Commentary: Shifting public opinion about the arts
Liz Hill, managing editor of ArtsProfessional magazine [UK], 1/3/13
One of my favourite charities is Liberty. I love its mission: "Working to protect civil liberties and promote human rights for everyone". If one existed, I would also love a charity that does for the arts what Liberty does for human rights. What would such an organisation look like? Let's start by applying the Liberty model. Its mission? How about "Working to protect creative and cultural expression, and promote access to the arts for everyone?" Tireless high-profile campaigning against regressive public policy would be just as relevant for the arts as it is for civil liberties. By speaking a language that can be understood by [all], the organisation could hold sway across the political divide. Fearless efforts to champion unpopular and controversial artistic expression would create opportunities for much-needed public debate about the value of the arts - for example, to reinforce the case against censorship. As for the leadership of this charity, that's an altogether trickier question. The public face of this campaigning organisation will be shot down in flames if perceived to be speaking from the self-interest of those working in the arts sector. [And it can't be any] organisation that ultimately relies on public funding for its own existence. Neither [could it be] a trade union or a management association, each of which has a duty to its members with agendas that may or may not be of national relevance. No, a national campaign for the arts needs to stand alone, supported by the public as well as all those who work in and with the arts sector, if it is to influence the Government to recognise and value the creative and cultural activity at the heart of our national identity. The National Campaign for the Arts is right to have put its activities on hold pending the outcome of conversations around the country about the way in which the sector can raise its voice. The old model was broken, and its Chair, Sam West, is listening to opinions on the best way forward. Well, in case he's reading, this is mine.
Commentary: Changing the landscape of public good will towards the arts
Clayton Lord, Director of Communications & Audience Development at Theatre Bay Area, the country's largest regional arts services organization, writes the "New Beans" blog for ArtsJournal.com. On 1/7/13, he posted the following:
I've been reading The Victory Lab lately, an absolutely fascinating look at how elections are won and lost -- it's about messaging, and framing, and rhetoric. Amidst many exciting, soaring scenarios about changing the landscape of public good will towards the arts that have flitted through my head while I read about the rise of modern politics, I've had this constant buzzing of "never gonna happen unless we change the song." And to do that, we need to be singing from the same songbook. I asked a friend, Margy Waller, to write about it for me. Margy, a senior fellow at the Topos Partnership and the brains behind The Arts Ripple Effect, which you need to read if you haven't yet, is one of the best brains in the business when it comes to framing and public opinion, in large part -- I think - because she has spent most of her career not talking about art. There's a preciousness that seems to come from being so close to our product that makes us forget that ultimately this fight can't be about us, it has to be about them. [Here's Margy Waller's guest blog post:]
- It's time to speak with one voice about the value of the arts as a public good. If you have any doubts about how we're doing with the message, you can cringe your way through this cable news interview with a former chairman of the New York State Arts Council about proposals to change the charitable deduction. The way we share information about the value of the arts to public decision-makers matters in every public funding or policy discussion about the arts. This is nothing new - just possibly more urgent now that the charitable deduction is in play. Why is there a continuing attack on arts funding and tax incentives? Small government proponents put the spotlight on the arts precisely because they know that the public reaction is along the lines of: "Why should my tax dollars be spent on choices the elite and wealthy are making about their own entertainment?" Or even more simply, "What do I care about art? I don't go to art." And that's the problem. The way most people think about the arts works against us in the public dialogue.
- The public's most common way of thinking about the arts is as entertainment. The arts are seen as a nicety, not a necessity, in this category. It's really hard for people to think of entertainment as a public good, particularly as a way to spend (or forego in the case of the deduction) tax revenue. If "the arts" equal entertainment and don't fit easily into a category people think of as charity, the public can be expected to wonder why the arts should benefit from preferential tax policy designed to encourage giving that will "help others." Recent framing science research provides a way to build support for the arts as a matter of public concern -- and it's not by throwing out a lot of numbers about "return on investment" using a traditional dollars-and-cents argument. (The public doesn't believe those arguments now, if they ever did.) What is the value statement that works? This one: The arts have a surprising ripple effect of benefits in our communities. The research identifies two specific benefits that people already believe in and value: Theaters and galleries mean vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where people want to live, work, and play. Music, museums, community arts centers and more mean people coming together to share, connect and understand each other in new ways. These benefits are both practical and intangible, and importantly they resonate even with people who don't think of themselves as "goers." Elected and appointed officials have recently started using this framing to build broad support and increase public funding. The arts' value to the public is a critical part of the discussion about the charitable deduction in the pending debates over spending cuts and comprehensive tax reform when the definition of charitable could well be in play. Framing that conversation and speaking with one voice is necessary...now.
Commentary: Using the audience, not statistics, to change minds about the arts
Cathlyn Melvin, Americans for the Arts blog, 1/4/13
"I was in a play once!" I'm standing in line at a bookstore in my neighborhood, and the woman behind me is telling me her story. She recognized me from a show I did last spring, and her eyes light up as she tells me about her high school musical -- how she almost didn't audition, but in the end, it turned out to be the best eight weeks she had that year. As an actor, I get that all the time. Not the being-recognized-on-the-street thing. That's unusual. But when people find out I do theatre, so often I see their eyes brighten just like that lady's, and they tell me about their third grade play, or an annual Christmas pageant, or being in the kids' chorus of Joseph at their community theatre. I love these stories. I help run a children's theatre called Compass Creative Dramatics in Chicago, and we work with kids to create those kinds memories. Our company decided to start a campaign to collect people's memories about participation in theatre, and how it affected them. We posted on YouTube asking for video responses, and watched the stories begin to trickle in, both through responses to our YouTube channel and through essays submitted through our email. As active leaders in school communities, arts educators witness the development of students through programs like the residency we offer at Compass. We interact with other artists who share our opinions, our passions, and our stories. Existing in this cocoon, it's easy to forget that there are others in the world for whom the importance of art in education is not a foregone conclusion. There are people who don't see that there is inherent value in what we do -- and so we evangelize. We push statistics -- because that's the language of administrators and policymakers. But even administrators and policymakers aren't only convinced by hard facts. Rarely do we meet the faces behind the statistics -- the doctor, the mom, the cab driver whose story has been enriched by participation in the arts. It's those personal stories that help people connect to the work we're doing. And it's that connection that paves the way to comprehension.