Broken Notions of Why Art Matters

broken tape measure

Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo on Flickr.

Diane Ragsdale’s newest Jumper post responds to a discussion about the values and motivations of arts organizations that includes Doug Borwick of Engaging Matters and Lyz Crane of ArtPlace America:

Doug Borwick has a new post (inspired by comments made by Lyz Crane at the Creative Placemaking Summit) on the “central disconnect” between arts organizations and community engagement. The cornerstones of his argument appear to be that the “art world” exists to do what it wants to do (in contrast to most of the social sectors that exist to solve a problem or need); that arts organizations, therefore, depend upon true believers that are willing to support them in their self-interested pursuits; that community engagement requires seeing art (not as an end in-and-of itself but) as a tool for social change; and thus, ipso facto, given their we-want-to-do-what-we-want-to-do orientation there is little possibility for arts organizations to extend their reach and work to advance their communities.

I’m a fan of Doug’s writing on Engaging Matters, generally, but I’m not sure I buy the argument in this instance.

I am too, and I don’t either. A simple but flawed way to look at this problem is through what Ragsdale rightly identifies as a false dichotomy: serve the art or serve the community. Crane and Borwick rightly identify an external perception problem: it can seem to people that arts organizations do something more inward looking and speculative than useful.

However, it’s important not to over-read that possible perception problem as reflecting some deeper truth about the field.

It might seem to some that serving art is in conflict with serving the community. And certainly it’s possible to imagine making mistakes while prioritizing the one over the other. But underneath that observation there’s no deeper pattern about the nature of arts organizations. Valuing art at the expense of community is a serious error, but that’s all. It’s not the tip of the iceberg, it’s a tiny iceberg.

But why is it a false dichotomy? When you look at how you’re using the terms “art” and “community” in this context, you pretty quickly run into some suspect thinking.

Let’s take a closer look at what sort of an image we conjure up when we think of organizations that make these two mistakes, to see what they can tell us about what we mean by those terms:

Too focused on “what the organization wants to do”

Let’s imagine an archetypal arts organization that is serving the “art,” or “doing what it wants to do” instead of serving the community, and has got itself into trouble. The organization has been around for about 30 years, was moderately prominent in the community in the ‘90s, took a beating in the culture wars, and hasn’t won back its pride of place. It probably has the same white male executive/artistic director that it’s had for decades, and relies on a dedicated but dwindling group of funders, subscribers, etc. to keep the place running. There are educational programs, but they’re staffed with entry-level “half-time” workers who have too much on their plate and too few resources to do good work. Every now and then someone says something about “community engagement” or “digital initiatives,” and maybe they try some stuff sometimes, but it’s always peripheral and the leadership’s heart is clearly not in it. The quality of the art presented has started to suffer, in part because there’s less money, and in part because there’s just less energy about the place.

This is a pretty drastic story, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. You can probably find a piece of this hypothetical in the actual experiences of a lot of organizations, and saying that they’re valuing art over the community, or doing “what they want to do” instead of something more useful isn’t entirely unfair.

But the issues in an organization like this go way deeper than a focus on art vs. a focus on community.

Too focused on “serving the community”

This story is perhaps less archetypical, but we can imagine an organization with both presenting and educational arms–for instance a concert series and a community music school. The series may have been what started the organization back in the 1970s. Local corporations helped underwrite bringing major touring artists to town. As the world changed and the leadership changed, the organization created a community music school. After all, the staff could easily handle both, and the network of freelance musicians they had built for performance could also teach and earn extra money.

As mission creep starts to set in, the series brings in fewer and fewer touring artists, and the audiences start to be made up of families with students in the music school. The programming shifts to performances by teachers and star pupils. The mission statement says something about “world class artists,” but they aren’t coming any more.

It’s pretty easy to see this story as a “mistake” in terms of the original mission of the organization, but in broader terms…. it’s hard to make that argument. There still is in some way an “overemphasis,” and the students in the school won’t get to hear as many top-level performances or attend those masterclasses, but it’s hard to complain about a thriving music school.

Similarly, this story and others we could imagine that embody the same error, seem to represent fewer organizations than the first hypothetical (based on a study by…I’m totally making this part up; feel free to disagree with me).

This is perhaps part of why it’s easier to focus on the other mistake.

*

Certainly these are two dangers faced by many arts organizations, and they’re worth considering when making long term plans. But these two are clearly not the opposite ends of a spectrum that can explain big trends in our field. The organizations in these hypotheticals could only ever be stand-ins for a tiny fraction of arts organizations. For a lot of organizations, this is simply the wrong framework.

First, not all communities are towns. And so the elision of “community service” with education, outreach, and public art can be very, very misleading. New Music USA, for instance, serves a nationwide community of artists. Our community is spread out around the country and is made up of all sorts of people who make, listen to, and produce music. And since our community has far more artists in it per capita than any municipality, what service to that community means is nothing like what it means for most organizations. For us, serving “the community” and serving “the art” are completely identical.

If you’re a presenting organization with a venue, your ticket buyers are local (and therefore your community is in one place), but if you’re almost anything else, from a school to a touring ensemble to an advocacy organization, your physical location isn’t the determining factor in how your community is structured, or in what it means to be of service. In those cases, the dichotomy breaks down entirely, and we can see how a restricted definition of “community” can get you into trouble.

Second, notions of “serving your community” can be too focused on too small a set of community benefits. Direct economic impact is easy(ish) to measure, and it’s easy to use to lobby government and others for support for the arts. But the tricky part of advocating for the arts is that the really important parts are harder to put numbers on. This shouldn’t be surprising; the awesomest parts of art itself are the parts that are hardest to quantify.

If you stick to just the benefits that are easy to measure, you’re going to wind up supporting only the artistic activity that produces that limited set of benefits. And you’re going to miss out on the benefits of other kinds of art.

There are indirect economic impacts that are nigh impossible to measure properly, from the increased prestige of a city or town to incremental increases in rental prices and home values that are indistinguishable from the background noise of the market.

There are new connections made among talented and dedicated people as part of any artistic endeavor, and even counting those connections and attributing them properly is a challenge, much less measuring their value.

And of course there are the direct benefits of amazing art to everyone who experiences it. It’s hard to quantify, and research into the “transformative arts experience”–though definitely a step forward–is also (and totally understandably) trapped by its own research questions. The “art that changed your life” is worth researching, but there’s a long tail of artistic experiences far fatter than the long tail of e-commerce.

Because these things are hard to measure, they’re hard to support, hard to promote, and hard to do. It’s what makes art an interesting career. But that difficulty in measuring also makes it hard to include these benefits in a definition of service to a community. With restricted notions of what can count as engaging a community, you wind up with restricted notions of what art is good for, and listening to a concert can become something exclusive and elite instead of the core benefit an arts organization provides to a community.

3 thoughts on “Broken Notions of Why Art Matters

  1. Doug Borwick

    Thanks for your extremely thoughtful post. I’ve responded to Ms. Ragdale and, simply put, there was a profound miscommunication. If I had meant what she thought I meant, I would have written as she (and you) did. Here is my part of my response to her:
    —————————————
    The not-for-profit arts industry has, in the U.S., a problem of perceived public value. Too many “people on the street” have a sense that the arts as presented by that industry are not for them. One source of that is our funding history, with support coming from wealthy arts patrons. My main point was intended to be that the insight from Lyz Crane’s remarks provided an additional explanation: social service agencies exist to address a community issue; not-for-profit arts organizations exist to do art. Seen that way by the public can simply reinforce notions of limited public value.
    ——–
    The issue is that “central to the mission” is not the same thing as the exclusive mission. I’ve long talked about balancing focus on art and service. (http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2013/04/engaged-mission-ii/ is one good example.) The weighting of that balance is up to the organization. Community engagement does require taking some level of community awareness seriously, but never to the exclusion of quality art making.
    —————————————
    So thanks for emphasizing the point that quality focus on art and on community interests are not mutually exclusive. I totally agree!

    Reply
    1. Kevin Clark Post author

      Wonderful! I’m glad that there’s a simple point here about a potential perception and not a deeper underlying issue. I tried to be as fair as I could in unpacking the notion, and picking apart some of the problems that come along with some uses of words like ‘community’. My goal in writing was to get past just saying “I don’t agree” and to add some value to the discussion. Thanks for your own clarification!

      Reply
  2. william osborne

    I think we have seen an evolution even here on NMBx concerning conceptions of art and community. It can be difficult for a nationally based webzine to address community identity. As a result, NMBx began increasing the use of regional editors a while back and giving them much more space. And of late, there has been much more coverage for women composers, which also defines shifting concepts of community. These changes are only natural, since community is a living thing that is constantly changing.

    There are two general ways of looking at an artist’s relationship to society. One is that he or she is a part of a local community (even if the artist’s reputation might extend beyond it.) The other is that artists are a professional community unto themselves, often with little connection to local environments. Their art refers to its own autonomous aesthetic ideals as formulated by a community of artists widely dispersed across a country or even internationally. As a national magazine, NMBx has to find a balance between these two concepts.

    So how does this break down? Does NMBx by its nature as a national webzine define artists as a community unto themselves? Or does it try to represent and speak for multiple communities?
    In Europe, concepts of art are generally more communally embodied than in the States. European cities and regions often identify strongly with their cultural history and the living artists that represent its continuation. This is obvious in cities like Paris, Rome, Prague, Florence, and Amsterdam, and even in small cities like Siena, Montepuliciano, Basel, Freiburg, and Utrecht.
    In America, by contrast, art is generally more disembodied. Our communities do not have long cultural histories like Europe. And our society is also far more mobile. We move around, while Europeans are much more likely to live their whole lives close to where they were born. Europeans extol history and preservation, while Americans see culture as something with a set life expectancy that will be discarded and replaced with something new and more relevant.

    (There are a few places in America that have communally embodied art. The Southwestern art of Santa Fe and Taos, or the jazz traditions of New Orleans are some examples, but they are exceptions to the norm – and under constant threat of being destroyed.)

    This connection of art to community is especially important for conceptions of arts funding and administration. It’s a lot easier to justify funding for communally embodied art because it represents a community’s identity and speaks for it. It can be difficult to fund art in America because it is more often communally disembodied — it has less connection to the communities that are asked to pay for it. (I think this is part of the problem Doug Borwick was trying to address.)

    This also helps us understand why the NEA–in contrast to most public funding agencies in Europe–once funded individual artists across the entire country. Locality and community were thought to be irrelevant. This practice inevitably ended in disaster since the NEA’s artistic perspectives sometimes clashed with the communities where its funding was used. Think Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati while the same exhibition in the Castro Street area of San Francisco would have hardly raised an eyebrow.

    Culture is by nature local, so it should generally be funded and administered on a local level. This is also important in the USA because there are enormous regional differences– even to the extent that they caused the bloodiest war in our history. In spite of all the myths, we are not a terribly unified country.

    There is a paradox that we generally do not identity the high arts regionally, and yet we express large regional differences in our culture. The resolution of that paradox is one of the great cultural challenges America faces.

    The NEA’s new Place-Making program is an attempt to compensate for these problems – even though place-making practiced by a national agency is self-contradictory and illustrates the inherent confusion we still have regarding the high arts and community. Place-making should obviously be conceived, funded and administered by local governments.

    The Europeans, for example, have enormous experience with public funding systems for the arts and most of their funding is administered on the municipal and state levels. The numbers vary from country to country, but the general principle holds. In Germany, for example, only 5% of arts funding comes from the Federal Government. About 50% is municipal and about 45% from the State level.

    Large European cities even divide themselves into sub-regions like the 20 arrondissements of Paris–most of which have their own separate cultural agencies. When I lived in Munich there were cultural centers for each of the city’s major quarters. I remember the days when NMBx was much more NY-centric, even though there isn’t one New York, but rather a Gestalt of new music communities even in that one city. Concepts of community and arts journalism in national magazines represents a real challenge.

    In short, culture will always by nature be local, even in the USA, and this should formulate its administrative practices and funding systems. It should also formulate the way we think and write about art.

    Reply

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