What Responsibility to Inspire Society With Big Vision?

As I noted yesterday, I am breaking up my reflections on Robert Stein’s thoughts on the value of museums and the arts in to two posts.

One observation he made that particularly resonated with me was in relation to the “economic value” argument arts organizations often use. (my emphasis)

“Perhaps the most common knee-jerk reaction when Museums are pushed to make the case for their own existence is to turn to studies of economic impact. The hope is that our local constituents will embrace us with open arms if they only understand how good museums are at “pulling their weight” financially. I think we ought to be very careful not to put too much stock in this economic raison d’être.


Museums are ideally suited to generate social impact — uniquely so. Whereas every business can compete with the museum in respect to its economic muscle in the community, very few could hope to compete with the potential social impact museums are capable of making. Besides, why would we care to win a game that isn’t central to our reason for being? What happens when our city booms around us and the fiscal imprint of our museum is no longer significant to the same degree it once was? When our city is in financial trouble, does it see museums as primarily economic assets or cultural assets? When the next recession strikes and our revenues dip, does our commensurate value to the city dip as well? I hope not.

Stein talks about how the solutions to global problems require input from all areas of society — with an emphasis on the fact that diverse input is an absolute necessity.

Harvard economic historian David Landes addressed this apparent dichotomy … in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are Rich and Some So Poor (Landes, 1998). In it he emphasizes the intangible factors surrounding the economic challenges present in developing nations and surmises the following, “if we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” In this simple observation, Landes has keyed in on one of the very tangible impacts that the arts can bring.

Indeed, I was intrigued by Stein’s citation of writer Neal Stephenson’s premise that writers were shirking their duty to inspire.

In one of my favorite examples, noted science fiction author Neal Stephenson famously chided his fellow scifi authors in an essay for the World Policy Journal. He noted that generations of scientists had been inspired by the work of Arthur C. Clark, William Gibson, and others, but that the current generation of science fiction authors had given up on imagining a positive future world in favor of more dystopian tales.


Later in the essay Stephenson quotes Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, who prodded, “scientists and engineers are ready and looking for things to do. Time for science fiction writers to start pulling their weight and providing big visions that make sense.”

There are frequent conversations about how theater and movies are revivals and adaptations of material that has proven success and have a built in audience. There are gripes that music getting broad play is tested and analyzed for general appeal which yields a generic product that pleases, but doesn’t excite.

Usually the complaints are based on the idea that artists should be producing original works that push the boundaries of creativity and perhaps challenge assumptions.

Rarely is it suggested that artists are failing a responsibility to provide big vision that inspire people to expect and achieve better for themselves. Do artists in fact have this responsibility? I believe it can be illustrated that artists have served this role at various times throughout history, so are they or are they not doing so now?

The degree of introspection required to answer this will consume more than a few days of consideration.

One of initial thoughts was that it is difficult for art organizations faced with management vs labor conflicts or the liquidation of art collections to focus on whether they are providing society with a big vision. But in some sense, these conflicts reflect upon a need for a society to expect better for themselves and not easy cede to the idea that they play an unimportant role.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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