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.