Oh Sure, I Love Doing That…But That’s Not Art

Tyler Cowen featured a study on the Marginal Revolution blog noting that children in India couldn’t do formal math problems, but had no difficulty finding the solution when it was framed as a market transaction.

It has been widely documented that many children in India lack basic arithmetic skills, as measured by their capacity to solve subtraction and division problems. We surveyed children working in informal markets in Kolkata, West Bengal, and confirmed that most were unable to solve arithmetic problems as typically presented in school. However, we also found that they were able to perform similar operations when framed as market transactions. This discrepancy was not explained by children’s ability to memorize prices and quantities in market transactions, assistance from others at their shops, reliance on calculation aids, or reading and writing skills. In fact, many children could solve hypothetical transactions of goods that they did not sell. Our results suggest that these children have arithmetic skills that are untapped by the school system.

This somewhat paralleled the concept I have raised many times here. If you ask people if they are a visual artist, dancer, singer, actor, etc, they will say no. But if you ask about their hobbies you might find they are a woodworker, sing in the church choir, design and execute elaborate parade floats, etc.  All of which yield some artistic and creative product.

There has been an effort, in varying degrees, from the National Endowment for the Arts to Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative, to reframe what people do to help them recognize their capacity for creative expression.

The last line in the passage I cited above was what made the connection for me. Just as the children have arithmetic skills untapped by the school system, people in general can have creative ability untapped by the way creative/artistic expression is currently framed.

Solving problems on a piece of paper is difficult math. Handling a complex financial transaction which ensures a livelihood is something simple you learned when you were five.

Creating a delicate sculpture is something only real artists can do. Recreating a spindly Eiffel Tower out of lumber, chicken wire and flowers so that it is structurally sound enough to travel a windy route as a parade float is the type of exciting challenge you dive into every year.

Discussing creative expression in different frames of context can help people recognize they already participate in some manner or can help remove the intimidation factor by modifying the concept of what being creative entails.

The process of that discussion takes time which is why Creating Connection is envisioned as a long term effort. It will also take creativity to help people make those connections to their personal creativity.

Fortunately, that is one resource we don’t have a shortage of.

Do We Underestimate The Power Of “Wow, I Didn’t Know You Were So Talented”?

I had mentioned before that I will be presenting part of a pre-conference professional development session at the Arts Midwest Conference next week. I was going to make a shameless plug for people to sign up, but I see it is sold out (woo hoo!…oh wait, also increased pressure!)

The session deals with Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection/Building Public Will For Art and Culture program that I frequently discuss.

One of the central tenets of the program is helping people recognize their capacity for creativity.

As I was developing the content for my contribution, it occurred to me that one things we lose by having less art in K-12 schools is the affirmation and validation of one’s capacity to be creative. Basically, the experience of having someone walk up and say some permutation of, “Wow, I didn’t know you were so talented.”

It seems like a simple thing to stick your kid’s art up on the refrigerator, but the effect is likely cumulative. And when the opportunities for creativity stop, so does the reinforcement.

Obviously, not everyone is going to reveal a great talent or have an inclination to apply themselves.  I suspect that when art instruction, and more importantly, active creative expression, is a regular part of a child’s education rather than intermittent, the child grows to take their basic creative capacity as much for granted as they do their basic mathematic and reading ability.

This may seem blatantly obvious but I remember a time when I mentally conceded that if kids at least got exposure to the arts in school, that was acceptable.  Even that is disappearing now. Now I realize a compromise of that nature gives up development opportunities that can never be regained.

See Me (And Other Cool People) Talk About Building Public Will For Arts and Culture

I have been writing enthusiastically about Creating Connection (a.k.a building public will for arts and culture) for so long, the folks at Arts Midwest have asked if I would speak enthusiastically about the topic.

On August 28 I will be joining Arts Midwest CEO/President, David Fraher, and Arts Midwest Program Director, Anne Romens,  to present the in-depth seminar, Messages that Matter: Tapping into What Audiences Value.

The session is being held just prior to the Arts Midwest conference in Columbus, OH, but you don’t need to be registered for the conference to participate. If you are going to be in the area, I would love to meet you.

As an added bonus, I will be bringing at least one of the members of the Creative Cult that I have written about who will talk about their founding philosophy and the work they are doing.

Hope to see you there.

Here is the session description:

What core values inspire your potential audience to participate in arts, culture, and creativity, and which messages should you use to connect people to your programs?

This in-depth seminar will share the data-driven strategies coming out of Creating Connection that can help strengthen the power of your communications, programming, and outreach. Arts Midwest leaders will discuss a growing body of research around the intersection of creativity and public values, and offer tangible messaging strategies, tools, and real-time examples aimed at helping you attract and retain audiences and connect more deeply with your communities.

Work in tandem with your artistic, marketing, and support staff during this session, and be prepared for hands-on learning that you can take back to your organization to start exploring how your offerings—no matter whether you’re a presenter or an artist or manager—can tap in to the values and motivations of diverse stakeholders.

On The Hook With Arts and Culture

Back in 2008, I wrote how the voters of Minnesota passed an amendment to support both the arts and outdoor wildlife as a result of a political alliance between the arts community and outdoor sport enthusiasts.  The amendment increased the sales tax by 3/8 of 1%.

According to the website created to report how the money was being used, this is how much of the collected revenue has been allocated between fiscal year 2010 and 2017.

Minnesota has been known for its outdoor activities and support of the arts so it isn’t necessarily surprising that the citizens supported this tax increase. The alliance between the groups was not a forgone conclusion though. As I quote from an article from that time by Jay Weiner:

“As it was, the pioneers of the amendment idea — the sportsmen with bullets and hooks — were wary enough of the arts being included … until they saw the political power of the statewide arts and cultural organizations.”

I went on to write:

Every state should be lucky enough to have an arts community with enough political clout to help get a constitutional amendment passed. Of course, that influence didn’t magically appear, the state arts community would have been working on cultivating it over the course of years and probably decades.


The other thing he [Weiner] mentions is that berating the arts and parks people perpetuates an environment which keeps sports fans from forming coalitions.

If this program appeals to you and you want to replicate it in your state, another article written at the time outlines the pros and cons of the amendment. I am sure that nine years later, those who advocated for the amendment and those who have dealt with the appropriation and administration of the money can give valuable feedback about best practices and mistakes to avoid.

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