Waxing Theoretical Part 6: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

This is the sixth and final installment in my blog series on the theories that underly arguments against — and in today’s installment for – government funding for the arts.  I look today with some skepticism at the creative industries and public value constructs and their relationship with the neoliberal philosophy that has pervaded US public policy since Reagan was elected in 1980.

In the previous installment I argued that adherence to the pro-market rationality of neoliberalism could lead to actions that work against the public interest.  Why then has the arts and culture sector appropriated the language of the marketplace to tell its story?

The new narratives: “Creative Industries” and “Public Value” —

            McGuigan (2005) asserts, “Neo-liberalism promotes the language of branding, consumer sovereignty, market reasoning and management” (p. 233). This language has pervaded the arts advocacy community as well and in doing so has shifted the focus of the arts policy discourse away from artistic excellence, innovation, and cultural heritage toward arts and culture as an economic driver.  This market language is heard in the discourse surrounding “the creative industries” and in the adoption of the “public value” framework for arts policy development at the state level and arts advocacy more generally.

Flew and Cunningham (2010) provide a useful overview of the development of the creative industry discourse and its relationship to neoliberal philosophy.  Developed in the UK and widely adopted in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and some European countries, the term creative industries is generally understood to refer to those arts, design, and entertainment fields the employ individual or group creative practice in the development of intellectual property (Flew & Cunningham, 2010).  Thus it is understood to include the traditional visual and performing arts as well as media arts (television, film, radio), architecture, and video game design.  The creative industries literature trends toward “a view of cultural sectors as contributors to wealth creation and economic performance, and not simply as claimants on public revenues on the basis of nonmarket or intrinsic values” (Flew & Cunningham, 2010 p. 113).   Freedman (2008), in his analysis of media policy, defines the ideological problem: “the neo-liberalization of media policy is designed . . . to assist the expansion of private accumulation and to undermine the legitimacy and existence of non-profit and public service media provision” (p. 224).   Flew and Cunningham do not accept Freedman’s argument that the neoliberal creative industries approach undermines the nonprofit arts sector.  Instead they advance the idea that the cultural policies that have arisen out of the creative industries discourse (in Australia) has supported the development of small-to-medium enterprises alongside large publically funded institutions that form creative networks that are “a core source of innovation in the arts, media, and culture” (p. 120).  Although research is advancing in this area in Australia, it has not yet been taken up in a significant way in the U.S.

In the U.S., the creative industries discourse has developed as the “creative cities” movement, broadly popularized by Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002).  McGuigan  (2009) likens Florida’s creative class to Bourdieu’s petite bourgeoisie of cultural intermediaries, who are necessary to the sustained economic growth of creative cities but are not themselves creative innovators.  McGuigan underlines that Florida “is not so much concerned with cultural development as with economic development” (p. 294).  Florida stresses, both in his original book and as disseminated through his consulting practices to a large roster of U.S. and international cities, that economic development is bolstered by attracting talent, technology, and tolerance.  The arts and culture sector has adapted Florida’s basic premise – that urban economic development is enhanced by having more creative people around – to drive an advocacy position that, in its simplest form, can be stated as “the arts are good for the economy.”  By advocating for “the creative class” as a means of supporting market-driven business interests and creating environments conducive to commerce, arts advocates could, and sometimes do, appeal to a neoliberal perspective that supports government intervention in creating market-friendly institutions.  The “arts as an economic driver” argument can be found in the rhetoric of national, state, and city art agencies.  The NEA, for example, in its recent “Art Works” campaign, reminds its stakeholders “that with two million full-time artists and 5.7 million arts-related jobs in this country, arts jobs are real jobs that are part of the real economy. Art workers pay taxes, and art contributes to economic growth, neighborhood revitalization, and the livability of American towns and cities” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2010).

The “public value” framework is another way in which the rhetoric of neoliberal market economics makes its way into the arts and culture discourse.  As articulated by Mark Moore (1995), it is a seemingly neoliberal approach that asserts, “society needs value-seeking imaginations…from its public sector executives no less than from its private sector managers” who “should seek to produce public value” (p. 21). In the public value framework, in language reminiscent of New Public Management gurus Osborne and Gaebler (1992), public managers lead “enterprises” with an aim “to create public value just as the aim of managerial work in the private sector is to create private value” (p. 28).  The public value approach has been described as “an approach that is principled about ends but pragmatic about means” in which “public managers can play an entrepreneurial role in discerning or imagining solutions to problems in our natural or social environment that are politically acceptable as well as administratively feasible” (Alford & Hughes, 2008, pp. 131, 134)

Moore’s work on public value was widely disseminated through and adopted by the arts advocacy and arts policy community due to an influential 2005 report, Creating Public Value through State Arts Agencies.  The report (Moore & Moore, 2005), commissioned by Arts Midwest (one of the six regional arts organizations in the U.S.) and the Wallace Foundation, provides a playbook for how state arts agencies and the advocacy groups that support them can speak about the public value created by those agencies to their full range of stakeholders from their political authorizers through individual citizen participants.  More than a mere playbook though, Moore and Moore (2005) ground the very existence of state arts agencies in a neoliberal, New Public Management framework: “On a theoretical level, thinking of the SAAs [state arts agencies] as an industry encourages one to think of individual SAAs as similar to commercial firms, allowing one to invoke some important managerial concepts from the private sector” (p. 12).  In advocating for the public value approach to arts funding, Moore and Moore cite the first two arguments addressed in this series, the scope and content arguments.  To address the third, they advise managers to create a value proposition for arts agencies that can survive in the marketplace, a marketplace of voluntary actions.  For SAAs to survive, Moore and Moore remind managers, they must address the authorizing environment, including the governor and state legislature and their staffs to compete in the market.  The market in which the SAAs compete is the market for public state monies.


Moore and Moore (2005) argue that the legitimacy of state arts agencies results from their authorizing legislation and the concomitant degree to which agencies meet the missions outlined therein: “elected representatives of the citizens, acting through the process of democratic governance, established a state agency for the arts with particular missions” (p. 22).   The authorizing legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts speaks to the public purpose of that agency saying “it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging to freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent” (U.S. Congress, 2010/1965).  Thus, legitimacy is presumed, even if funding is not.  As these legitimate agencies of government have advocated for the funding needed to meet their missions, they have employed the rhetorical frameworks of the arguments used in opposition to their legitimacy.  This “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” approach is a pragmatic one in the sense that the arts sector response is developed situationally.   The art as a public good argument arises out of economic liberalism and the public value argument develops in a neoliberal environment.  It is harder to articulate an argument from the moral absolutism of the neoconservatives, but the internal contradictions of that movement, including the conflict between pragmatic and radical neoconservatives, have served to temper its potency.  The constitution itself, and in particular its formulations of the rights of free speech and assembly, continue to protect artistic expression, if not arts funding.

This new pragmatism in the public arts sector is not without its critics: “Conservatives and progressives can find common ground in attacks on the presumed elitism of the world of art and culture. To the degree that this pragmatism reigns supreme, art and culture will be left with little legitimacy other than what is socially, politically, and even economically expedient” (Yudice, 1999 p. 18).  While expediency may not be a righteous goal, social, political, and economic impact certainly is.  A small effort, led by the advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, is growing the capacity of organizations to measure the hardest of these to evaluate, the social impact of the arts.  Because we measure that which we care about, perhaps the arts advocacy community can frame their next set of arguments proactively around the ways in which the social impact of the arts animates democracy.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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