Good for the Goose, Better for the Gander

I was looking back at the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study on the value of arts in the community. I had written about a portion of it back in March.

One of the findings of the study was that people felt the arts had more value to their community than it did for them as individuals. In the cities surveyed, between 79% and 85% of attendees strongly agreed with this idea as did about 33% of non-attendees. This idea that my neighbor needs the help more than I do was recently discussed in a brief Scientific American article which found that people often rate their moral, social and religious behavior better than their neighbors and also feel that they are less biased and fairer in their judgments than the next person.

An additional discovery the PARC study made was that 2/3 of those surveyed strongly agreed (it shoots to 9/10 if you include “agree” responses) that arts education was better for children regardless of the respondent’s age, education, lack of attendance, children at home or income status. However, only 1/2 strongly felt arts had any value to adult lifelong learning. Those who attended most felt most strongly about the value. The difference might be caused by the same personal bias. Since most respondents were adults, they might feel it is better for the kids than for themselves.

The study is very interesting in its exploration of a number of other factors such as: quality of life (more educated, stronger agreement. Though in D.C. more income also had a correlation); pride in the community (higher income in Sarasota strongly agree, older folks in Boston strongly agree, but less than half of respondents in Austin strongly agree); preserves cultural heritage (majority, regardless of attendance, income, education, etc strongly agree); contributes to local economy (lowest percentage of strongly agree. Except in Sarasota, majority did not strongly agree.)

These results show that it may not be wise to make blanket assumptions about how segments of the local population view the arts. In some cases, you can’t even make assumptions about perceptions based on survey results from another city.

It is also interesting to note that the public doesn’t perceive an economic contribution of the arts. I have read a number of articles that felt the practice of discussing the arts in terms of their economic contributions would devalue the arts by positioning them as a tool for economic growth rather than a source of education, self-improvement, inspiration, etc. In most cases, the articles were referring to the way arts organizations present this information to funders, especially government bodies that allocate monies toward funding.

While I found myself agreeing with this idea, it occurs to me today that perhaps the problem is that we have been saying it too much to too few people. I quoted Ben Cameron last week where he listed economic contributions as a value of the arts that the public needed to have presented to it. Seeing the survey data, I wonder if the arts need to spread the word to the public and stop focusing the message strictly to funders. The stats have probably been chanted at legislators for so long they won’t endure as a justification of funding for too much longer. However, the community may not have been exposed to the discussion of economic value enough. The arts community may have put a lot of time and energy into communicating with too narrow a portion of of its constituency.

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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