "Expressive life and the public interest," published in a Demos anthology last year. The essay, which builds upon ideas in Ivey's 2008 book Arts Inc., has now turned up in a more public way as one of ArtsJournal's occasional weeklong guest bloggaranzas, featuring guest contributions from such luminaries as Adrian Ellis, Marian Godfrey, Andrew Taylor, and Ivey himself. (Alan Brown is on the list but hasn't posted yet; if he does, I'll be very interested to read what he says.)

Ivey's thesis is, essentially, a) that current policy frames for arts and culture have proven inadequate to the field's needs; b) that the words "arts" and "culture" themselves are too loaded and bloated to serve as meaningful descriptors of the work we do anymore; c) that it would be better to reframe the arts in the context of a broader "expressive life" that, in turn, has two components: heritage (representing history and connectedness) and voice (representing one's individual and unique contribution); and d) that this reframing will help solve numerous policy problems by broadening our horizons.

Like Booth et al, Ivey seems to think that the answer to our problems lies largely in opening up the discussion: widening the frame to include not just "the arts" as understood in the context of performances, exhibits, music lessons, and ticket sales, but the underlying reasons these things exist - recognizing, of course, that these underlying reasons may be relevant to other areas of life as well. (Of course, as several commenters point out in the ensuing discussion, the problem with blowing up established frames is that it's not clear what belongs in the new ones.)

I'm sympathetic to the broad outlines of Ivey's thesis, particularly to the notion that art as a loose collection of tangentially-related disciplines is not particularly meaningful either in policy or in life. I've been a proponent of a "creativity" frame for some time, whose roots in the popular imagination go at least as far back as Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class. The discussion currently taking place, though, reminds me of the endless debates I used to have on music blogs about terminology. We all hated the label "new music" for what we were doing, not least because it was almost invisible outside of our small circles (ask most people what "new music" means and they'll think you're talking about the latest releases from Lady Gaga and Vampire Weekend). Yet none of us could ever agree on a better label. The irony, of course, is that this was all a conversation about how to communicate what we do to the outside world more effectively - but no one from the outside world was part of that conversation. Similarly, the participants in both of the conversations described above are all what the study below describes as "arts-connected" people. Until we have an honest dialogue with the Others, all of this just feels like so much mental masturbation.

The Arts Ripple Effect

What I like about the Arts Ripple Effect study from the Fine Arts Fund, then, is that it's not just an opinion piece about how better to reframe the arts: it's the product of a gigantic meta-conversation with hundreds of Cincinnati-area residents, many of whom, importantly, have no meaningful interaction with nonprofit arts organizations. This is by no means the first study to talk about arts activities with members of the general population, but it's part of a fairly narrow set of literature I've seen that involves rich, qualitative conversations with non-arts-connected people about what the arts could and do mean to them. Fine Arts Fund claims that the study is the first to employ "framing science," a concept from public policy, in service of the arts: working with the assumption that all of us carry around certain frameworks and associations that are a kind of cultural shorthand and that we use to analyze information. The conversation took place over a period of months and involved 20 in-depth interviews with local residents, four focus groups with an unspecified number of 32 participants, and slightly more than 400 "talkback" surveys designed to test the efficacy of various framing approaches.

Not surprisingly, this conversation leads us to some pretty fascinating places. For example, researchers found that the notion of the arts making us better people or improving our social standing had almost no resonance with members of the general public. It's not that they disagreed - it seems such ideas were completely new to them. Moreover, the notion of "the arts" as a category was fairly unfamiliar to non-arts-connected individuals - as the report puts it,

Average people may have strong feelings about concerts, or about movies, or festivals, etc. – but not much to say about the category as a whole (just as they may have strong feelings about dogs, cats or horses, but not much to say about mammals).

On the whole, people tended to view the arts as a particular entertainment niche, a subject to be studied in school, a source for beauty, and/or a means of personal expression. None of these are bad in the abstract (and indeed, the report seems to find that people feel positively about the arts to the extent they feel anything, but are on the whole rather indifferent to them), but as the authors explain, they reinforce a narrative of the arts as a personal, private matter that therefore should be subject to the market economy. By contrast, Fine Arts Fund decided early on that the focus of the study should be on building a sense of shared responsibility for the arts (as a predicate, presumably, to advocacy), rather than building audience for the arts. It's an interesting distinction that leads to researchers steering conversations away from the private and personal aspects of the arts (such as self-expression) and toward more identifiably public frames (such as the arts as a symbol of civic pride). It also requires a key sub-assumption: that one doesn't have to be an arts participant to support the arts. (The implied corollary is that one doesn't have to participate in the arts to benefit from them.) This is a subtlety that seems to have escaped both the Visioning Retreat and Expressive Life participants, both of which have focused heavily on bringing arts experiences to new people and/or naming experiences they're already having as artistic.

Unfortunately, some of our favorite frames didn't fare so well with Fine Arts Fund's non-insider informants. The section entitled "Approaches That Miss the Mark" is littered with familiar tropes, including "Broadening Our Horizons," the "Human Universal," "Innovation," "Works of Beauty," and "Transcendence." Even "Urban Planning," which touts the contributions of the "creative community," does little for those who do not consider themselves a part of it. Importantly, it's not that people had strong negative reactions to these frames - for the most part they were open to them - but they didn't translate into changed attitudes about what's important. So, respondents might agree that the arts are an important economic driver, or that they should be studied in school, but they don't make the list for the most important methods of revitalizing cities or educating children in their minds.

The frame that tested the best, according to the researchers, is the one mentioned in the title: the "ripple effect" associated with the arts. This is sort of surprising, but if true and replicable it could point in promising directions. The key difference between this frame and others that have been tried is that it doesn't try to focus on one thing (like the dollars and cents argument or making your kids smarter). Instead, it emphasizes art as a multifaceted actor in communities, manifesting itself in diverse and sometimes unexpected ways. Two "ripples" are called out for particular attention by the study authors: "a vibrant, thriving economy (neighborhoods are more lively,communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc.)"; and "a more connected population (diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.)." These are familiar ideas, but distinct from the more commonly-used "economic driver" argument in that it pairs the dollars to broader quality-of-life concerns, as well as the more intangible notion of social capital.

Ultimately, this study gives us something to work with as a field, I think. I'm not sure I'm in love with the actual phrase "arts ripple effect," but I do like the idea of combining several approaches in one. My main worry is that I am not sure how valid these results are when considering the very different populations of Southern California, East Texas, or rural Utah. Fortunately, if the results from CAA's statewide dialogue are collected in a rigorous fashion, we might just get some insight into that question soon. Until then, I hope we'll indulge ourselves in less guessing about what other people think of us and force ourselves to do more asking.

(crossposted at Createquity)