Even Faced With Challenges, People Choose To Fund The Arts

On Americans for the Arts blog, Megan Van Voorhis writes about how voters in Genesee County Michigan approved a millage to support arts and cultural institutions in their county.

What’s particularly noteworthy about voters approving this property tax is that Genesee County’s seat is Flint, MI.

When the topic if government support of the arts is discussed, the question often arises how you can justify support for arts and culture when there are so many other problems to be addressed. Flint, MI has been known for the social and economic challenges it faces in addition to some significant problems with the municipal drinking water supply.

Yet, voters saw some value in supporting a millage proposal that would enhance the arts and cultural environment in their county. Why is that?

Of the three millage proposals that were approved in early August, the arts and culture one passed with the smallest margin of about 3380 more Yeses than Nos. A pretty respectable margin.

Van Voorhis, who grew up in Flint, expresses confidence that the residents of Genesee County will find their quality of life improves as the financial support of the arts and cultural organizations continues over the next decade. She cites a study showing a similar effect in Cleveland when they passed taxes in support for arts an culture.

One of the insights and suggestions she pulls out of the Cleveland study will be familiar to those of you who have been reading my posts on Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture.

Insight #1: Long lasting change involves shifting the way people think
[…]

Try this
Work backwards. Go talk to the people you’re trying to influence and ask them what they care about. What are their biggest challenges? What changes are they trying to effect? Ask them if there are particular ways arts and culture could be helpful to them (or if they’ve even considered arts and culture as part of the equation). All of this information better positions you to illustrate how arts and culture can be woven into and make a difference in those things they care about. Ultimately, you’ll be better positioned to articulate exactly how investment in arts and culture will yield concrete benefits from an angle they already understand.

Creating Connection emphasizes that lasting change requires changing the way people think and that the effort to shift the thinking requires effort over the long term.

Note that Van Voorhis’ suggested approach starts with focusing on the community first rather than the organization. Consider and address their challenges first.

Earlier when I asked why it was that people voted for the millage proposal, what I suspect is the answer is that arts and culture connects with a deep need people have. That need transcends specific arts organizations so it is incumbent upon arts organizations to pay attention to serving that need.

There are more things from the study that she cites and what she cites is only a small segment of the whole study so if you are interested in making a similar case in your community, it may be worth taking a look.

I’ll Settle For Arts Education Helping People Recognize Their Creative Capacity

I am in the process of moving so I am shifting in to “throwback” mode for a week or so.

I thought I would look back at a post I made about one of Ian David Moss’ contributions of a blog salon.

In his contribution Moss wrote took the view that arts education put children on the track to careers that the socioeconomic environment couldn’t support. (my emphasis)

Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?

In my post at the time, I disagreed with the view writing,

Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated.

In a comment on my post, Scott Walters wrote,

Your analogy to Little League sports is a good one. Sure, some of the participants dream of being professional football players, but most simply enjoy playing and the experiences they have with friends. For some reason, artists don’t recognize that this is the case for the arts as well. There are other reasons to do it than going pro — reasons that are just as fulfilling (I’d venture to say, in the current arts climate, oftentimes MORE fulfilling)… what an arts education promotes is a rich life that includes the possibility of creative expression as an end in itself, not a means to an end. This was the message of the “Gifts of the Muse” report, for instance: the INTRINSIC value of the arts. Lets not get lost in arts education as existing solely for the creation of professional artists or the creation of paying audience members. There is a more active and vibrant alternative to those roads.

In the intervening years, as I have begun to really think about the intrinsic value of art vs. the instrumental value, I have grown to appreciate Scott’s comments all the more.  Reading this old post, I feel like this might have been a formative moment when I started thinking about arts education and making people aware of their capacity for creativity.

However, there is a lot of validity in Moss’ argument that universities and conservatories are taking the money of a lot of people with mediocre ability and preparing them for a traditional career path in the arts. This problem has been recognized for quite awhile now.

But also note my intentional use of “traditional career path” because there are an ever broadening array of ways in which creative abilities can be applied. Training programs aren’t doing the best job of preparing students to pursue those options.

I Don’t Know What You Need To Know Because I Know So Much

This summer I have been seeing a lot of California Symphony Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer popping up in places like videos of conference talks she has been giving. It has been over a year and a half since I wrote about her Orchestra X project so I figured it was time to revisit and reacquaint people with the work she has been doing.

Recently she had a blog post following up on the conversations her organization has been having with the communities they serve. She mentions a theme I keep seeing in formal survey results and collected anecdotes — audiences aren’t clamoring for a change in programming as much as they are intimidated and confused by the decision and experience of attending a cultural event.

The bigger issue, she says, is that those of us on the inside forget what it was like being entirely unfamiliar with information or an experience. Even when we are faced with a new-ish experience, our past experiences allow us to make logical leaps that total novices can’t.

What we learned was that a “basic” level of understanding about the symphony or classical music does not exist among newcomers. Some people didn’t even know the names of the instruments in the orchestra, which to me, the person who had played an instrument all growing up and who wanted to manage a symphony since age 16, was pretty much unfathomable (remember hindsight bias?). The good news, we discovered, was that this group of smart people desperately wanted to learn about everything related to classical music though. And through the discussion we learned that the way we layout and present information on our website made it very difficult for them to do that.

[…]

Virtually every person in the room expressed the sentiment of “awe” when describing the art they saw and heard. No one said, “I need a shorter concert,” or “I need to hear more movie music.” They very much wanted to learn about all facets of the repertoire and were emphatic that the art is incomparable.

Bergauer says that now that California Symphony stopped stressing about programming mix and started focusing on retention versus new audience acquisition. Last season, their new attendee retention rate was over 30%.

Take a closer look at the post. She talks a little more about how rich experiences make us unable to anticipate what new attendees really need to know in order to enjoy themselves.

Create, Re-Create, Recreate

I was reading a piece in CityLab about Repair Cafes which strike me as a good complement to MakerSpaces and creative activities that arts and cultural entities may host.   The concept was started in Amsterdam by Martine Postma who was disturbed by how much repairable equipment was sitting at the curb on trash day.  She sells start up kits that allow you to use the Repair Cafe logo and puts you in touch with the other Repair Cafe’s around the world.

But beyond reducing what is sent to the landfill, personal empowerment plays a large role in the Repair Cafe concept:

What she’s discovered was that it wasn’t that people liked throwing away old stuff. “Often when they don’t know how to repair something, they replace it, but they keep the old one in the cupboard—out of guilt,” she said. “Then at a certain moment, the cupboard is full and you decide this has been lying around [long enough].”

[…]

For the time being, communities are doing what they can to encourage people to fix things. Libraries like the one in Howard County, for example, have started renting out tools and creating “makerspaces” where members learn to both repair and create. Elsewhere, cities have hosted MakerLabs, FabLabs—short for fabrication lab—and Innovation Labs for both adults and children. Bike shops and nonprofits alike have fished scrapped vehicles from the landfill to repair and donate to the underserved community.

The social and personalized elements of the Repair Cafes, makerspaces, etc may be part of the value and appeal. After all, you can watch a YouTube how-to video to fix something that breaks. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to effect the repairs, having someone available to teach you the skills to do so in the process of fixing your stuff might motivate you to act. This despite the fact it is more trouble to haul your broken equipment somewhere versus tossing it in the trash.

It is also easier to toss stuff away rather than hauling it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but people donate goods to non-profits all the time because they know it is better not to let things go to waste.

Just as recognizing your capacity to be creative is empowering,  learning to fix items can instill a degree of pride and self-satisfaction which is why I feel it is such a close companion effort to creative activities.