Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

Uncaging The Ticket Office Staff

Ken Davenport made a post last month about the way the New York City subway system is shifting their practice. Since more subway riders are able to pay for rides with their credit cards and even have refillable Metro cards sent to their homes, there is less need for the booth attendants.

But, NYC has been slow to adopt any changes unlike other cities around the country.

Starting to sound familiar? Labor intensive? Slow to change? Tickets that can be received at home, or from a “machine.”

However, the booth attendants aren’t necessarily losing their jobs.

In the subway case, they are talking about allowing station agents to help passengers off the train, providing service to the riders looking as they stand on the tracks, etc. They are talking about getting them out of the glass box and interacting directly with our consumers.

Why? Because riders polled LIKE having the station agents. And I bet our ticket buyers LIKE having our box office attendees as well.

As we become more and more cashless, and as we become more print-at-home, maybe an idea is to allow our box office personnel to become even more of an integral part of our promotion and advertising team (they are the few folks that actually talk to our customers). Maybe we just get them out from behind those glass walls that, frankly, are so antithetical to any sales process (ever been to an Apple store? It’s no coincidence that their salespeople walk the stores, conducting transactions from a phone that fits in their pocket).

Davenport draws the line between the station attendant and the ticket office staff which has always been regarded as the first point of contact 95% of people have with an arts and cultural organization.

About two years ago I made a similar post about using technology to unmoor the ticket office from a permanent physical location in a lobby. (Check it out, there were some good comments.) Davenport takes the next step astutely noting that the function of physically transferring tickets to someone is becoming less necessary whereas personal contact with visitors is just as, if not more, important.

Personally, knowing the subway station attendant would be getting out of those booths makes me relieved on their behalf. Ever since I was a kid (this is back to when “Y” tokens were used) those booths made me feel anxious because the attendants looked like they were imprisoned in the claustrophobic cubes while everyone else was free to travel about.

Since it has been pretty apparent in a number of places I have worked that the ticket office was the last space an architect designed, this is probably an experience shared by a lot of ticketing staff.

Getting the staff out among the visitors may bring a constructive psychological and perceptual change to the whole relationship.

But Will A Framed Canvas Fit Through The Book Return Slot?

Thanks to a partnership between the Akron Art Museum and the Akron-Summit County Public Library, not only can you get a book to place on the nightstand beside your bed, you can also get a painting to hang over your bed.

According to a recent article, the museum is creating the Akron Art Library in the Akron-Summit County Public Library Main Library. Patrons can view the art and then use their library card to borrow a work for four weeks and renew it up to five times if no one else places a request for it.

“We want to show we can trust the public with works of art,” said Art Museum Director of Education Alison Caplan. “We want people to have that moment of ‘are you sure we can take this out?'”

Even so, the fine for not returning a borrowed piece is $500 and late fees run 50 cents per day, she said.

All the art available to borrow — paintings, drawings, photos and other two-dimensional work — is created by professional Northeast Ohio artists, many of whom have been featured at the museum.

“We tried to highlight artists that came from Akron and the region and have gone on to do great things,” Caplan said. “It’s a really good mix.”

If this sounds somewhat familiar to you, it might be because four years ago I wrote about how Oberlin College has been lending out priceless works by Dali, Picasso, Chagall, etc to their students since the 1940s.

Oberlin says they haven’t had anything damaged or stolen in all that time so the risk of allowing people to take art works home with them might not be as great as you might imagine. The museum’s focus on circulating works by regional artists can help cultivate an awareness and appreciation that there are well regarded creative people perusing produce at the supermarket and laughing too loudly behind them in the movie theater.

Not to mention the Art Library program reinforces the idea that your home is an appropriate place for art that appears in a museum and that access to such work is within your reach.

I wonder if they have/will start a children’s section so kids can follow the example of their parents and check out something to hang on their walls as well.

Artists Are The Only Asset Found In Every Community

The video of ArtPlace America’s CEO Jamie Bennett’s keynote at an Invest Health convening came across my feed recently.  What I found valuable in his speech was that he laid out an argument for the value of the arts that didn’t pivot to economic statistics.

Around the 6:50 mark he starts to talk about the factors that influence those who move into a community in making the decision to stay: social offerings; openness to new ideas and people; and aesthetics.  He says arts and culture bring all those things and helps people feel rooted in a community.

His definition of art and culture is inline with that expanded definition embraced by everyone from the National Endowment for the Arts and respondents to the recent Culture Track survey. It is the parks and food trucks as well as the opera houses.

He talks about arts and culture as a facilitator of social cohesion citing the observations of drumming circles and informal arts by an anthropologist working at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Bennett said that the anthropologist found that the act of “…art making, doing and experiencing art together, acts as a master identity.”

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded.   Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

The a-ha moment for me came around 9:15 when Bennett mentions that artists are the only asset that exists in any community. Not every community has a waterfront to develop, transportation infrastructure or an anchor institution (i.e. higher ed, medical) around which to build industry.  You can count on those who practice and participate in the arts being in your community. With some investment, those people/groups can form the basis around which community cohesion can be cultivated.

He talks about the process of Creative Placemaking as something that has to be particular to each community -“resident centric, locally informed and holistic.” You can’t copy what works somewhere else and expect it to work in your community.

While the local arts community is well-placed to respond to the needs of their community, the challenge to them is to shift their perspective to focus on creating solutions for challenges in their geographic community rather than thinking about responding to their community of donors, subscribers and peer institutions.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Springboard for the Arts in helping to mobilize 600 artists to help mitigate the negative impacts of two years of light rail construction on residents and businesses in St. Paul, MN.

Bennett says the success of this project ran contrary to many of the assumptions and expectations people have. He points out the solution came from artists who already lived in the community. No one was brought in from outside to help save the neighborhood. All the positive associations about arts and culture the project inspired didn’t require the construction of an arts center, nor was it dependent on a physical arts oriented facility or cultural district. The focus was on the human beings involved.

His comment that really intrigued me and I hope is true, is that many of the businesses in the area who benefited from the 150 events the 600 artists created have started diverting promotional money to commissioning work because they saw the events brought in more business than advertising did.

Bennett’s thought process might not immediately satisfy a government official or policy maker that wants the promise of quantifiable results. However, there is something compelling in the argument that the arts and culture community is an already present asset that can be mobilized to effect.  If they are soliciting support employing this rationale it will be incumbent upon many arts and cultural entities to start focusing on addressing the challenges in their region rather than doing more what they have done in the past.

 

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