What’s your model of relevancy?

Take a look around at the search results for “why fund the arts” and you’re sure to find plenty of preachers chatting up their choirs for a rousing “amen” or two. The arts provide enormous economic benefits to local communities and the nation as a whole. But that’s not the whole story, and it’s not exactly the most compelling reason to head out to your local theater or museum.

And if you think about it, where would you rather send your charitable dollars? Would you rather send your money to an organization that fosters public dialogue, or to an organization that helps kids with cancer? Remember: your charitable dollars are limited. If such causes as “fostering public dialogue,” or “preserving artistic forms” fall higher in your charitable priority list above kids with cancer, your priorities may not be the same as the rest of us. That’s not to say your priorities are wrong — just different. And that’s okay.

There are many benefits to supporting the arts, and I would hope that if you’re reading this, you’ve heard most or all of those reasons, both intrinsic and extrinsic. It’s up to those of us who are practitioners in the field to recognize, deliver, and communicate the value we provide in the way of both public goods and charitable activities.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Times are changing, and no amount of holding on to 20th century American modernist models of the funding and production of art will save your arts nonprofit. The new reality brought to us, in part, by technology forces a structural change in the way institutions operate. Gwydion Suilebhan offered a perspective on the emerging role of the arts institution in his TEDx talk: not unimportant, but different.

So why should there be public funding for the arts in this age of changing relationships between artists, audiences, and institutions? There is no single answer, but many perspectives. Some of those traditional perspectives include “fostering public dialogue,” or “preserving artistic forms,” or “economic vitality.” Other reasons, in a quick roundup:

  • “Orchestras do not play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster every year.” Michael Kaiser explains why subsidies are important to keep tickets for arts events affordable.
  • “The arts are a necessity.” Claire Willett makes the case that the arts are as essential to life as food and water.
  • “The most compelling argument for funding the arts is not factual but counterfactual. The cuts … will have major and still unpredictable effects on arts provision…” David Edgar ultimately reaches the conclusion that large institutions will not survive the shift to a more participatory model of art production and presentation.
  • “The musicians will expand the imagination.” Alan Balfour, Dean of Ga Tech’s College of Architecture explains why imagining a better future is necessary for building a better future.
  • “If you ask people what would improve their neighborhood 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 all.

This is by no means a comprehensive roundup. To get into reasons for funding arts in education, I’d have to go into a bottomless pit of a rabbit hole. For every conceptual reason to fund the arts, there are relevant stories to be told that can speak to the economic reasons (why arts funding should be a higher priority), the social reasons (how arts funding improves quality of life in society), the political reasons (how arts funding democratizes culture), and so on.

The point of all this is to say there are many reasons to support the arts through both public and charitable funding. With this “blended approach” to making the case, it’s up to the rest of us to act the case, and not just communicate it. The blended approach also reflects the different ways we produce and present, and how those approaches are complementary to one another, not in competition.

When we were in Toronto for a conference with our fellow service organizations, Tim Jones, one of the keynote speakers, gave his opinion on the subject of arts advocacy: why do we argue about whether the “economic value” argument or the “intrinsic value” argument is better? We use up a lot of energy as a community arguing with each other about which of these cases works best. Jones refered to the quadruple bottom line of the arts: economic value, social value, environmental value, and cultural value. These values are not mutually exclusive of one another.

So what case do you make for supporting the arts? How does your arts practice reflect the case you make? I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions.


  1. You jump back and forth between talking about justifications for “public funding” for the arts and those for general “charitable donations” to the arts. I think that the reasoning for those are two different things…related, but different. Convincing an individual, foundation, or corporation to give money to the arts is a different animal than convincing an elected official to commit tax dollars to the arts. The two should not be conflated.

    I also think you’re missing some of the compelling reasons to support the arts. You can’t separate arts education from the ‘Arts.’ Nearly all arts organizations have educational programming, so even non-school-related arts funding is still funding arts education. Kids who are exposed to and/or involved in the arts are better citizens, higher achievers, more creative thinkers, more innovative, and better suited to the future economy of our country. That is a POWERFUL argument that should never be left out.

    You’re also missing the many health-related benefits of the arts. The performing arts keep people in better shape. There are many studies proving that people engaged in the arts lead longer, healthier lives. Also, the arts are being increasingly integrated into medical practice and treatment (surely everyone has seen the YouTube video of the alzheimers patient who is brought from a near-catatonic state into a place where he can answer questions with ease, simply by listening to music?).

    Also, in relation to the economy…it’s not just that the arts improve their local economies, but also that the arts are part of the larger Creative Industries. Find me an architect, graphic designer, digital animator, fashion designer, filmmaker, advertising art director, or etsy-shop professional…and I will show you an arts lover and someone who has been involved with arts since they were a child. Innovative, creative industries are the future backbone of the American economy. Without the arts, these industries will not grow and flourish here.

    • C4 Atlanta says:

      Hi Rachel,

      I think Joe admitted to the fact that his “round-up” is by no means comprehensive. Of course arts education is very important. Creating practitioners through arts education provides future adults with a more compelling context for supporting the arts. Anecdotally, my own two daughters became a lot more interested in classical music once they started playing violin. 

      The economic impact argument is also important, but we also need to look at intrinsic impact as well. As Simon Brault, author of No Culture, No Future, stated (paraphrase) recently at a conference I attended, “you will never convince your neighbor to go see a play because it is good for the economy.” Politicians use emotional appeal to get votes. Advertisers use emotional appeal to get us to make a transaction. Shouldn’t we, as arts advocates, use the most powerful tool at our disposal: story telling. Isn’t that what we do, as artists, everyday? We tell stories. 

      You make a good point about the “unseen” artistic dividend. But I do believe “the arts” have a stand alone value outside of being lumped into creative industries. Art is a discipline. There IS a time and a place to make sure fine arts are part of the economic equation–as a part of the creative economy. However, we don’t need to apologize for the arts. It requires no euphemism. If we constantly take a backdoor approach to talking about the value of the arts, we water down the message. We see this happen all the time. A math teacher will never have to make the argument that math is important because it enhances self-esteem.

      Again, I DO believe in the power of measuring impact. I think it gives us the framework for starting the conversation, but it’s not the whole piece. 

      Public funding and foundation funding do go together. Public funding reflects what we value as a community–patrons, funders and all. It sets the tone. Arts education actually fits the IRS designation of a 501(c)3, and yet not every arts organization offers educational (K-12) programming. But I think that is best saved for another discussion… 

      I did not mean for my response to be so long 🙂 Thanks for the discussion! All that to say: good points. – Jessyca Holland

      • Jessyca,

        I did not mean to imply that the reasons for arts support which Joe brought up, and which you echo, are not valid, relevant, and critical. I completely agree with them! I was just trying to point out that there are numerous other equally valid and critical reasons to support arts funding that he did not include.

        I’m not convinced it’s possible to make a list of all the important reasons for the arts in this world. Effective advocacy is about tailoring your message for the situation and the audience. Some people are easily convinced by a tearful story from a parent. Others are only convinced with hard facts and data. Others need to feel a personal connection.

        ALL the reasons listed here are true, and favoring one over another in a particular situation should not imply that you think it is more important…only that you are highlighting what is most effective for the audience and the situation of that moment.


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