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.