Funding: The State of the Art

In a world mired in economic uncertainty and with cash for the arts disappearing, how do we argue for culture?

András Szántó, PhD

At a recent public debate about organic food, the proponents of organic farming extolled its virtues by listing its various benefits. It is kinder to the environment, they said, and to animals, and it keeps toxic chemicals out of our bodies. “But does it taste better?” an audience member asked. To my surprise, the experts hesitated. “We can’t reliably measure that effect,” one of them explained. “So it’s not a claim we make.” The exchange reminded me about everything that’s wrong with arts advocacy these days.

If you have been following the news about arts funding, you have reason to be concerned. A vast pool of private, public, and philanthropic capital has gone down the drain in the “Great Recession” — with predictable consequences. What’s more, we may be on the cusp of a generational shift in giving priorities. “I am not optimistic that a restoration of the market and the economy will necessarily augur well for renewed or increased support of arts and culture, governmental or private,” says Charles Bergman, chairman and chief executive of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, echoing a widely shared concern. Arguments that used to work on behalf of the arts no longer always do. And the arguments advocates are using instead all too often miss the point, by making roundabout claims that ignore what makes art appealing on a gut level.

The Rhetorical Deficit

The real question is whether generosity will return once the crisis ends. Unfortunately, long-term shifts in the philanthropic and policy-making mind-set cast doubts on that prospect. The problem is deeper, more philosophical, than money, and it applies both to public and private financing systems. It has to do with a crisis of ideas: with weak and wobbly rationales for justifying giving, especially to the traditional high-arts institutions that commanded the lion’s share of support in the past.

“The real problem is the narrowness of the frame within which we think and talk about culture,” says Bill Ivey, the former NEA chairman and leader of President Obama’s cultural transition team. Ivey, currently director of the Curb Center, an arts-policy think tank at Vanderbilt University, said, “I would say right now that the ‘old’ frame, old language, and related arguments on behalf of ‘The Arts’ (meaning the nonprofit fine arts, for the most part) are dead in the water. With the Gates and Clinton foundations setting the tone for giving, and with federal, state, and local budget disasters pushing ‘amenities’ off the table, the arts are in for a rough patch.” It’s a case of old arguments butting up against new realities.

This rhetorical deficit has, in fact, been decades in the making. Three overarching rationales have, broadly speaking, fueled American cultural giving for a century. The first can be called the “great nation” argument. It began with the nineteenth-century impulse that America should have a cultural life equal to Europe’s. This rhetoric crested in the context of superpower rivalry after the Second World War, when the United States sought to demonstrate supremacy in everything from sport to space. If the Soviets had their Bolshoi Ballet, the Ford Foundation would advance the New York City Ballet. The great-nation argument helped spark a vast expansion in foundation and government support, especially after the 1960s. Tapping into the values and aspirations of then still-dominant Eastern Seaboard elites, it was comfortable with “quality” and “good taste.” Postmodern skepticism about hierarchies had yet to take hold.

The other, partly overlapping rationale was about “great cities.” American business owners have long shared their good fortunes with their communities, of course. But urban elites were also locked in ardent competition for cultural prestige: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Chicago vs. New York, Cleveland vs. St. Louis. Local pride, coupled with a belief in the uplifting power of the arts, provided a powerful incentive for the establishment of museums, libraries, and concert halls across America. Over time, the great-cities argument spawned the evolution of community foundations and formalized notions of corporate citizenship. Modern corporate foundations emerged in the 1950s, and corporate philanthropy, much of it local, peaked in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, however, the landscape had shifted. Arts advocates were on the defensive after political attacks on federal arts support. The great-nation argument lost steam after the United States won the Cold War. History was supposed to have ended with the conquest of democratic, free-market values — American values. The great-cities argument also found fewer takers as wealthy patrons set their sights farther afield and local companies were merged into global enterprises. (The dot-com bust and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal to protect shareholders from fraudulent accounting practices, were the last nails in the coffin of old-school, corporate philanthropy.) Meanwhile, the elitist overtones of the earlier appeals for resources, with their emphasis on “pale, male, and stale” European culture, were turning into a liability.

So the art community set about looking for new rationales.

The result was the “great outcomes” argument, which currently dominates arts advocacy. Great outcomes is about what policy wonks call “instrumental benefits.” This argument sidesteps mushy and divisive questions about art’s intrinsic value. Instead, it positions art as a means to an end: better test scores, empathetic citizens, innovative workers, and so on. The great outcomes argument has most successfully been applied to link culture to economic development — as a magnet for white-collar workers and cultural tourists, and as a healing salve on troubled inner-city neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric sits well with mayors and real-estate developers. In fairness, it has unlocked tremendous resources, especially for capital projects.

The fly in the ointment is that some of the advertised outcomes have proved elusive. And even if benefits are achieved, the question looms whether there might be simpler ways to deliver the same outcomes. After all, cancer hospitals also produce (taxpaying) jobs and may reduce neighborhood crime, but no one in his or her right mind would advocate for them for those reasons. The main weakness of the great-benefits rhetoric, in other words, is that it detaches arts advocacy from its own subject. “Such arguments move the discussion away from profound indi-vidual encounters with art, to experiences that yield more diffuse and less immediate communal benefits,” says James Smith, a former foundation president and a historian of American philanthropy. “What really matters is the development of our own creative capacities and the deeper appreciation of the creative work of others.”

The great outcomes argument was a clever tactical move, but it gutted the urgency and immediacy out of cultural advocacy. It hasn’t helped that the “strategic philanthropy” now practiced by many foundations — and which the arts community appeases, in part, by framing instrumentalist arguments — has a built-in bias handicapping the arts. Foundation boards (like government agencies) are demanding more accountability in the form of quantifiable “metrics of success.” They have valid reasons. But the arts, as a rule, do not lend themselves to the sort of clear-cut measurements that validate funding of, say, vaccines or mosquito nets.

What we’re left with, then, are arguments that aren’t about the arts exactly, framed in a rhetorical space that puts the arts at a disadvantage. No wonder some of them are falling on deaf ears.

Groping for Words

The search is on for a more compelling vocabulary. The challenge is to make a case for the arts without flipping back to utilitarian rhetoric or language that may sound, to some, hopelessly romantic or elitist. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Here’s Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on why museums are important: “What we learn is that no matter the degree of chaos and adversity surrounding him, man has shown his capacity to excel, to surpass. That is the ultimate assurance of renewal and survival. And it is one of the great lessons of the museum” (Wall Street Journal, 2005; emphasis added).

Beautiful words, to be sure. But are they suited to advocacy in today’s environment? Appeals to excellence — signaled through references to “quality,” “achievement,” “great works,” “masters,” and so on — may spell instant death in front of some grantmaking committees. When many funders see their purpose in giving voice to underprivileged groups, the discourse of surpassing excellence may sound undemocratic.

What we’re more likely to hear these days, instead, is instrumentalism in disguise: a promise of practical benefits that comes in a shiny wrapping of proselytism about art’s inherent value. Here’s British Museum director Neil MacGregor in London last March, speaking at the launch of Cultural Capital, a lobby group for arts investments: “We want to give politicians the confidence to put on their CVs not what football team they support but why life without Schubert is impossible. Culture works. This is a bit of national life that is extraordinarily efficient and effective. It is a huge employer, and the economic activity it generates is ever more important … Culture gives us our place in the world; it reminds us what we are and what we could be.” (The phrase “culture works,” not coincidentally, is mirrored in the latest tagline of the National Endowment for the Arts: Art Works.)

Mindful of the ideological baggage attached to “art,” not to mention “fine art,” advocates often refer to creativity and imagination — the value-neutral goodness from which all expression flows. But these words, too, can turn into launching pads for instrumental reasoning. The suggestion often made is that by acquiring creative competence through artistic immersion, people will be able to compete in the information economy — it’s the MFA as the new MBA.

There are, however, some promising linguistic developments. Lately, “quality” has been making a comeback; not as a mark of aesthetic sophistication, but to denote a positive human environment — a “quality of life.” Policy experts in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are drawing links, including financial ones, between the “well-being” of communities and other measures of social health and happiness. “Methodologically, it is very much new territory, certainly in relation to culture,” says Samuel Jones of the London-based think tank Demos, “but culture is so clearly connected with well-being that even the hardest-nosed cannot deny it.”

This cracks open fertile rhetorical ground. Art is no longer an X that helps obtain Y; it is now X as part of Y — a crucial difference. Culture, in this logic, is neither a means to an end nor an end in itself. It is an inextricable ingredient of a larger, unambiguously desirable social goal. Something analogous is being said when advocates link art to a thriving “civic life.” According to David Resnicow, who advises museums on strategic communication, cultural institutions need to show that they “are part of the fabric of a community” by talking about educational and economic benefits beyond visitor spending and, no less important, about their roles as spaces that foster social interaction. The challenge, for Resnicow, is in measuring these contributions: “How do you demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between a museum and a community?”

Staking out similar territory, Bill Ivey coined the term “expressive life” to refresh the debate about cultural resources. Earlier this year, Ivey convened a conference on ArtsJournal, the art news site, where participants (myself included) weighed the pros and cons of policy arguments ( “I hope ‘Expressive Life’ eliminates the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that people now attach to ‘The Arts,’ ” Ivey wrote, “and that the phrase implies a zone of issues and possible engagements that can stand proudly beside ‘Family Life’ and ‘Work Life’ …. From now on, whether engaging in research, advocacy, or analysis, we should be talking about ‘the condition of America’s expressive life in the 21st century.’ ”

For Ivey, expressive life can refer to individuals or communities, encompassing the creation and enjoyment of culture, through direct or mediated experience, and with no constraint on what expressions are involved. As arts management professor Andrew Taylor put it, the term offers “a bigger frame that includes our traditional set of ‘arts and culture,’ but with elbow room for other forms of artistic expression and experience.” It’s arts policy we can believe in. But will it uncork funds? Unlikely. The analytical strength of terms such as “expressive life” and “well-being” is not matched by rhetorical firepower. In the opinion of cultural critic Martha Bayles, “It draws on the same anodyne language that has always been used by arts advocates and bureaucrats: a blend of 19th-century gentility and 20th-century boosterism.” So the search continues.

Sustaining or Disrupting?

Much is at stake for the visual arts in this quest. The vast capital costs and operating needs of art museums will always make them dependent on benefactors. In fact, museums are better off than, say, orchestras. Museums are drawing new audiences and meeting educational and community mandates — things foundations and public agencies like to see. Their relatively young visitors and alluring architecture are aligned with the brand messages of commercial sponsors. Above all, they have access to a unique pipeline of support — the art collecting of today that becomes the deferred philanthropy of tomorrow. Foundations being established by the wealthiest generation of artists in history also hold promise. Even so, museums compete with a multitude of cultural projects for a shrinking funding pie. What is to be done?

On a tactical level, many experts believe, museums need to join the broader arts community to develop a concise and coordinated message. “We’re not working together on this; we’re not thinking in a cross-disciplinary way,” says independent commentator and consultant Alberta Arthurs. “We’re either advancing symphony orchestras or new choreography, or one museum or another. We’re not thinking in the full context of national need and possibility.” Arts advocates should also consider what students of political rhetoric have long accepted: that people aren’t always won over by cerebral arguments. They are moved to act by big ideas and deep emotions. As with the organic-farming experts who wouldn’t say their food tastes great, there is danger in overrationalizing advocacy.

On a more philosophical level, it should be clear that the arts cover a spectrum of purposes and therefore should be connected to both intrinsic and instrumental rationales — an insight that has been dawning in arts policy circles since the 2004 RAND Corporation study, The Gifts of the Muse. But another kind of rhetorical rethink would also do a lot of good. To illustrate this last problem, it is helpful to borrow terminology from Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, a groundbreaking book on why companies fail. Christensen calls “sustaining technologies” those well-meaning investments that are made into solutions that keep a certain line of work going. By contrast, “disruptive technologies” support innovations that come out of left field, upturning the status quo and eventually taking over. Investments into newspapers were sustaining technologies that kept giving us better newspapers — until the Internet came along.

What we need to accept is that our arts funding system, along with the advocacy that engages it, is basically a sustaining technology, designed to nourish certain kinds of mainly not-for-profit, high-arts institutions. This purpose is enshrined in the language of funding and advocacy in terms like “capacity building” and “stabilization” and backed by laws and regulations and the clout of our mightiest cultural institutions. The problem is that art — especially contemporary art — is, among other things, a form of disruptive innovation. That is precisely what makes art attractive to today’s younger, enterprising benefactors. Moreover, art itself has been subjected to disruptive change. New technologies and globalization are rapidly transforming not only the content of creative work but also the modes of cultural participation that had remained more or less constant since the nineteenth century, until recently.

In short, the systems and rhetoric of cultural support will need to be adapted to a more disruptive technology. By taking a step in that direction, advocates can tap into powerful emotional tropes, especially in the United States, a country that celebrates and rewards innovation and experimentation. This is not to discredit the work of established institutions that safeguard heritage and maintain cultural continuity. It is merely to suggest that the language being used to advocate for art needs to come to terms with a world in which sustaining technologies end up losing and constant disruption is a fact of life.

A Guy Walks into a Bar…

In the end, our arguments may not amount to that much. There are probably no magic rhetorical bullets. “Language alone won’t change behavior,” arts-policy expert Steven Tepper wrote in the “expressive life” debate, “especially the behavior of those in power.”

Over the years, I have asked many philanthropists and public leaders why they have agreed to commit significant amounts of money to the arts. As a rule, I have found, the larger the investment, the less obvious the explanation. Willingness to give is rarely stirred by PowerPoint presentations. It goes deeper than words. It predates the “ask.” So, in addition to continuing the search for better arguments, the cultural community is left with stepping up its search for more responsive, art-friendly politicians and wealth holders.

“It’s like a pickup line in a bar,” says Randall Bourscheidt, president of the New York–based Alliance for the Arts.

“You can have the cleverest, wittiest line in the world, but if she or he is not interested…”