Forgetting Artists Bring Value To The Art

Last week, Sunil Iyengar is the NEA director of the Office of Research & Analysis, penned a piece aligned with the occasion of Labor Day, commenting that the value of art often subtracts the artist from the equation.

Readers know that I have regularly written about arts having value beyond educational and economic outcomes for a few years now, but Iyengar comes at this general idea from a slightly different angle in focusing on the value the artists bring. While it is obvious that art doesn’t spontaneously burst into existence from nothing, it is also easy to occasionally forget the work doesn’t exists independently of the creative.

Iyengar writes (my emphasis):

For instance, we speak of the social and emotional learning (SEL) that derives from arts education. But where do teaching artists fit into the equation? How does their own vocational practice enable them to transmit SEL to others? Or we refer to the arts’ value for public health strategies. How do artists find themselves partnering effectively with organizations, in clinical and non-clinical settings, to build trust in community health providers?

Most conspicuously, we talk about the economic impacts of the arts—but how do we measure the opportunity costs for various sectors and communities that lack adequate support systems for artists?

It all sounds painfully schematic—using terms like “system,” “units,“ or “impacts” when discussing the arts. Know what’s worse? Neglecting to consider artists as central to any theoretical framework that might be used to launch a better and sustainable future for “the arts” nationwide.

He goes on to write about the high unemployment rates of artists during the pandemic and the low pay artists receive in the best of times, less as the economic picture began to recover during the Spring and Summer. He says while arts administrators have expressed hopes of a rebirth and re-visioning of the arts will result from the Covid enforced pause, any solution that does not improve conditions for artists and protect their interests and prerogatives will ultimately fail to achieve ambitions for change and revitalization.

Iyengar cites the results of a study conducted with participants of the Periscope program of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville in which:

…“several others initiated loose attacks against funding structures that require artists to engage with community development, citing concerns about stretching their capacity, inequality of expectations between themselves and other entities also engaged in processes of community development, and burdening their creativity,” the authors add.

Robinson and Novak-Leonard go so far as to state: “The failure of communities, and specifically, funders, to recognize the primary entrepreneurial motivation of artists–a desire to maintain control of their creative process—while ignoring the considerable social good artists undertake in their practices, undermines the effort, training, skill, and labor involved in the production of art.”

…The entrepreneurial artists in our sample demonstrated an ability to see and act upon opportunities in community on their own terms.

One thing to note is that Periscope is an entrepreneurship training program for artists so the study authors aren’t saying that all artists will naturally identify opportunities to engage with the community and pursue them.

I think there is a danger in looking at these results and using it to bolster the “arts should be run like a business” mentality and mandate entrepreneurship training for anyone seeking funding. That is doomed to fail if artists aren’t ready to embrace the effort to expand their capacity in that area. A one size fits all policy is ill-advised for any group and much, much, much less so when it comes to creatives.

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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