Since Rocco Landesman stepped down as the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in January of this year, little has been done by Congress to find a suitable replacement. In the meantime, Former Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa has been serving as the interim chairwoman.
Recent articles have suggested that Congress’ turtle-like pace at appointing a new chairman is hampering the ability of the NEA to advocate for the arts, especially in the wake of the House Appropriations Committee’s proposal to slash the NEA’s budget by more than 50% down to $75 million in FY14. Bob Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts (an advocacy group), is quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “The power of the N.E.A. is not the amount of money it has … but in the ‘bully pulpit’ it provides.”
Mr. Lynch, and other arts advocates, rely on the statements the NEA and Landesman have made in the past stressing the arts’ economic impact:
Mr. Landesman, for instance, has frequently noted that each dollar spent by the arts endowment generates $8 of additional investment and $26 of economic activity in the community.
First, these figures that are frequently touted to gain arts support are debatable since the methods by which they’re calculated are flawed.
Second, the job of an NEA chairman is to ensure that the agency delivers on its entire strategic plan, not just the one related to advocacy.
“To promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts” is only one of four goals in the NEA’s strategic plan. Other goals include “creating art that meets the highest standards of excellence; engaging the public with diverse and excellent art; and enabling the NEA’s mission through organizational excellence.”
Therefore, rather than relying on Congress to choose a chairman just to argue for public support, the arts community should be focusing on who could be a chairman that could do his/her whole job effectively.
The U.S. Department of Commerce announced that the Bureau of Economic Analysis is changing the way it measures creativity’s contribution to the GDP. Starting today, the BEA will include R&D, entertainment, literary and artistic originals as investment, not as inputs to production. By including the cost of making a movie and publishing a book as investment, the BEA can now measure these activities’ productivity and contribution to economic growth.
So what does this do? And does BEA’s new method actually have any impact?
First, by including investment as a fixed asset, the BEA makes the GDP larger — by about 3%. And bigger is better, right? Second, this new method of accounting for U.S. productivity aligns with methods used by other countries, such as Canada and Australia, that already include these items in their own GDP. We’re now able to better compare our GDP to say, Canada’s, since we’re essentially measuring it the same way.
More importantly, however, is the signal BEA’s move sends to the public. By including investment as an asset, not an expense, the Department of Commerce is saying that there’s value in the work we do. In other words, it’s not just the fruits of our labor that matter, it’s also the time, energy, motivation, intellect and creativity that it takes to create something.
The value of a product — be it a movie, a book, or a pharmaceutical drug — cannot simply be measured by how much it goes for on the market. There are also residual benefits to producing some goods, made possible by the investment made to produce these goods. Like any fixed asset (i.e., capital) the value of investment depreciates over time (which is difficult to account for). But the effort businesses expend to be innovative cannot merely be measured in revenue.
Starting this fall, the BEA, in collaboration with the NEA, will release its first-round estimates for a new Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, which will parse out production for selected arts and cultural industries. This too is a largely symbolic move by both agencies to say that the arts and culture “matter” when it comes to GDP. Surely, the estimates produced will provide arts advocates with ammo for arguing for more public funding. But the real value, I think, in this and BEA’s new method of valuing intellectual property is in illustrating, with numbers, that creativity contributes to a healthy economy. Knowing this, we can start to incentivize creative workers and practices through public policies.
Americans for the Arts recently started a blog salon on their ARTSblog exclusively devoted to the discussion of cultural districts — just one effort in the advocacy group’s renewed focus on the use of these urban development models. Other efforts include AFTA’s recent pre-conference on arts, entertainment, and cultural districts held in Pittsburgh, and the now somewhat dated Cultural Districts Handbook published by the organization in 1998.
With defining a cultural district as, “a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction and robust economic activity,” it’s clear that AFTA is an advocate for local government’s using arts and culture as a strategy for urban development. From the number of programs that have devoted resources toward “creative placemaking” activities, it’s also clear that a lot of people and organizations believe in the impact arts and culture can have on places as well. What’s unclear, however, is the evidence that supports that cultural districts unequivocally lead to beneficial urban development.
While there’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that purports the arts can have beneficial effects on cities and towns, there’s actually very little quantifiable evidence that makes this same claim. The NEA and Brookings recently released their edited volume of essays all focused on the role of the arts in economic development, but despite its title, few of the book’s pieces actually conclude that Art unequivocally Works in economic development. Furthermore, the models that are used in many studies meant to test the effects of arts and culture on urban development require many more rounds of testing, since findings from analytical models are rarely conclusive their first time around.
Without supporting evidence, how can we be sure that cultural districts (and more generally, arts and culture) make cities stronger? And without being sure, should we be advocating for their use as an across the board model for urban development.
No doubt, to find something useful, we must be willing to take risks. But if taking risks means potentially wasting scarce public resources and creating negative externalities, then it’s wise to be measured in our attempts to take these risks. Certainly, a way to be measured is to invest in figuring out the effects of “creative placemaking” before touting its benefits. Therefore, before we throw caution to the wind and start believing that cultural districts and the arts and culture can help solve our cities’ problems, I encourage policy-makers, arts advocates and the cultural sector as a whole to invest in really figuring out what works.
With the Motor City’s recent filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, museum aficionados everywhere are on the edge of their very anxious seats waiting to see what will become of the DIA’s collection. Will the city government’s massive failures mean an end to the DIA? Will Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s city manager, pursue the liquidation of the DIA’s collection? And will the legal system even allow the city to claim possibly billions of dollars worth of art, supposedly in the public trust, to pay for its chronic, long-term structural deficit?
I did a little bit of research on museums that have liquidated their collections and, not surprisingly, discovered there have been very few. Those that have liquidated their collections have tended to be private museums, not open to the public, museums attached to corporations, which were emptied out after the company closed down, or publically-owned museums that have bore the brunt of government austerity measures. I could not find an example of a private 501(c)(3) museum that receives public support and has assets in the name of a government entity (both the DIA’s building and collections are technically owned by the city) emptying out its coffers (I’ll admit I didn’t look too hard).
So it’s true that there’s little precedence for museum liquidation, but what does that mean for the DIA? On one hand, little precedence could mean that it’s highly unlikely that the city will choose to pursue a liquidation. There have been examples of almost-liquidations that to some museums’ good fortune didn’t work out. If the city of Detroit did go ahead with a liquidation, it’d basically assure itself an image of the “big-bad-corrupt-and-broke city that with its history of bad management also took a piece of Detroit’s soul” (and who’d want to live in a city with that name?). On the other hand, little precedence could mean an easier time liquidating. This may be Detroit’s chance to create even more history — that is other than being the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy.
In the coming weeks, months, or even years, we’re bound to see what Detroit will decide. I’ve already stated my opinion about whether I think it’s a good idea for the city to use art to pay their bills. If I were the DIA, I’d start to figure out how to stay 10 steps ahead — but with Detroit’s history of effective decision-making, that shouldn’t be too hard.
Even before moving to Bloomington, I decided to sign up for a local neighborhood listserv where community residents can email their questions (e.g., what is that smell at 1st and Hawthorne?), observations (e.g., the lightning bugs are in full swing tonight!), and of course, opinions. This past weekend it was the latter that got me thinking about an all too common question in cultural policy: should public funding for the arts mean arts programming that only appeals to the masses?
In response to a recent article in the Herald Times (Bloomington’s local newspaper) announcing the cancellation of “The Metropolitan Opera” programming on WFIU (Bloomington’s local NPR station) the listserv received a series of emails from a few angry community residents protesting the changes. Residents were outraged at the fact that opera programming will be replaced by “talk radio” based on something as trivial as market penetration. It was clear, from the emails, that those who protest the changes believe that even if shows like “Car Talk” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” have a wider listenership, this is still no reason to supplant the less popular Met program. The protestors argue that there’s a distinct community of residents to whom opera programming adds to their quality of life, and also, a distinct characterization of Bloomington.
My first thought, upon reading these emails, was “If cutting opera helps the radio station pay the bills, then that’s what must be done.” But after further contemplation, I realized that taking such a populist approach may actually backfire for WFIU. The thought behind these programming changes is that by providing more popular programs, as opposed to opera, WFIU will be able to attract larger audiences. And I’m guessing that the station is also hoping that larger audiences translates into greater financial support. What I think this strategy will actually achieve is the creation of a larger listenership, but not a stronger donor base.
As much as some of us lament that the arts in the U.S. are more often attended by higher-income (and highly educated) individuals, the fact is that it is also primarily individuals of wealth that support the arts. Many, if not most of our nation’s major cultural institutions are supported by a very small group of cultural philanthropists. Their support allows those without significant means the opportunities to take pleasure in the arts.
That being said, there’s a good reason why we should continue to offer arts programming with less of a populist appeal: if it’s these programs that those who financially support all programs enjoy, then these programs should remain, especially if it means a continuation of very badly needed financial support to keep public radio afloat. In other words, if arts programmers focus on only appealing to the masses, they risk losing a small, but mighty group of important stakeholders: their donors.
I’m sure many would argue with this view by saying that any arts program that is even partially funded by public money should be popular. However, it’s important to keep in mind that without private funding to make up the difference of what scant public funding for radio does not cover, we wouldn’t have a public radio station at all.
Therefore, argue away Bloomington opera enthusiasts. I see the point.
A year and a half after it was published, I’ve finally managed to read Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. I figured now was the best time to see what Glaeser has to say about urban development as I prepare to teach a course on Cultural Districts and Local Arts Policy this fall.
Glaeser, in his book, rarely refers to the arts and culture while discussing healthy cities. Yet, his overall argument can easily be applied to how policy makers think about urban investments in culture.
Using simple economics, Glaeser quite pointedly makes the argument that smart urban policy invests in people, not places. He writes that “investing in buildings instead of people in places where prices were already low may have been the biggest mistake of urban policy over the past sixty years.” These types of investments have done little to address urban decline.
The law of supply and demand tells us that oversupply means lower prices. Conversely, a lack of supply will drive prices up. Applying this principal to urban infrastructure, too much investment into residential and nonresidential structures will keep prices low, while too little investment will keep prices high. Chicago, for example, is able to maintain a relatively low cost of living (for a large urban area) by continually investing into housing. On the other hand, housing prices in Washington, D.C. continue to rise partly due to restrictions Congress placed on building height, which not only makes it difficult to find an apartment in the District, but also contributes to urban sprawl.
To be successful, urban investments, including those in culture, must be defined by their ability to serve communities. By investing into human capital through first addressing the basic needs of people (i.e., transportation and social services) and second devising policies that incentivize productivity, policy makers can contribute to urban growth.
Following this rationale, cultural investments in declining areas should be low-risk projects that focus on programmatic offerings as opposed to shiny new buildings. Here, arts and culture can be used as tool to bring people together, thus encouraging innovation. It is this type of “creative people-making” that can have real effects on urban productivity.
But for a larger cultural infrastructure project (think multi-million dollar performing arts center or museum) there needs to be the demand to support it. The only way this type of facility and its organization will survive is through the support of its audiences. By spreading the huge fixed costs of cultural amenities across large (and dense) populations, cities offer a way for cultural organizations to be sustainable.
But how does one know whether your city has the demand to support a large cultural infrastructure project? Glaeser points to education and January temperatures as being the best predictor of urban growth. Another sign may be that there’s already ample building in the area since more building indicates that there’s the demand for it.
Therefore, following the rules of supply and demand, Glaeser teaches us how to make better decisions regarding how to make urban investments in culture, and when (and when not) to build cultural facilities.
I end with my favorite quote that appears in the book’s conclusion:
As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics. A sexier public space won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe. All the cafes in Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system. If commuting into a city is a lengthy torment, then companies will head for the suburbs, not matter how many cool museums the city has.
In November of 2012, Portland voters passed an “Arts Tax,” which assesses a $35 tax on adults over the age of 18 who fall above the federal poverty line and who make more than $1000 in annual income. The deadline to pay the annual tax was June 10th, 2013. Revenues from the tax will purportedly be distributed to six city school districts and the Regional Arts and Culture Council for arts and arts education programs.
While I applaud the city of Portland for their efforts to invest in arts programs, as opposed to infrastructure, the tax program still has major flaws and I’m surprised that the city implemented it in such a nascent stage.
First, the tax is clearly regressive — in that the tax rate decreases as the amount subject to taxation increases. To take an extreme example, an individual earning $1000/year is taxed at an average rate of 3.5%, whereas an individual making $100,000/year is taxed at a rate of .035%. Regressive taxes are the antitheses of a fair and equal tax system.
The regressivity of the tax is further strengthened by the fact that those who have the propensity to benefit more from the taxed activity are paying less for it (and vice versa). Plenty of research has shown that income and arts participation are positively correlated.
Second, it’s questionable whether the arts tax is even constitutional, and a challenger to the tax has raised the issue with the state tax court. Article IX, Section 1a of the Oregon Constitution states that “No poll or head tax should be levied or collected in Oregon.” Supporters of the tax (including those that created it) argue that the arts tax is an income tax. Head tax or not, the distinction of the arts tax as an income tax should have been made more clear before the tax went into effect.
These, and other major flaws of the new tax (including many recent changes to the tax that made it difficult for taxpayers to understand) are perhaps what has contributed to the less than anticipated arts tax revenue the city has received since the deadline. I anticipate many more changes before the program becomes a staple for Portland taxpayers. I also look forward to studying its effects in the long-term — that is, if the program even continues.
Before Lincoln Center was built in the 1950s and 1960s, the area known as Lincoln Square (or Central Park West) was deteriorating and plagued with crime. Led by John D. Rockefeller III and some of New York’s other prominent civic leaders, the “Lincoln Square Renewal Project” designated an 18-block area of Manhattan to be revived. The project included the demolition of many of the area’s tenements and relocation of the families who lived there. In addition, architects were commissioned to build new structures including a branch of Fordham University, some public schools, and of course the center for the arts now known as Lincoln Center. The result? It’s hard to find a vacant apartment in the area, let alone one that won’t burst your budget.
In 1971 when the Kennedy Center was built, the federal government had never helped finance a performing arts facility project before. There were various motivations to build the facility such as to provide employment for out-of-work actors during the Great Depression (First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), to serve as a memorial to President Roosevelt (U.S. Representative Arthur George Klein), and to bring culture to the nation’s capital (John F. Kennedy). It is the latter motivation that ultimately gave the project enough momentum to raise enough public and private money to build the facility.
Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center: two examples of how prominent political and/or civic leaders have used the act of building a cultural facility to help develop a city. The vision for Lincoln Center was that its presence would help transform a distressed neighborhood and create an arts and cultural hub. The National Cultural Center (renamed for President Kennedy after his assassination in 1963) was meant to help infuse our nation’s capital with culture (and help diffuse a very rigid political cultural scene).
As successful as these cultural facility projects now seem for their ability to improve their surrounding communities, at the time they were built many opposed spending the massive sums that it took to build them. The total cost of the Kennedy Center was $70 million, the majority of which were public funds. Lincoln Center was primarily privately financed, but still, the $184.5 million that it took to build it seemed to many an extravagant sum to spend on the arts.
In modern times, we see cultural facility projects both publicly and privately financed that take this sort of top-down approach (if you build it, they will come, and the whole neighborhood will be transformed). The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts — a $478 million endeavor built with primarily public money — was built to spur economic development in the blighted downtown area of Miami. Civic leaders in Las Vegas built the $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, of which about 50% were public funds, to give life to a 61-acre brownfield bordering Old Las Vegas.
But do we believe that the presence of a cultural facility will help a city achieve urban transformation? Moreover, do we believe its worth risking valuable public resources to build a structure whose impact is unknown? Is the model of investing into physical infrastructure to spur urban development old (and dead) and should we be looking to new models?
The following is my final farewell blog post on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Taking Note research blog series. The original post can be accessed here.
Since arriving at the NEA, I’ve had a hand in dozens of projects, some of which have produced tangible results and others that require more thinking and planning.
In regard to the former, I’m especially proud to have been part of managing the Research: Art Works grants program for which the NEA distributed $350,000 this year to various nonprofits. I had always just heard about NEA panels and the process by which grants are awarded, so it was enlightening to see just how it all unfolds.
In regard to the latter, my colleagues and I in the Office of Research and Analysis have devoted a lot of time to figuring out what makes sense, both for the office and the field. We’ve spent hours discussing everything from how to write a survey question to the usefulness of big data. It is through these discussions that I’ve updated my thoughts about where research in the arts is heading.
A Way Forward
There’s a reason why in the first three paragraphs of this blog post I’ve tried to refrain from using the words “arts” and “culture”; it’s because I believe if we are to move research about arts-related topics forward, then we must invite a new cohort of researchers to the table, ones who don’t necessarily know much about the field of arts research and who don’t use the same type of jargon. These can be established researchers in other disciplines or other federal agencies, or those just starting out. The point is that we need fresh perspectives if we are to gain insight into some of the questions that researchers have struggled with for decades (e.g., the economic impact of the arts).
Establishing an interdisciplinary network of researchers (a topic of this column’s previous post) is one mechanism by which we can encourage idea-generation. An avid supporter of research networks, the MacArthur Foundation states that networks “… bring together highly talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines, perspectives, and research methods [to] examine problems and address empirical questions that will increase the understanding of fundamental social issues and are likely to yield significant improvements in policy and practice.”
An effective network comprised of an influential group of researchers also has the potential to bring recognition to the field of cultural policy. For example, a subset of a field of survey methodology dealing with the cognitive aspects of recalling information (CASM) emerged in the 1980s through a series of meetings that brought together statisticians with social psychologists to talk about how to bridge disciplines. Building on these same ideas about the benefits of networks, Norman Bradburn proposes an arts and culture research network made up of a group of interdisciplinary researchers (note that Bradburn was also a key participant in the network that created CASM).
Those familiar with the term “cultural policy” most likely know that the U.S. is known for not having one. This is made evident by our decentralized funding mechanisms and the absence of a cultural ministry. Yet those of us who have an interest in the ways in which culture plays a role in society understand that by implementing cultural initiatives in tandem with other types of policy, we are in effect creating a cultural policy.
Take, for example, the practice of building cultural facilities to aid in community development (a topic I focus on in my work on cultural facility development). Cities across the U.S. continue to invest billions in cultural facilities with the hopes of spurring regional economic growth. Local governments also provide subsidies to private enterprise to help achieve this goal, such as tax-abatement programs to incentivize arts-related businesses to set up shop in certain areas. While such “policies” don’t stem from the federal government, they are still policy, in that they’re government-run programs that affect the everyday lives of people. Denying that these types of programs are indeed policies prevents us from committing to fully understanding their potential impacts.
But for cultural policy research to have impact, we must also use methods that help us unequivocally communicate the effects of cultural programs. In economics, we understand the difference between “positive” and “normative” as being analogous to the ideas of “what is” and “what ought to be.” As opposed to positive economics, which promotes research that is “value-free,” research in normative economics is based upon assumptions of what is fair and what policy goals should be. For example, rather than assuming that “arts education should be implemented in schools to foster positive youth development” (a normative statement), we could say, “youth who participate in arts education programs have higher test scores, better grades, and are less truant than youth who do not participate” (a positive statement). The latter states the facts and moreover, supports these facts with evidence. A good counter-argument will also include facts, supported by evidence. Therefore, not only is an argument against the fact that arts education relates to positive youth development harder to make, but the statement has greater influence upon policy-makers since there’s real evidence to support it.
An arts and culture research network comprised of a highly trained interdisciplinary group of researchers can have two aims: offering fresh perspectives and promoting the field. Furthermore, a network can continue to produce and encourage research that deals with the investigation of facts, as opposed to that which emphasizes value-based statements unsupported by evidence. While the latter certainly has a place in the arts and culture field more generally (particularly for building support of programs) the former has the potential to have real, long-standing effects on cultural policy.
That all being said, the time I’ve spent at the NEA has taught me a great deal about how the arts can contribute to our daily lives. In my new role as an assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, I’ll have the unique opportunity to integrate the study of cultural policy into the broader realm of research through collaborating with researchers across an array of disciplines. I look forward to spending my time gathering the evidence that can show us how art, and cultural policy, really works.
It’s been a pleasure.
It may come as a surprise that the state of Indiana boasts a vibrant cultural districts program. In 2008, the state approved legislation that established the program, which provides non-monetary assistance to designated cultural districts. According to the state of Indiana’s website:
Benefits of the program include increased tourism marketing and economic activities that come with being part of a branded program with a statewide emphasis, a potential collaboration with the Indiana Artisan program, and the opportunity for Statewide Cultural Districts to apply for highway signage.
In addition to these three communities, the city of Indianapolis has its own set of cultural districts. Upon visiting the city for the first time and picking up the Indy Visitor Guide, I found a full-page spread highlighting six separately branded districts.
It’s clear from all of the hype surrounding these and other cultural districts that their primary purpose is to enhance economic growth. A 2012 report issued by the National Governor’s Association titled, “New Engines of Growth: Five Roles for Arts, Culture and Design” focuses on the ways in which states can devise policies that include arts, culture and design to “create jobs and boost their economies in the short run and transition to an innovation based economy in the long run.” Specifically, the report promotes cultural policies across the U.S. in their capacity to:
1. Provide a fast-growth, dynamic industry cluster;
2. Help mature industries become more competitive;
3. Provide the critical ingredients for innovative places;
4. Catalyze community revitalization; and
5. Deliver a better-prepared workforce.
A long list of accomplishments for any policy initiative.
Other than describing states’ various cultural policy initiatives, the report does little to examine whether or not these policies can actually achieve the five stated goals. Those familiar with the validity of economic impact measures (e.g., number of jobs created, dollars spent and taxes raised from arts and culture activities), such as the ones the report uses as evidence of the effects of cultural policies, surely question the overall feasibility of using culture and the arts to boost economies.
Not that I don’t believe that cultural policies can provide benefits to local economies. Maybe they can. A paper on “Arts Districts, Universities and the Rise of Media Arts” authored by Douglas Noonan and Shiri Breznitz (appearing in Creative Communities: Art Works in Economic Development) provides compelling evidence that the presence of arts districts exhibit positive impacts on arts- and media arts-related innovation.
The point is that before promoting the use of these policies by local and state governments, we need more information about what cultural policies can actually do. Investing into the investigation of the effects of cultural policies using evidence-based methods can prevent us from wasting valuable public resources.