You Know, For The Kids (And Everyone Else, Too)

February was a real busy month for me so I only had the time to bookmark The Nonprofiteer’s epiphany about the value of public funding for the arts.

“Of course you’re indifferent to public funding for the arts, you dodo; you live in Chicago, where major performers and exhibitions will show up anyway. Public funding for the arts isn’t for Chicago–it’s for Bloomington.

And she remembered growing up in Baltimore, which is not a small town but which waited for months between visits of major dance companies; and she remembered the thrill of seeing those dance companies for the first time. And she realized (0r remembered) that that’s the real point of public funding for the arts: to make available to everyone the thrill of exposure to first-rate art. Everyone: that means people who live in Bloomington, and International Falls, and Arroyo Hondo, even though the free market would not support a stop in any of those places by the latest tour from the Joffrey or the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Met.

I thought she made quite a few good arguments on behalf of funding the arts. They seem of particular value given that she finds them compelling as a person who is not particularly supportive of public funding for the arts. It isn’t often that a non-politician who has not drank deeply of the Kool-Aid takes the time to provide considered commentary on behalf of public support of the arts so it behooves us to take note. As might be expected, I am not entirely in accord with her suggestion that support should only be in presentation rather than creation of new works. Though I certainly do see her point:

“…you have to accept another, equally painful truth, which is that no one can actually determine what’s “art” til at least 25 years after it’s been created. Probably the Nonprofiteer doesn’t need to remind you that people threw things at the stage the first time they saw and heard The Rite of Spring, now part of the musical canon. But what she probably does need to point out is that this doesn’t mean the public should accept and/or fund every objectionable thing it sees in hopes that it will ultimately turn out to be art. Rather, it means that support for creation is a mug’s game, a gamble at which most players lose, and that the public should instead put its money into presentation.”

I hadn’t initially assumed she was saying that public funding of the arts was needed to bring culture to the hinterlands. All the same, I was glad for Scott Walters’ comment to her about the importance of enabling local groups to develop works that emphasize and reinforce the value that can be found in their communities. For me that is the strongest argument for funding the creation of new work. I am not as vocal as Walters is on his blog about how the concept that artistic success originates from NY/LA/Chicago is robbing the rest of the country of talent. But I am certainly in agreement with him that there is no reason those places should be held as a standard of quality and be viewed as the only destinations for achieving artistic success.

Public monies and tax breaks are offered to attract and retain industry, perhaps the same should be done with the arts. The argument can be made that state and municipal support of the arts is doing just that. What the public support is not doing though is generally providing incentive to “buy locally.” In some cases, there has to be an equal investment in encouraging people to create locally as well. I have mentioned in a number of posts lately that while it would be much more economical for me to present local artists, there aren’t enough of quality to sustain the effort very long. There are a fair number of talented people in the community, but most (though certainly not all) are expressing themselves via Broadway plays and musicals or covers/derivatives of other people’s work.

Still, if the criteria for receiving public monies and tax breaks was 100% of the concept and execution by local artists, I could take advantage of the support at least once a year and guarantee my audiences the quality they have come to expect. That sort of confidence constitutes a good starting point in my mind.

One last bit of the NonProfiteer I would quote is her view that we need to get public support for the arts as acceptable a concept as public support for education.

Yes, yes, the Nonprofiteer knows: education isn’t well-funded either; but relatively few people argue that public funding for education is just a plot to spread disgusting lies, or to keep teachers from having to work. Let’s get the discussion about public funding for the arts to the level of conceptual agreement we have for public education, and then we can engage in any further battles that might need to be fought.

In other words, brethren in the arts community: stop talking about public funding for the arts as if the point were for the public to support YOU. No one cares about you. What we care about as a society is US, and how exposure to what you do will improve us.

I think there is a distinction between what she means by “how exposure to what you do will improve us” and the message the arts have been communicating along those lines. While improving test scores, reasoning skills and developing geniuses in the womb are probably part of what she is suggesting we talk about, it can’t be the entirety for the simple reason that it excludes anyone who is not a child. People care about their kids, yes, but everyone will only be persuaded when they perceive they are included in the benefits. I think it is pretty clear that the reasons we give can’t be about what we want people to experience but what they want to experience.

We want people to experience transcendent moments and there is a good chance the first time they sit down to hear a symphony play, they won’t have a transcendent experience. The measure of their satisfaction with the experience that night may simply be that no one caught on to their utter cluelessness. Transcendent experiences should certainly always be a goal and are absolutely attainable on ones first interaction. I just spoke to a woman today who had a group of students who did just that, though they probably couldn’t have identified it as such.

There is a difficulty in asking people what they want out of an experience with which they have had limited interaction. About 18 months ago I linked to a video of Malcolm Gladwell talking about how when people were asked what kind of spaghetti sauce they liked, described the sauces they were eating. However, when presented with samples of different options, expressed strong preferences for sauces that no company actually made. When asked, people may say they like car chases and gun battles not realizing what they really may value is dramatic tension and once they get past the arcane language, a lot of Shakespeare really suits them.

If trying to draw responses of value from your audiences sounds like an intimidating process, well sure it is. There are big companies sinking millions of dollars into marketing and research trying to figure it all out too with limited success. The advantage you have is that you only have to figure it out for the community you serve.

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.


2 thoughts on “You Know, For The Kids (And Everyone Else, Too)”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post! I certainly do NOT mean to restrict our conception of the value of arts to the role it can play in public education. I was only using public education as an analogy: in the 19th Century, it was still considered shocking that the government might want to make access to education broadly available. Now that we’ve leaped that hurdle, let’s do the same for public support of arts presentations, so that everyone–adult and child alike–can at least get a chance for the transcendant experience.

    Your analogy with agriculture–“Buy local”–is an equally intriguing one, though I’m pretty sure the government won’t put enough money into the arts to produce frequent local product, and consistent production (rather than occasional episodes) is the key–as Mr. Walters pointed out.

    • @Nonprofiteer, I took your analogy about public education exactly as you meant it. My suggestion that the benefits not be framed in terms of growing young minds was in response to current practice rather than what you wrote. I was saying there is a need to find compelling benefits that fit in the void between improving test scores and transcendent experiences.

      As for buying locally, yes I imagine that local and state governments couldn’t provide enough focussed incentives to prevent a brain drain as it were. As much as government funding follows rather than leads, such a public gesture can be important in showing private funders and the community in general that conserving local talent is a priority and valued.


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