Do You Love Opera For It’s Economic Impact?

In addition to responding to comments he makes on the blog, I have had some email exchanges with artist Carter Gillies. Many times in the course of our correspondence, he will say “I think we are talking about the same thing, just in different words.” I am not always sure that we are, but I often get the impression he is operating a few steps ahead of me.

That feeling of disconnect is actually a central feature of a guest post he wrote nearly a month ago for Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog.

Since it was a long piece, I bookmarked it for later reading. I am somewhat embarrassed it has taken me close to a month to read it, but I encourage everyone to do so, even if it means coming back to your bookmark a couple months hence. Having read it, a lot of what he was trying to get at in our correspondence became clearer to me.

What Carter does is take a really deep look into the way we define the value of the arts. In doing so, he bolsters the argument that we should avoid talking about the value of the arts in relation to economic, social, educational, developmental etc., benefits.

To heavily summarize what he says, he notes that people in the arts have a clear sense of the value of the arts. People who are not aware of this value and even perceive the arts as valueless, do not share the same language and metrics for evaluating the arts. Communicating the value is therefore as difficult as the challenge of describing a color to a person who in unable to perceive that color. (my emphasis)

The way we mostly talk to these people is we have found that our ends, the things we value in themselves, can be the means to their own ends. They value the economy? Well, the arts are good for the economy! They think that cognitive development is important? Well, the arts are good for cognitive development! We make our own ends the means to their ends.

But this never teaches them why we value the arts. It is not a conversation that discusses the arts the way we feel about them. Its not a picture of the intrinsic value of the arts, because in talking about instrumentality we always make the arts subservient. That’s never only what they are to us. Sometimes we just have to make the case for a lesser value as the expedient means to secure funding or policy decisions. It’s better than not making any sense at all.

I don’t wake up excited to go to work to stimulate the economy. I am not eager to go to a museum opening so I can have my cognitive abilities developed. In this context, it almost sounds ridiculous.

This illustrates the disconnect between shared metrics and terminology. As an arts person, I can understand the argument that I need to pay taxes to help stimulate the economy and contribute to the cognitive development of others, but I can’t convince the government to provide funding for the arts based on why I value the arts. I get them, but they don’t get me. I need to talk about economy and cognitive development to be able to receive that tax money.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the arts. When we talk about why we love our parents and siblings, we may talk about how well they treat us but that doesn’t truly explain why we love them. The reasons are just external metrics we know others can understand and identify. The real reasons are ineffable. There will be people with whom you become romantically involved who may treat you much better by those same standards than your family ever did, but you will never love them the way you love your bratty sibling.

Citing Archimedes famous quote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world,” Carter notes:

In the arts we have thrown facts together, constructing the longest possible lever, but have seemingly forgotten we also need somewhere to place it. Those facts need to rest on values that can act as a fulcrum. The facts without value, or the wrong value, will simply have no leverage. They will fail to motivate.

He suggests what is needed is a change of perspective rather than trying to change minds. While this might be accomplished via the proposal to create public will for the arts that I often cite, Carter also notes that the arts community needs to change its perspective as well.

The confusion we are mired in is thinking that our difficulty is practical when in fact the impediment is structural. We need to better understand this to make appreciable headway. We can celebrate both the good art does and the good art is, a structural difference, the lever and the fulcrum. That is the value of intrinsic value for the arts.

I should note, whether you agree with the practice or not, use of taxes for economic development and education weren’t foregone conclusions. It required a change in perspective to implement both.

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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