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.)

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.


If Your 990 Were Being Interviewed, What Would It Say?

If you are gearing up for Giving Tuesday and getting all sorts of great promotional materials out in circulation, you may want to consider what potential donors might see when they start to investigate your organization to see if you are worthy.

I had a post that appeared on ArtsHacker today based on a helpful Non-Profit Quarterly article that charts out what sort of information is communicated in each section of your 990 filing.  Obviously, there is nothing you can do between now and Giving Tuesday to change the impression people infer from your 990 filing. Presumably your solicitation strategy extends beyond the next couple weeks meaning there is still an opportunity to affect the information people receive in the future.

The ArtsHacker post that appeared today also drew on some other pieces I wrote. One about the potential for lawsuits by beneficiaries, marginalized board members, donors who use the increasingly easy access to 990 filings as the basis for a claim.  Another dealt with the IRS’ increased scrutiny on good governance and whether an 990 indicated appropriate policies were in place.

As I also point out the 990 doesn’t need to be a major source of worry. The form provides a section for supplementary materials.

“… where you can attach additional information you think is pertinent. This may be a discussion of changes in operational and philosophical direction that resulted in an atypical shift in your finances. This is also an opportunity to mention any points of pride or information of interest to make a case for your worthiness to those who may be perusing your 990 filing to learn more about your organization.



Portland Vs. The Overhead Ratio Beast

You may remember that back in 2012 voters in Portland, OR approved a $35 flat tax to benefit arts education in schools. The tax has survived a number of legal challenges, but according to a piece on Artsy, may fall prey to the dreaded overhead cost beast.

Even with the tax’s successes in schools, accounting concerns remain. The cost of administering the tax has risen above the allowed limits, while returns still have yet to reach the expected $12 million annually estimated at the time of passage.

In a memo to the city council last week published by the Portland Mercury, Thomas Lannom, Portland’s revenue division director, detailed some of the challenges—namely, that 7.7% of the total funds raised over five years has gone to administrative expenses related to collecting the tax….

Under the existing law, only 5% of the total raised by the tax should go to administering it. Think of it this way: Since the art tax began in 2013, the city has spent $3.69 million to collect a total of $47.99 million. Under the official cost cap, the city should have spent, at most, $2.4 million.


…. 7.7% of the total funds raised over five years has gone to administrative expenses related to collecting the tax. Averaged over the last three years, that figure is an even higher 8.9%.

Much of the overhead costs are due to the fact that residents are mailed a tax notice which they must pay separately from federal and state tax. If they don’t pay, the city staff has to take follow up actions and assess penalties.

The process is partly to blame for relatively low compliance with the arts tax. Original estimates predicted that 85% of Portlanders would fork over the funds. But only 73% of residents on average paid in the first three years of the art tax.

While a city government isn’t a non-profit organization, imposing a 5% overhead cap on the program feels just as much an unrealistic expectation as those imposed on non-profits. In the Portland Mercury article, the revenue division director says as much and mentions the 5% cap polled well. What I had hoped the article would mention is the overhead cost typically involved with collecting other taxes in the city.

The other taxes Portland collects are business and occupancy related. People are more habituated to paying these taxes so if those collection costs hovered around 4%-5%, you know it isn’t practical to assume a once a year tax assessed on individuals would have comparable expense levels.

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