Can the Arts Survive the Economic Crisis?

I’ve read many articles lately on arts funding during this severe economic downturn.  Some are awfully pessimistic; others offer hope.  But none have come straight at the issue that is at the heart of all fundraising success, and which is especially important for the survival of the arts in this crisis economy.

It’s case.  Even in the best of times, arts organizations have a difficult time articulating a competitive case.  The arts are passionate, personal, and intensely human, but the pitch for selling the arts is too often clinical and businesslike, measured as the role of arts organizations in furthering other local businesses like restaurants, dress shops, taxis and hairdressers.  I don’t want to get bogged down on the issue of whether anyone actually gets their hair done before going to the theatre these days (or buys a dress, for that matter.)  But, don’t the arts merit more than an evaluation of their worth based on the surrounding local enterprises they prop up?  Can’t the arts exist for their own sake?

I’m especially interested in this because I spent my years at university in the sub-sub basement of the main administrative building on campus.  In a small but wonderful 240-seat theatre, I performed in and directed shows and (god help the audience) wrote my first production.  For four years, I hardly saw the light of day.  After college, I worked for many exciting arts organizations, writing sales and marketing copy that reveled in the wonder that was the arts…that is until it got watered down, reigned in, and stripped of all its passion during the editing process.

I worked in the arts for many years struggling to find a balance between my natural desire to express what the arts meant to me and others’ views that the arts needed to be measured on a scale of community benefit and profitability.  I never was able to persuade those who controlled the end product that my exuberant interpretation would sell.  Eventually, I moved on to work in other not-for-profit sectors.

One day, while driving from one meeting to another, I was passing the time by listening to a radio interview.  A seasoned broadcaster of the “I’ve-seen-everything-and-you-can’t-surprise-me” variety, was interviewing a doctor who had spent his entire career in China, providing medical care in third-world conditions to too many patients for too little pay.  Once a year, he came home for a month, ostensibly for some rest, but actually to raise money and coerce equipment, drugs and supplies.

The doctor was so articulate, and his story so moving, that he melted the heart of the crusty interviewer.  At a break in the conversation, the interviewer admitted, “I am humbled to hear about how you live your life and what you accomplish.  You have done so much for so many people and, well, I just interview people on the radio.”

“No, you have it wrong,” the doctor quickly interjected.  “My job is to save lives; your job, working here in the arts, is to make those lives worth saving.  We are both equally important.”

I had to pull my car over to the side of the road.  This was the sentiment that I could not express before.  This was the case for the arts.

The case for the arts exists on its own merit.  It is not apologetic; it does not take a second place to healthcare or human services or education.  The arts are as vital to life as breathing, food, shelter and health.  If you work in development in the arts, please give yourself the right to break out, the commitment to not compromise, and the inspiration to capture the essence of what the playwright, the composer, the choreographer, the painter and the author are trying to  communicate about the human condition.

What the arts can offer now, in a world full of anxiety and trouble, is even more vital.

Showing 17 comments
  • Gerald Spencer

    Arts are less important than foor & shelter. Art is less important than security (Army & Police). Art is less important that the balance of trade that affects our value of our dollars. Art is less important than manufacturing products for export that will improve our balance of trade position. The Arts must take a back seat to necessities.

    The only thing that will save the US Economy is re-building of our gold reserves to preserve the buying power of the dollar. The only way to do this is to export more that we import. The only way that we can accomplish this is to re-industrialize. In the last few decades we have destroyed the industrial base that won WWII and gave us today’s bountiful way of life. Paying people to plant trees, dig holes then refill the same holes, rake leaves, write poems, paint pictures, etc. will not be useful or contribute to correcting the US economic problem.

  • A.

    Dear Ms. Burk,
    You have just made my day. As a fundraiser for many years but recently for an artistic organization, I have been “blocked” in trying to build a case during the economic downturn. It has been so frustrating but you have helped restore my faith in my cause. Thank you!

  • anon

    Mr. Spencer,

    I would hope that you recognize that arts are capable of inspiring and educating society towards a lessened need for army and police. Indeed, without imagination we will have to settle for your dark vision of a military-industrial state.

    Further, most donors are not making a choice between supporting food/shelter vs. supporting the arts. We are talking here about the best way to communicate with those already inclined to consider supporting the arts.

  • Milena Thomas

    I do think many donors are deciding between food/shelter and the arts. I can’t imagine that during times like this when basic needs are increasing that anyone who is considering charitable donations of any kind wouldn’t think twice about donations to the arts, and instead funnel their money elsewhere.

    To the point of the importance of the arts – it would be interesting to explore the concept of hedonic pricing in relation to the arts. It is a much-neglected area of economics, and one that I intend to focus on in my future work as an economist.

    There is already a model whereby we add additional ecological value to an item’s intrinsic value to account for the surrounding environment. For example, a home built near a preserved eco-system should theoretically win a higher market value than one which is situated near a deteriorating one.

    Similarly, cities with thriving arts should theoretically gain additional value.

  • Chandler Branch

    Thanks very much for this post, Penelope. In my work as an arts administrator, I’ve tried as well to put the emphasis where it can do the most good – the case for its value to humans as spiritual, emotional and aesthetic beings.

    Very interesting to read this trail of comments.

  • Catherine Collins

    The arts will survive because people are driven to express themselves regardless of the financial payoff. Artists make art because they have to make it…it’s like eating or breathing. There may be less art in an economic crisis or there may be more. It may be harder for the public to see it. The challenge is for the places that present the art. We have always struggled because we are expected to talk about inputs, deliverables, outputs and outcomes…as if we are making widgets. How do you make a case for teaching a child about art when the outcome takes a generation before it appears? It takes a long time to make an artist.

  • Robyn Johnson

    Thank you Penelope, for your articulate message about the necessity for imagination and creativity in our lives. Indeed, human survival depends on creating a heartful, intelligent future where everyone has their basic needs met, and war and famine are not the way of the world. Clear thinking and passionate spirits will create (and are creating) a future worth inhabiting. It’s the practical dreamers who live with compassion–not sterile numbers on balance sheets–that we must nourish.

  • Christopher Libby

    Your blog is on target, as are the comments of Milena Thomas, and are supported by the propositions made by fellow Canadian Richard Florida in his book “Who’s Your City” (and other works) re: creative communities inherently attract capital. This is more true during periods of economic leveling and increased transitory-ness (sic) of human, intellectual, and real capital.

    I would argue however that arts and cultural industries must contine to show value for the dollars directed to them,a nd strive to define that value in as many ways as possible for the various groups they must appeal to for active or tacit support.

    I suggest that one of the arguments that might be useful is a refutation of Maslow’s hierarchy which underlies Mssr. Spencer’s argument and instead to use Manfred Max-Neef’s Human Development Matrix, which puts equal emphasis on creation, protection, and seven other qualities of life.

  • Michael-jon Pease

    It is always interesting to note that in times of economic distress, so many commentators feel driven to choose food over art, as though living in one of the leading industrialized nations on earth, a choice needs to be made. Actually, no society makes that choice. In Papua, New Guinea, tribal people subsisting on yams while their land is bulldozed for the profit of overseas investors, use highly decorated hand-carved utensils and ritual to honor their sustenance and community. More public art by native artists was created during the first year of Iraq’s occupation than in the previous decade of prosperity under Saddam. In good times, no donor gives to the arts because he has extra cash burning a hole in their pocket. Likewise, donors don’t ignore food shelves in boom times because “everyone has enough.” As cave paintings and children drawing on the walls prove, art is an essential part of the human condition. Like food shelves and homeless shelters and manufacturers looking for a small business loan, it IS all about the intrinsic nature of the case.

  • Steven Gootgeld

    Your inspired words came at a most important time. The Arts represent a paradigm shift from fear to love. Any American who finds themselves caught up in the fear paradigm perpetuated by political leaders (for profit only, and not security) has the opportunity to start making even the smallest daily decision based on what the decision will yield in one year, in 10,000 years. If our daily decisions (or artistic creations) are based on fear and lack, or obsessed with survival as an ultimate goal, we feed and grow a paranoid culture. If our decisions are based instead on love, hope and beauty we plant those principles directly in our future and path. In my opionion, it is an artist’s responsibility to be an alchemist; to transmute all the seeming lack and suffering in the world to something of beauty, so that the creation has the power to change the viewer/listener/reader. The act of creation becomes a huge leap of faith in that the one creating is having such a profound experience that it does not matter at the moment what the ultimate cultural or financial impact will be; that ecstatic experience then feeds a paradigm much more interesting and profound than that of a false sense of “safety”.

    The truth is, we will all die. There is no absolute safety. To focus on survival or safety as primary goals is to waste an otherwise creative and contributive life. The choice is ours every second and with every thought.

  • Lowell Smith

    Thanks Penelope for an inspiring article. Certainly the practice of medicine is necessary, but for what end, really?

  • Milena Thomas

    @Christopher Libby – wasn’t familiar with the Maslow refutation! Interesting – I’ve always thought of his hierarchy in my own work…I will have to look into these other ideas.

  • W.P. Norton

    First point: Nobody speaks of the “downstream” economic benefits of putting up a new neighborhood church-building. So why do it with theaters, galleries, or any of the other places people go to quench the equally spiritual thirst for art?

    Second point: Instead of finding ways to keep art accessible to people, the first man replying to Penelope’s nice essay thinks we should re-industrialize? He forgets that industrial manufacturing, in the form of military hardware, already accounts for most of our export revenues. Most of those remaining revenues come – wait for it – from U.S. movies, pop music, computer games, television series and the like. If the lawful market price were somehow suddenly to be paid for every pirated American movie, book, piece of music or software being used today in, say, China, we would hear a vast sucking sound from across the Pacific Ocean at the vacuuming-up of billions upon billions of U.S. dollars bound for the bank accounts of trademark- and copyright-holders in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Sillecone Valley (to say nothing of the substantial import duties and other fees that would end up in the public treasury).

    Third point: Take away the arts and all you have left is an endless procession of days through which to trudge, worrying ceaselessly about your food, shelter and security. I’d like to see a show of hands of everyone who’d like to live in a hypermilitarized reality where everyone is either a farmer, soldier or construction worker.

    Fourth point: The greatest wealth of any culture resides not in its power, or in its gold reserves, but in the artifacts of its creative spirit. All the civilizations of recorded history are best remembered now through the prism of their artistic works and, above all, their literary contributions: I say “best remembered,” because while many of Rome’s roads, arches and aqueducts still physically exist, the so-called “dead” language of Latin remains that civilization’s most essential, enduring and evolving bequest to our modern Western one. The terminology of medicine, the still-official language of Catholicism, the Super Bowl numbering system – all Roman.

    Last point: About getting back on the gold standard. It’s not a bad idea. Let’s remember that the No. 1 reason men have always seen value in gold is precisely its uselessness in the creation of anything as important as food, shelter or security. We like gold because it makes the prettiest rings and crowns and jewelry. What do we call the people who make those things? Artisans, of course. And where do the most spectacular of those adornments end up after their owners have no more use of them? Museums.

  • Brad Hills

    A further response to Mr. Spencer. The necessities of the world you live in only make me sad. When art has beome subordinate to imaginary circumstances, we are indeed on a downward spiral. It reminds me of…TODAY! We’ve been living in your world for the past 8 years and the result is a world full of fear and despair. Life will happen, we can neither control nor prevent it. Why not have some beauty while we live.

  • DeidreH

    As someone who is fortunate to have built a career in leading arts organizations, I would submit to Mr. Spencer that although arts organizations have a mission, a heart and purpose tied to expression, aesthetics, performance or exhibition, and community; they are real and important businesses that operate within every corner of this great country. While it can be easy on the surface to dismiss the arts as superfluous, the numbers do not support that mentality. These ‘organizations’ are businesses which create and support jobs, generate income for neighboring businesses, are an important factor for many in deciding where they will live and raise their families, pay taxes and serve – to the tune of billions of dollars per year. These are organizations that pay tangible and soft returns to communities that they inhabit, make no mistake.

  • Angela

    I am currently debating what my major/minor will be once at university. Being a non-traditional student who is just now recieving my associates, the prospects are bleak, and the likelihood of my finding employment in the arts could be slim to none outside of what I already do. I have considered other options; However, there are a few things that I’ve been thinking about:

    1. Since the economy is such that there are NO guarantees, why not study what I love, enjoy the process, and come out with a bachelors? Even if I don’t gain a position in my chosen field, I will have at least enjoyed the journey.

    2. Contrary to the beliefs of some, I’ve witnessed first hand how music, or a play, or a poem can touch the heart & soul of someone thus bringing them peace and acceptance in a world that tends to be so cold. Peace within ourselves and acceptance are things we all strive for in life…those are things that you cannot put a price tag on.

    3. Everyone needs a positive outlet for expression, regardless. USO shows, music concerts, plays, musicals, poetry readings, paintings, writing – these are all examples of not only some of those avenues, but also avenues for escape…escaping reality and/or being enlightened on pieces of it, for example, are necesseties for everyone…even if only through a magazine or a book.

    Ms. Burk, thank you so much for sharing your passion even through a blog. Your words have helped to give me hope in the direction that I’m considering.

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