What is the “Arts and Culture Sector?”

On the plane to Chicago for the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) annual conference, I was working on my presentation for another conference, AIMAC (International Association of Arts and Culture Management). This paper, “Means and Ends: A Theory Framework for Understanding the US Arts and Culture Sector,” includes an operational definition of “arts and culture sector” as context for the discussion of arts entrepreneurship. I though about this definition over and over again during the first day of the AFTA conference as the issue of sector boundaries arose again and again in different ways.

First, at a meeting of arts researchers at which we were asked to develop a “wish list” for arts research, a colleague commented on the need for a standardization or defining of the sector so that we wouldn’t be “always talking about apples and oranges.” Then, Bob Lynch unveiled AFTA’s newest advocacy video in which a young adult asks, “What is art, anyway?” before reading a dictionary definition that focused on human expression and creativity. Then, during a brief Q&A with Theaster Gates following his keynote speech, the moderator quoted Stephen Colbert who, during his interview of Gates on The Colbert Report, said “You are turning things into art that I used to not have to think about.” So art is expressive and creative, and makes us think in new ways. Good, but is it enough to define an entire sector of human endeavor? I share below an excerpt from my paper that uses three characteristics to define “arts and culture sector.” Not being a philosopher, I hesitate to take on the bigger question of “what is art?” but for research purposes think a sectoral definition useful. In a more academic tone, the short version of this follows. Feedback is welcome, as always.

Chicago Panorama by Danimir

Chicago Panorama by Danimir

            In Europe and the Commonwealth countries the “creative industries” are more widely understood than in the US. For the purposes of this paper, however, “arts and culture sector” is not a set of industry codes, as might be the case in defining “creative industries,” but rather considered to be that sector of economic and social activity that places artistic production at its center and from which culture results. This sector has three primary characteristics.
Products of the arts and culture sector convey symbolic meaning, have a use value first in the communication of ideas and only secondarily in their functional capacity (see Bilton & Leary 2004, and Martin 2004), and may be produced by industrial or artisan means. However, Caves (2000) notes that regardless of the method of production, the products of the sector are differentiated by what he calls the “infinite variety property (2000, p. 6). Thus, the arts and culture sector is distinguished by the uniqueness of its products from the larger “creative economy” defined by Howkins (Howkins, 2002) as inclusive of the copyright, patent, trademark, and design industries. Another important distinction is made by Williams (1981) “between the corporate ownership of the means of cultural production associated with the development of mass reproductive technologies, and the survival of older artisanal methods of production, typically the non-market area of cultural production supported by public subsidy” (in Galloway and Dunlop 2007, p. 24). The control of the means of production by the artist and/or artistic producer is a method for arts and culture entrepreneurs to convert available means into desirable ends. Thus, for the purposes of this research and its conceptualization of arts entrepreneurship, the arts and culture sector is understood to produce outputs that are unique, have symbolic meaning, and the production of which is controlled, at least in part, by those who generate the creative ideas at its foundation.

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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5 Responses to What is the “Arts and Culture Sector?”

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  3. For me, the powerful part of your definition is the way core creative is anchored at the center. It reminds me of the How Art Works map and my own redesigns of the visual representations of cultural policy theories into concentric circles. When the tight definition is at the center, it’s easier to imagine the lines blurring as cultural production turns into creative industries and then entertainment and so on. I’m also a big fan of the ‘ecosystem’ language and biological metaphors that have been adopted over the years. I’d rather think of cultural value rooted at the center like a healthy old tree that connects to a mutually dependent ecosystem to produce the new little art acorns. Don’t get me going on weather patterns 😉

  4. Ximena says:

    Great piece, Linda. What I still struggle with is where the humanities, and to a greater extent other (non arts) organizations (in particular museums- science, natural history, zoos, aquariums) fit into this. They are implicitly part of what we talk about when we talk about the arts and culture sector, but are organized out by definition. I like the European definitions better, yes, but the term I prefer is the “culture and heritage” sector, as it seems to encompass all of these types of work.

    • lindaessig says:

      Ximena – thanks. Yes this definition does leave out some areas of cultural activity. I’m trying to circle around (and eventually land on) a definition that provides context for the entrepreneurial activity I’m observing. “Zoo entrepreneurship” may be the same or different from “arts entrepreneurship” but is definitely beyond the scope of my research. I’m very conflicted about the whole concept of definitions – while I have a “big tent” definition I work with of arts entrepreneurship itself, I also feel like there needs to be limits to the scope of inquiry.
      The nice thing about floating these ideas on a blog (rather than waiting for peer-reviewed publication) is that the work can be iterated in almost real time. THANK YOU for your feedback!

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