Why the public should fund the arts, after all

The Nonprofiteer had a fascinating conversation with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct the Nonprofiteer’s misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

The Nonprofiteer was particularly struck by that last point.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  The Nonprofiteer has been wrong in her blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because she thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but it will be a relief to her to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

She continues to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, the Nonprofiteer is grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to her.

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*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

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7 Responses to “Why the public should fund the arts, after all”

  1. Tony Adams Says:

    Yeah, I think the arts ripple effect is the best framing for arts support I’ve seen to date.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Right, but it’s not the financial multiplier ripple effect–it’s the streetscape ripple effect.

      • Tony Adams Says:

        Totally, that’s one of the main–and most often cited–points in the full report. (and I think it should be required reading for anyone in arts orgs or the philanthropic sector, if there were such a thing as required reading)

        Though I’d go a step further and say it only really works well in tandem with what you’ve previously said about arts funding, that it primary push should be towards access. (If I recall properly you used Ailey performing downstate as an example.) You can’t get the vibrancy without the access.

  2. Jennifer Hill Says:

    Just shared your post on our Facebook page. Thank you for writing this piece, I think it might help others understand the value of the arts differently as well.

  3. Annmarie Stanesa Glass Art Says:

    Well put!

  4. I See What You Did There Says:

    […] You can’t have your cake and eat it too, at least not without baking the cake first. Like, with heat, man. You know? Okay, my point is this: is it so implausible that a flat $200,000 budget was the plan all along? Here’s an idea that seems like a reasonable compromise, and the man who floated it, a shrewd negotiator. The effect, though, is that not only is the bar for measuring compromise now lower, but as a bonus, the public discourse about the virtues of public arts support has shifted rightward. Rather than celebrating the obvious economic, educational and long-term benefits of a functional arts life on a state level, supporters have to use the words “essential” and “non-essential.” If you’re a person who nickels-and-dimes all public expenditures, this is a juicy plum indeed: long after you’ve replaced one fool with another, you can still ask people which they’d prefer: a jarful of piss, or a jarful of peanut butter. As if the person holding the position of politician — or artist — were more important than the institution. (This point is articulated beautifully here.) […]

  5. What’s your model of relevancy? » C4 Atlanta Says:

    […] the most, the arts come up time and time again.” Nonprofit consultant Kelly Kleiman changes her mind on whether the arts should receive public funding at […]

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