Not Words, But Deeds

Last week Doug Borwick wrote a blog post saying it wasn’t enough to tell people that the arts have value in their lives.

As I started reading his post, I agreed with this sentiment because we have long acknowledged the argument that the arts are good for you isn’t really that compelling for people. I have talked about how the arts shouldn’t be viewed as a solution to all sorts of problems a number of times before.

But there is also the basic experience we all have growing up being told that food/medicine/classes/experiences are good for us. We roil when forced to consume such things under the eye of parents and authority figures and often happily reject them when provided the freedom of choice. Sometimes we come back to them with appreciation, but other times the bias is so ingrained, we resist any opportunity presented to engage with these things again.

As Borwick’s post continued though, the situation became a little more complicated in my eyes. He quotes the former CEO of National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Jonathan Katz about how little stock people put in empirical evidence about art.

Neither professionals [or community leaders] in the relevant disciplines nor the general public put sufficient stock in . . . studies to alter policy. This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

Borwick continues, (his emphasis)

In other words, people do not believe the stories or the studies because they don’t believe they can be true. For many, the arts are so inconsequential, so void of impact on their own lives, any proof of their power is literally unbelievable.

So whether you are trying to convince people of the merit of the arts or the value of your organization or you are simply trying to get them to attend your events, there is a profound chasm of disbelief to be overcome. The way across this divide is not by words. It is action alone that will work. Being perceived as valuable must be earned by doing things that make us so. If we have to tell people we are valuable, we’re not to them.

Now to echo my friend Carter Gillies, just because you can measure something doesn’t mean what you have measured is relevant. We all know that the amount of revenue something garners has no relationship to the artistic value or quality of that thing.

But what Borwick is saying means that regardless of whether you are providing accurate data derived of the most rigorous methodology possible or not, people won’t believe the evidence if it doesn’t align with their personal experience. (Which granted, doesn’t just apply to the arts and also contributes to things like the current political divide in the U.S.)

So in the end, it is actions that enter someone’s experience, including that of individuals they value, that will serve as proof of the value of arts/culture/creativity.

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. (

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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