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The Apprenticeship Option

Recently Marginal Revolution blogger and economist Alex Tabbarok linked to an article he wrote a year ago suggesting that the United States would be well served by adding a focus on putting students into technical apprenticeships to the current push to get kids into college.

He starts out by applauding the now familiar push by governors in many states to provide incentives to students pursuing STEM fields over Liberal Arts. “We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees.”

I particularly oriented in on the part of the article where he notes,

“In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.”

Wow, that is pretty great, huh? But he goes on,

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

I initially felt a little indignant at the idea that graduates in the arts aren’t spurring innovation. But then I started wondering if the arts sector needs to take a little responsibility for this. It seems this might be a result of a lack of training and good public relations.

There is an on going conservation about training arts students to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their work so there is already an acknowledgment that this is an area to be improved. Perhaps part of that training should emphasize not undervaluing your work so that people don’t undervalue the work that artists do.

In terms of public relations, I think there is a lack of circulation of stories about successful creatives like those I recently cited about the winners of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition (one with a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese Lit., the other with a BA in Aerospace Engineering) and the Rotman School of Management’s design competition.

The main thrust of Tabbarok’s argument isn’t so much to diminish the liberal arts degree as to advocate for apprenticeships. He notes that some people are simply not suited for college but vocational education programs have a stigma of being the dumping ground for high risk kids. He points to the model of Germany (among other European countries) where students normally opt for technical training and apprenticeships that provide real world work experience while the students are in high school.

What appealed to me about this was the idea that if there is room in the day for a high school student to receive vocational training, then you have to allow that there is time in the day for arts classes.

But I am not suggesting that some kids be allowed to paint while the other kids go learn to weld. I think high school vocational training should seek to provide opportunities for students to train and apprentice at local arts organizations as well. Who says you can’t take some of your welding classes in a scene shop or art studio or that you have to do your apprenticeship in a shipyard?

Apprenticeship programs like this could strengthen ties between schools and arts organizations and reinforce the idea that vocational skills don’t have to be applied in purely practical ways.

On the other side of the coin, I have a vague recollection of reading an article that suggested many visual artists today don’t have a good understanding of the materials they use because they haven’t had a lengthy exposure working/playing with them. Even if my recollection isn’t correct, the opportunity to work with materials still exists.

The reality is, four years of college isn’t the entire key to becoming an artist either.

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Americans Need A Cultural Stipend?

Via Marginal Revolution, we learn Brazil’s Congress has approved a monthly Cultural Stipend for poorer workers.

“Now we are creating food for the soul; Why would the poor not be able to access culture?” the minister said.

Suplicy said the new incentive, approved by Congress and endorsed by Rousseff late last month, is expected to be introduced some time this year. “The money will be put in the hands of the worker who will decide how to spend it, by going to the movies, to the theater, to an exhibition or the museum,” she explained.

Other possible uses include purchases of books, music or DVDs.

Employers will cover 90 percent of the cost of the stipend but can then deduct the amount from their income tax. Workers will pay the remaining 10 percent, but can opt out if they choose to do so.

The first time I read about it, I thought it was a government funded program and might be hard to implement on a national level in the U.S.

However, since it is largely employer funded, the plan could actually work quite well in the U.S. since it allows the businesses to write it off their taxes much like companies and individuals can write off charitable donations in the U.S. I am not sure the government would have to create any new laws to make it possible. Though their encouragement would certainly help. The arts community could just make a big push for companies to declare their participation.

I imagine it would be great publicity for companies since they could collect testimonials from employees about the enjoyment they derived from books, music, performances and museum attendance thanks to their employers’ involvement.

Since employees have to contribute a little bit toward putting money on their culture cards, it gets potential audiences in the habit of paying to participate but doesn’t place the entire burden on them.

Granted, audiences may not end up using the money to purchase experiences at non-profit arts organizations. This won’t absolve arts organizations from the responsibility of making their offerings relevant and interesting. But along the lines of my letter to the president post, it starts to institutionalize the idea that all citizens should participate in cultural experiences.

When I did think this was a government program and was trying to devise a way to adapt it to the U.S., I thought about the dividend Alaska pays to its citizens from the oil proceeds. With that in mind, I was going to propose NY State use some of the tax money it collects from its great native resources- Broadway and Wall Street- to offer these cards to all citizens of NY. The population of the state has been dwindling so I thought it would be a great way to reward those who stayed and hopefully stimulate arts organizations in other parts of the state.

I suspect much of it would find its way back to Broadway. Though parts of Rochester NY are one of America’s Top 44 ArtPlaces so I wouldn’t count other parts of the state out.

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Yes Virgina, There Is A Cost Disease

Over on the Marginal Revolution blog, Tyler Cowen opines that the arts are not impacted by Baumol’s cost disease.

2. I do not see the arts as subject to the cost disease very much at all. As for the “live performing arts,” the disease seems to afflict the older and less innovative sectors, such as opera and the symphony. There is plenty of live music these days, it is offered in innovative ways, and much of it is free.

I was a little confused by this point since all it really proves is that people aren’t charging for live music and doesn’t really address that there are costs involved with the performance.

Admittedly, he does seem to imply that innovation in the way the artistic product is offered makes all the difference. Back in June, I noted that Jon Silpayamanant made the point that there are alternative ways to make money when offering an experience.

Cowen goes on to say, (my emphasis)

“4. In many sectors of the arts, especially music, consumers demand constant turnover of product. Old music becomes “obsolete” — for whatever sociological reasons — and in this sense the sector is creating lots of new value every year. From an “objectivist” point of view they are still strumming guitars with the same speed, but from a subjectivist point of view — the relevant one for the economist – they are remarkably innovative all the time in the battle against obsolescence. A lot of the cost disease argument is actually an aesthetic objection that the art forms which have already peaked — such as Mozart — sometimes have a hard time holding their ground in terms of cost and innovation.”

I will grant him that some of the cost disease problems can be attributed to an adherence to aesthetic ideals rooted in the past and a resistance to innovation.

But I am not sure if consumers are truly demanding a constant turnover in product. There is reluctance to sample anything new and unfamiliar among consumers. This isn’t necessarily confined to symphony and opera where you might argue the new material is being presented to the wrong audiences (i.e. older existing audiences whose tastes are already set).

There is as much a sense of risk aversion among audience as among content creators. Broadway shows are often revivals or derivative of works that have already proven their success. Playwrights bemoan the fact that regardless of their proximity to Broadway, few theatres are producing new works.

The same is true with movies. The most well attended movies this summer were based on comic books. Even the plots of those stories had been revamped numerous times in the comics format. The plan for the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit went from two movies to three leaving fans to wonder, if the three books of the Lord of the Rings took three movies to tell, (albeit with much left out), how is the one book of The Hobbit going to be stretched to three?

A fair bit of emotion and nostalgia is responsible for perpetuating the conditions which contribute to Baumol’s cost disease. One of the points Cowen makes reinforces this:

“Live music” may seem like it doesn’t change much, but lifting the embargo on Cuba would boost the quantity and quality of my consumption of spectacular concert experiences, as would a non-stop flight to Haiti.

Opportunity rather than innovation is the only thing having any bearing on the quantity and quality of his consumption. It isn’t necessary for Cuban musicians to made any changes whatsoever since 1962 when the embargo began, they just need to be available.

There is an element of his aforementioned “aesthetic objection that the art forms…have already peaked” in this point as well. It is difficult to take an entirely objective view of a product or service possessing an artistic element.

If quality of product could be maintained by paring down performers and replacing them with technology, The White Stripes would have been a model everyone emulated. As interesting as the band’s work might have been, there wasn’t a rush to form duo performance groups.

It may be a difficult to define Platonic ideal, but there is a minimum one can offer before the perception of the experience suffers. Ultimately, because it is his area of expertise, I might find myself having to concede Cowen’s point in the face of a more detailed argument. But I think given that the resources necessary to provide the central experience remain generally constant, Baumol’s cost disease does indeed impact the arts significantly.

As for the solution, at this point I keep coming back to Jon Silpayamanant’s idea that ancillary elements surrounding the experience need to be developed in order to support it.

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iPad Will Make Your Performance…Forgettable

One option for preserving the performing arts is often mentioned is a greater use of multi-media either in a performance or as a medium to transmit the performance. However, reading an article on Time magazine’s website (h/t Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution) about how it is more difficult to remember things you read in electronic format versus paper format, I wondered if moving to electronic media might be a disservice to the arts.

Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.

“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.”

The thought is that spatial context is very valuable in helping us to remember things. We recall where places are physically located based on landmarks. Though it may seem hard to believe it can be that significant a factor, we are better able remember information because we have a sense of where it appeared on a page. E-books don’t have that sort of physical context.

In addition, apparently size matters as well.

“He says that studies show that smaller screens also make material less memorable. “The bigger the screen, the more people can remember and the smaller, the less they can remember,” he says. “The most dramatic example is reading from mobile phones. [You] lose almost all context.”

Based on these findings I wondered if the arts might actually seem less relevant if digital media was the only way to access it. While a performance obviously loses its impact when it is not seen live, it may quite literally be less memorable when viewed on a smaller screen as well.

I would be interested to learn if there are studies comparing the experiences of people who watched a movie in a theatre vs. on a television vs. a small screen. (I am sure movies watched on airplane seatback screens will be memorable or forgettable due to myriad factors other than screen size 😉 )

Will movies seen on a very small screen be less memorable because the distances between people and things are so compacted? Desperate lunges to save someone may make less of an impression when reduced to fractions of an inch. Panoramic shots of gorgeous landscapes may pass by unnoticed in small scale.

Digital media may increase your reach by giving you access to a larger distribution channel, but if the scale makes it difficult to distinguish your product from thousands of others, you may have to question its worth.

You may basically be in the position you are now with YouTube where everyone posts something in the hopes it goes viral. I am sure YouTube won’t always be the standard, but if you can use it to test things now. Watch a video on the largest computer screen you can find and then watch the same one on a cell phone screen and judge the effectiveness. Better yet, watch the smaller version first and then watch the larger and see how much you may have missed just in terms of emotional expression.

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