Books Open Doors To New Worlds…And Maybe Some Arts Orgs

If you are pondering how to create new “entries” for participation with your organization for a broader, more diverse audience, survey results summarized in a Hyperallergic article might offer some clues. A survey conducted by American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project found literary events may be a good programming choice, especially given the scale a lot of places operate on due to Covid:

…higher-income Americans are more likely to have visited art museums or attended art events, but they are less likely to attend poetry and literary events. It also found that Latinx and Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry or literature readings and other literary events as white Americans; the youngest adults among Black and Latinx communities (ages 18-29) are more than twice as likely to attend these events as those 45 and older.

The Hyperallergic piece also cites some political and gender divides in relation to the perceived value of art history and appreciation classes in one’s life. I haven’t tracked down the original study yet to see if it has results for other disciplines.


Economists Don’t Like Economic Impact Studies?

Michael Rushton is singing my song. Today he posted a critique of using economic impact as a measure of the value of the arts. It is “quick and dirty” as he says, so it won’t take much time to read the whole thing.

I have made many similar posts before, but what I appreciated about his post was that he points out not only are arts and culture not so special that something else can’t be substituted in its place, but the economic impact data is not useful for making policy decisions. I had noted the substitution problem 13 years ago, but the issue of usefulness of the data for policy making hadn’t gelled for me before today. (Rushton’s emphasis)

And so, to consider an arts example, suppose a mayor says “we should spend money building a new performing arts center. Construction costs would be $3 million, and the total economic impact of the construction would be $7.5 million”. An economist would say: “you could do a lot with $3 million: you could repair infrastructure, you could expand after school programs, you could lower taxes by $3 million and leave it to individuals to have more money to spend. Any of those options would also have ‘economic impact’. So ‘economic impact’ doesn’t justify spending on the performing arts center. What would justify a new PAC would be if the public benefits from using it exceeded the costs of building it and running it, i.e. a proper cost-benefit analysis. Building a PAC is a cost, it is not the benefit.”

Economists don’t like “Economic Impact” studies – they know that the conception of them is wrong, and they lead to bad reasoning.


…I’ve studied this subject for twenty-five years, and have never seen evidence that economic studies have informed decisions on public spending on the arts.

Second, the numbers don’t give any policy guidance. Suppose I were to tell you that the annual economic impact of the nonprofit arts sector in Bloomington is $73 million. If you were on city council, what would that tell you? That arts support should be increased? Or decreased? That this is a very big number? Or about what one would expect? That we should increase spending on arts program X but decrease it on arts program Y? I have never seen a policy decision where the economic impact number made a difference. (To see this, imagine that I told you “I’m sorry, I made a typing mistake, it’s not $73 million, it is $63 million”. How would that correction affect any arts policy decision?).

Verdi At Bat

Maybe we should be keeping an eye on Tulsa Opera. Back in August I wrote about a film that was screened in my venue about Tulsa Opera’s casting a transgender person as Don Giovanni. A couple weeks ago, I saw link to an interview with Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker about a production of Rigoletto they staged in October on a baseball field so that they could have socially distanced performances.

The Tulsa Drillers minor league team offered the use of their field to the opera. Looking at the pictures attached to a review of the production, it looks like the opera embraced the opportunity fully. Performers strode out on to the field wielding baseball bats, toting beers and wearing jerseys proclaiming their membership in “The Dukes” baseball team.  The conductor wore a Maestro jersey.

The English translation appeared on the screen of the jumbotron and apparently the program consisted of “packs of trading cards that included photos of the cast, along with their operatic “stats” (character descriptions and past roles).” The Tulsa Driller’s announcer served as narrator.

I found a couple short Facebook videos of the production so you could see it in action, but there are also quite a few photos attached to the review.

It looks like Tulsa Opera only had one performance, but they managed to get an audience of 1800 people. (There are indications they had some preview performances so attendees at those performances might be part of their total production attendance.) The show was cut to a 90 minute performance and was followed by a fireworks display.

You have to applaud their creativity and efforts to find a way to mount a socially distanced production. I haven’t come across any definitive numbers indicating whether they attracted people who don’t normally attend opera.  I have to wonder if they found it rewarding enough to try something similar in the future.

It’s More Than Just Naming A Minster of Culture And Other Measures To Help Creative Industries

To continue where I left off from yesterday’s post about the UNESCO document, Culture in crisis: Policy guide for a resilient creative sector, the next section addresses providing support for cultural and creative industries in the wake of the Covid epidemic. Whereas the policies covered in yesterday’s post were more targeted toward helping individual artists and organizations, this section is more focused on broader sectors. This part of the document has seven separate sections, but I don’t intend to take screenshots of them all.  Some of the proposals aren’t as relevant to non-profit arts organizations so I will summarize rather than going into detail.

The measures proposed in this section include: Accelerated payment of aid and subsidies; Temporary relief from regulatory obligations; compensation for business interruption losses; relief from taxes and social charges; stimulating demand; preferential loans; strengthening infrastructure and facilities.

Since I am writing from the bias of a U.S. based non-profit, some of these measures aren’t as significant as others.  Accelerated payment of aid is basically the suggestion to pay disbursements on grants already in place rather than waiting for final reports or the completion of services in order to allow organizations to remain liquid and finish all that stuff.

Relief from regulatory obligations as described in the document are focused on broadcast networks. I am not sure there are a lot of regulations in the U.S. that are inhibiting organizations from staying liquid and aren’t important for protecting workers and participants (i.e. those that deal with employment, health and safety, supervision of children in camps).

Similarly, relief from taxes doesn’t impact a lot of non-profit arts organizations. In some locations where the organization is making a voluntary payment to local government to support infrastructure, some discussion about payment is probably worthwhile. For those organizations that pay local/state sales tax, getting that removed in a time when tax receipts are way down is probably an extremely difficult conversation.

The preferential loans section is a valuable proposal, but the content of that section can be summarized as: The loans should be made, but the banking sector has insufficient understanding of the variations in creative organizations necessary to evaluate them for creditworthiness for loans so the banks need to be trained first.

Compensation for business interruption loss of course is a big issue, especially in terms of insurance paying claims. This section definitely is definitely worth reading since it is so relevant and balances the concerns of both government and industry.

Stimulating demand is a really interesting section and something folks in the U.S would love to see the government embrace. Look at that first line “The State is sending a clear message that the art and culture are essential services to which all citizens must have access.”

I appreciated the fact they noted change and results wouldn’t happen immediately and counseled a long term view.

I also think the observation that ministries of culture (or the NEA in the case of the US) does not have the expertise to stimulate demand is valuable to note. This is something extremely important to acknowledge when it comes to discussions about elevating arts & culture to Cabinet level position in the U.S. government. It isn’t enough to have someone in the position, the overall policy and practice of the government must be aligned toward cultivating both supply and demand. Even if the culture secretary/minister portfolio doesn’t have the ability to stimulate demand, government policy should be that those that do work hand-in-hand with the culture secretary/minister toward that end.

I debated whether to take a screenshot of the Infrastructure section because it states the well-known and easily summarized “Edifice Complex” truism. People like to fund impressive looking structures, but don’t want to fund the programs or people or programs that will inhabit the structures. However, I feel like we can all use the vindication:

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