General 3-5-2007

When Good Arts Advocacy Becomes Dishonest, and What You Can Do About It

Michael Fallon gives a lucid critique of typical arts advocacy, and makes a good case for a different kind. Attend Arts Advocacy Day, March 8, and see what it's all about.

advoc day

ON A GROGGY MONDAY MORNING THIS PAST JANUARY, I was sitting at a breakfast meeting of a fundraising advisory committee for a small nonprofit arts organization. The people at the table were the kind you want at such a meeting—community and business leaders, experienced fundraising professionals, a former state legislator, and the director of a major arts organization smack dab in the urban core. The small arts organization was looking to increase its connection to big-ticket funding sources (read: rich arts patrons) in order to, among other things, eventually mount a campaign to build a new arts center to house the organization’s operations. The discussion progressed well—lots of good ideas, lots of energy—but then, at a lull in the conversation while a server set out plates of greasy mushroom omelets, one of the committee members started talking, gushily, about how important are the arts in Minnesota.

“It’s really amazing,” he said, leaning forward, “and a true fact, that there are more arts activities going on in the Twin Cities than any other comparable place in the country.” A few of his fellow savvy rainmakers murmured their distracted assent as they sprinkled salt on their breakfasts. “It’s really true. You could look it up.”

Such statements are exactly what I often find problematic about arts advocacy in this day and age and in this arts-infatuated state. That is, the well-meaning assumptions of most art Kool-Aid drinkers, in this state and beyond, rarely do any of us any good for the arts. In fact, and I say this with full knowledge that we are approaching March 8 and Arts Advocacy Day at our state capital, hyperbolic and self-congratulatory claims for the value of art may well be harmful over the long term. After all, such convulsive back-patting is never going to appeal to the Joe NASCARs and Jane Minivans of the world, and these are exactly the people that arts advocates need to appeal to.

Probably you’ve heard these boasts about Minnesota and its fantastic arts and culture amenities and attractions, and perhaps you’ve wondered if such claims are true. But if you haven’t heard the boasts, or haven’t ever questioned them, here are a couple of the more common ones (with their sources supplied when possible), followed by a few reasons why you might want to add some salt to your eggs.

The Economics of Art

“…the arts have become an economic asset to Minnesota,… as important as those in manufacturing, farming, and other more conventional economic developments.” (Star Tribune, July 1, 2002)

Social scientist Richard Florida made chic the notion of art as an economic driver around the turn of the last century, essentially arguing that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of high-tech workers, artists, musicians, gay men, and something he calls “high bohemans” correlate with a higher level of economic development. His pronouncements caused a mini-revolution in many civic development quarters by convincing them of something arts people wish to be true: the idea that attracting and retaining high-quality “creative” talent is what makes certain cities, regions, and nations great.

What’s most remarkable about all of this is that Florida was able to create an entire “creative class” industry with mostly superficial evidence and no clear explanation of the cause-and-effect relationship for his claims. Predictably, since the success of his first book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida’s research and statistical analyses have come under near-constant scrutiny by other social scientists and statistical analysts–including many scholars at the very institution, Carnegie Mellon University, where Florida conducted his research (he’s since moved on to a cushier gig). Two years ago, the Rand Corporation released a complete study called “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts” that, in effect, refuted many of Florida’s essential claims. Among other things, the Rand researchers questioned the very idea of arts as economic driver, suggesting that it is a matter of comparative analysis. That is, before pushing the idea of art as a social cure-all one should measure how successful, really, are investments in the arts in promoting economic activity when compared to, say, investment in biotechnology, business incubation, nanotechnology, or any other number of enterprises. The tendency of arts advocates to eschew any comparative numbers led Rand researchers to worry that advocating for the arts solely as an economic driver to politicians and community leaders is eventually likely to backfire, if it hasn’t already (after all, big state arts budget cuts came in Minnesota in 2003–after the Floridian revolution). This is not to say that Rand researchers discount the efforts of arts advocates; rather, they argue that arts would be better served if advocates focused more on the intrinsic benefits of the arts to people who experience it—that is, the idea that, to people who experience them, the arts are soul-enriching, educational, perspective-enhancing, and, simply put, fun.

In the end, more and more people in the know in the social sciences or in the study of arts management—that is, people who are not motivated by personal biases but by the need for rational truth—are taking a more level view of Florida’s ideas. That is, creativity and the arts are not a quick path to wealth, but rather a small part of an overall equation for community development, and a somewhat more important part of a more fully enriched society.

Minnesotans Love the Arts

“94% of Minnesotan believe that arts and cultural activities ‘make Minnesota an attractive place to live and work’; 92% of Minnesotans believe the arts are ‘crucial to their quality of life.’” (Minnesota Center for Survey Research at the University of Minnesota, 1998)

While it’s a good thing that people in this state say they support, even love, the arts, these statistics are misleading in several ways. First off, as I pointed out in this column (at the very end), all Americans say they support the arts, and in pretty much exactly the same percentages as Minnesotans, so Minnesota is not unique in this—somewhat negating the point as a tool for arts advocacy. Further compounding the issue is the fact that, as I wrote in the essay linked above, while Americans say they support the arts and “highly value the arts in their lives and communities,” in truth they don’t much act on these beliefs. For example, according to the same Urban Institute study that showed 96 percent of people love the arts, only 27 percent of Americans are supportive of artists and their efforts to make art, leading artists to live on the fringes of contemporary society economically, socially, and health-wise.

For the vast majority of Americans and Minnesotans, saying we love art is akin to telling ourselves we love spinach. Everyone agrees in principle that art and spinach are good for you, and since we all like to believe that we tend to do good things for ourselves we say we are in favor of both spinach and art. But in reality the amount of spinach and art we actually consume, and help support, is rather negligible.

How Much Art There Is in Minnesota, and How It Got Here

“Minnesota has more art/artists/cultural amenities than anywhere else in the country/planet/known universe.” (Anonymous, oft-repeated, usually referring to “Minnesotan corporations/state government/foundations have one of the nation’s strongest traditions of support of the arts,” from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts website)

I’ve always taken issue with the very Minnesotan tendency for self-congratulation over its own perceptions of itself as the best state in the country, so perhaps it’s my own baggage that makes me immediately object whenever someone makes claims like we have more art (and arts funding) here than anywhere else. I can’t help but ask questions of such boasters. What is the basis of your comparison, and who’s doing the (ac)counting? How do you take into account differences in population, cultural preoccupations, and other variables? When did you last perform a comparative census count of the cultural activities in other places across the country, and in traditional cultural hubs like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago? And, if the state is such a great place to live and be an artist in, why aren’t more artists moving here?

I’ve lived in enough other places to know that there’s a good amount of arts activity going on here (for which we should be thankful), but there are lots of cultural amenities and artistic institutions and programs in other places that we don’t have. For instance, where’s the institutional and financial support for significant arts criticism in Minnesota? (Ohio gives grants to art critics; we don’t.) Why has the local print media reduced its local arts coverage so consistently over the past five years? (Media in places like L.A., Seattle, and Atlanta have been growing their coverage of late.) Why isn’t there much of any kind of incubation support for small arts organizational start-up efforts (such as exists in Pittsburgh and some other places)? Where is the support for mid-career artists (such as in New York)? Where are the arts patrons to buy working artists’ work (such as in more major art markets)? Why is there almost no city-level governmental support structure for the arts (such as in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, and numerous other cities)? Why has state-wide governmental support to the arts continued to languish in the last two despite a recovery from the recent economic downturn?

The truth seems to be, by all statistical measures that I can find (from a year 2000 study), Minnesota is actually rated around eighth in the country in both the amount of arts activity per capita and arts funding per capita. And while eighth is not too shabby a place to be, 14 percent of the states are in better shape than we are—certainly not a place to get our shoulders out of joint over. Furthermore, we, perhaps having bought our own propaganda about our own arts greatness, are letting arts languish somewhat at present, cutting funding and support in our foundations, state government, and city budgets, so it’s likely we’ve even fallen in the rankings in recent years (though there hasn’t been a recent survey to verify this).

SO, YOU ASK, HOW WOULD I SUGGEST WE ADVOCATE FOR THE ARTS on Art Advocacy Day in Minnesota? Well, first off, I’d stick with a honesty-first policy, and not just for moral reasons but because without complete honesty it’s simply impossible to convince any non-arts lover that the arts are worth caring about. Of course, all of the above notions about the arts are wonderful to ponder, but the fact that each of these claims is actually either patently untrue, seriously misleading, or impossible to quantify means they do much in the end to discredit the idea that supporting art is important.

Honest advocacy means honesty of intentions—an admission of your own biases is a good start—AND honesty in terms of factuality. Facts, verifiable and clear, are very important here. To be able to give to someone—whether arts supporter or art detractor—true and unencumbered facts in the matter of where the arts fits into society is very key. Saying, for instance, that Minnesota is the eighth most active art state in terms of arts events and organizations per capita, and citing the source (Rated Almanac, from its 2000 survey of 354 metropolitan areas), is much more compelling than boasting that Minnesota is bestest and mostest and having it turn out to be an exaggeration. Also requisite when citing facts is putting them into proper perspective—without bias—to other relevant and related facts. One should never overstate the case, lest one becomes just another advertiser shilling for yet another dishonest product. And this means foremost all artists, arts lovers, and art advocates, amateur and professional, should be as informed as possible about the real truth of the arts, lest they just repeat the same old wishful claims over and over.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people locally doing real hard research and finding out the truth about the importance of the arts here. Ann Markusen, for instance, an economics professor at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, is a local treasure. Her articles and full-length comparative studies of the role of arts in communities are hard and honest looks—with no punches or strings pulled—of the role of arts in society (Note: She’s sometimes critical of the level of local support for the local arts scene). Also, the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, Springboard for the Arts, and the Minnesota Craft Council have teamed up of late to conduct an economic impact study of individual artists in Minnesota—the second of a series of reports to investigate the arts and uncover some hard information about its position in society. The report, Artists Count, is complete and actually scheduled to be released at Arts Advocacy Day on March 8. Among other things, this study will provide a single, real, verifiable number and related data that represents the real economic impact—in terms of income, art spending, job-generation, and other factors—of individual artists in Minnesota. Such numbers and data, if used honestly and with care, will likely prove useful in clarifying—for politicians, policy-makers, and funders—how art and artists fit into the overall economic picture of the state.

Finally, good advocacy also demands that a critical mass of artists and art simply make an honest case for why the arts are good, enjoyable, and fun. This means a willingness by many individuals to tell the human story of the arts: Why do you enjoy the arts? What thrill do you find in them that keeps you coming back? What do they evoke in your mind and soul? How do they challenge you and others to learn, grow, mature? And how much fun are they?

And this means, of course, it’s important for you to show up on March 8 and be an honest advocate for what you love. Doing anything less is simply dishonest.