Monday, January 11, 2010

Tyranny of the Tangible

ARTS North Carolina has an interesting and recurring question: If the Arts are such an economic driver, why is it so difficult to obtain support?

The three reasons they point to is:
  • A difficulty in defining exactly what falls under the auspices of "creative industries"
  • Lack of a single organization that speaks with a single voice
  • No single plan for the industry
Of these three, the first one is the one that compels me the most, but I don't think any of these three get really at the heart of the problem.

Take point one: a difficulty in defining what exactly falls under the auspices of "creative industries." While this might be a difficulty for certain members of the creative industries, I don't think this is why the arts/creative industries/cultural organizations have trouble getting support. See, this is a good way to lop off the fringe organizations that might live in the gray area between arts and other things, but big central organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the Boston Philharmonic, etc. are clearly "creative industries." Public policy makers could definitely find artists that were clearly artists if they wanted to, if the desire was there -- even if maybe sometimes those big established "clearly artists" might not be the best investment.

Take point two: I'm not necessarily sure we don't have a big organization that speaks for us. If I had to point at one, it would be Americans for the Arts. After that come some more specific trade organizations like, I dunno, the Theatre Communications Group or the National Opera Association. I don't think we have a particular lack of trade organizations. Are they ineffective? Maybe, but I don't know if we can really put the blame (or at least the whole blame) at their feet. Some trade organizations are powerful (AFL-CIO) and others are not (NACTA?).

Point three is definitely out, in my book. What industry has a clear, unified plan? Does Wall Street have a clear, unified plan? Do the automakers? There are certain industries that appear to be running around with their heads cut off but are still strongly supported.

Okay, so I shut down a bunch of ideas to the question. Why do I think that the arts are hard to get support for?

I'd say it has to do with our intangible, indirect benefits. Even when we point to the money, people still ask, "well okay, it generates money, but what does it really do? What are we really supporting here?" If we made something 100%, people would judge us based on what we make.

I think, by the way, that this is part of the whole reason entitlements are resisted before they happen, and very difficult to take away once they exist. Take this email to Andrew Sullivan's blog:
Before this year I never gave much thought to social programs, frankly, I neither needed or qualified for them. However, when the time came that I needed assistance, the government was there to help. I am extremely grateful to our President and his allies in Congress, as their policies have had an immediate and direct impact on my family. Without the MHA and Cobra subsidy, it is likely that we would have lost our home and filed for bankruptcy.
A friend of mine who is an artist recently was told by another friend that, at her income levels, she qualified for food stamps. It was a rather shocking moment for her and for us, to realize that food stamps wasn't some abstraction -- it was a fact of life. A check you could hold, make decisions around. It was suddenly reified.

We're having a difficulty reifying the arts for our audiences. People who have had moving arts experiences know that we're worth supporting. People who have not don't know what the fuss is all about.

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