It’s Not the Economy

For years I’ve said that the economic impact argument doesn’t work for the arts and arts advocacy.  We keep making it, but it’s not working. A comment by John Shipley on Ian David Moss’s Createquity blog brought into clear focus the reason why.  Shipley wrote:

When you make an argument on economic territory, you don’t win by proving that your activity creates economic vitality. You win by proving that your activity is the BEST way to create economic vitality. You don’t have to prove a return on the investment you propose – you have to prove a return superior to every other investment that could be made.

Yes, the arts have positive economic impact, but that positive economic impact is a byproduct of artmaking and can’t really compete with the economic impact of, say, Motorola, relocating to your town.  To paraphrase and adapt something Adam Huttler wrote about recently, the arts are in the artmaking business not the business business.  The business that artists and arts organizations do is done to make art, not the other way around. (And I obviously think the business side of the arts is important.)  We can make an advocacy argument more effectively if we, as Shipley wrote, “fight on the ground we can win.”

6/21/12 UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The arts do indeed have a significant economic impact, as evidenced in the recently released report from Americans for the Arts, Arts & Economic Prosperity IV.  The ground on which the arts can win, I think, is in the positive social impacts they make by their ability to question, illuminate, beautify, transform, and so on.  Susan Seifert and Mark Stern of the Social Impact of the Arts Project at UPenn are doing important work in this area.  Check it out.

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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9 Responses to It’s Not the Economy

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  3. Is the goal building broad support for public funding of the arts? If so, our research (see: was designed explicitly to answer this question.

    And here’s what we learned about the traditional “dollars and cents” economic impact case: “traditional economic messages end up competing with other (usually more compelling) ideas about how to bolster an economy”.

    That is, people may nod along, but when this is the primary reason we offer for public investment, we lose out as people begin to think about other sectors that they believe are a better bet for return on public investment.

    However, the broad public (and this was our target — people who go, and people who don’t think of themselves as goers) already believes that the arts create a ripple effect of benefits including vibrant, thriving places; neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Paint a picture, show an image — and the people are with us. They already get it.

    But when we try to put in terms of ROI, we are losing when we start the story there.

    We also learned that the other benefit people already believe the arts create, and which they really value, is the way the arts create a a more connected population: diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

    Unfortunately, for most people — even people who are goers and lovers of the arts — the transcendent experience, the beauty of art, and educational value are not compelling as reasons for PUBLIC support of the arts. The public sees these individual experiences as something we are all personally responsible for obtaining: “It’s fine if you want to do that, but our TAX dollars shouldn’t have to support it.”

    Toward the end of our full research report, we list a few additional ideas that failed in our testing: civic inspiration, great cities, health and science, broadening our horizons, human universal, innovation, works of beauty, art and kids. It’s a most interesting (if depressing) section of the findings.

    Of course, any of these ideas can work in an individual conversation — and may also work as a secondary proposition. But if we are looking for a big idea that has broad appeal, an idea that moves people to see the arts as matter of PUBLIC (not private) concern — then we should all be talking about and sharing images of the community benefits of vibrant, lively places and a connected population.

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  7. Blake Wilson says:

    I agree with all of your points….and I too find it somewhat disappointing to constantly hear artists talk about the value of their work in terms of the number of restaurants patronized, number of hotels booked, etc.

    At the same time, we often have to make our case to people or entities who don’t necessarily care about (or at least don’t place priority on) the more intrinsic values of the arts or the social good that comes from them. And even if those arguments really would work, we don’t often make them very effectively. For example, a counter-argument to some of those intrinsic arguments goes something like this: “What do the arts do for kids that playing on a school athletic team or being in the chess club don’t already do too?” All of those activities offer opportunities to build teamwork, confidence, self-expression, etc…

    In many ways, it seems that the best form of advocacy is the democratization of the arts and broadening the spectrum of artists, work being created, and therefore audiences. The more people who have positive artistic experiences that speak to them, the more people who will be willing to stand up to preserve them.

  8. The other issue is, if you ask for people to judge you by the numbers, then you have to live and die by the numbers. And your community will start judging you by the economics and not by your mission.

  9. Jaime Dempsey says:

    RIGHT?! Is all I can say.

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