Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I came across a couple of links about Florida via in the last week or so. In different ways they seemed to illustrate how the arts are constantly in a struggle to validate their existence by showing good numbers.

The first was talking about the Florida Arts Community rallying to get state funding restored. It was rather reminiscent of last year in NJ because the governor was the biggest impediment to arts funding in that state as well. One of the points the advocates raised of course was the economic benefit of the arts in the state.

I was somewhat impressed to see the writer explore the danger in using economic benefit as a rationalization of support by quoting a Newsweek article from a year ago by Artsjournal’s Douglas McLennan regarding the problem with employing this tactic:

“By my estimation, a pure case for public funding of art for art’s sake hasn’t been made in more than a decade,” Douglass McLennan, editor of, wrote in an essay last year for McLennan questioned “reducing arguments for arts to economic impacts,” and added, “Art may be a great economic investment, but if it’s not an investment someone chooses to make, you’re out of luck. Sorry, just business.”

In this vein, the article quotes one of the arts advocacy members as suggesting a day without art where every thing that was formed by some artistic consideration including sculpture, painting, music, film, television, architecture, to the cut of the lawmakers’ suits was covered, removed and generally forbidden them for a day to show them the value of art in their lives.

A few days after reading this, I came across an article in the New York Times owned Sarasota Herald Tribune written by the President of the Sarasota (FL) Arts Council which cited the PARC study and an Americans for the Arts study. One of the things he wrote about was how the studies illustrated the economic value of the arts. However, he also went on to state “that people of all income levels attend the arts. This dispels the popular notion that culture in Sarasota County is for the elite few.”

Since I had just read the PARC study and hadn’t come away with that impression, I was a little puzzled. I went back to the study and still felt the same as a result of the following findings:

“Enjoyment is unrelated to household income level, except in Sarasota where higher household incomes are associated with greater levels of arts enjoyment.”

“In Boston and Sarasota, attendance at performing arts events is positively associated with household income. This trend generally holds in Washington and Minneapolis-St. Paul as well, although the association is not as strong.”

“This contrasts sharply with Sarasota, for example, where respondents from the wealthiest households are over three times more likely to be frequent attenders than respondents from the lowest income households.”

“Household income, age, and presence of children at home are largely unrelated to the degree to which respondents find live performing arts to be enjoyable. Sarasota is an exception, where wealthier respondents report increasingly high levels of agreement regarding enjoyment of the
performing arts.”

“In Sarasota, more highly educated people are somewhat more likely to say that the arts are a source of pride in their community.”

“In short, households with lower levels of income are more likely to cite cost of tickets as a barrier to greater attendance. This relationship is strongest in Sarasota.”

As I had mentioned in an earlier entry, there are certainly other factors that act as barriers to attendance in all cities. However, the study singles Sarasota out a number of times as being atypical among the other cities surveyed in regard to having arts attendance and enjoyment so closely linked with education and income.

I thought that perhaps the Sarasota Arts Council came to their conclusion from the Americans for the Arts survey. However, that report was focussed only on economic impact and they only collected information from people when they were attending the event. There was no information collected from those who decided not to attend.

It was upon re-reading the Herald-Tribune article that I realized the president was actually basing his non-elitist claim on a third study that was commissioned locally. The results of that survey were not available on line that I could find. The fact that it was conducted locally makes me wonder if there was an agenda behind the data collection.

The greater tragedy though is that arts organizations seem to be focussing too great a portion of their energies these days trying to prove the worthiness of their existence. It is almost akin to Valentine’s Day in grammar school where kids are concerned about making a respectable showing when cards are distributed. Except in this case, people are massaging the results by metaphorically claiming that while they didn’t get a lot of cards, 25% of those they did get were high quality Hallmark cards rather than cheapie ones proving they are held in high esteem.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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