communicating about the arts
Earlier this year, we watched as Mayor Mallory in Cincinnati talked about the State of the City. We told you then about the marvelous things he said about our arts -- all the music, dance, museums, theaters, festivals and so on in our region. Now the talented Lisa Maly has obtained a video clip of the Mayor talking about the importance of the arts to making Cincinnati a great place to live, work, play, and stay. Take a look!
This week, hundreds of people met in Providence to discuss “Connecting Creative Communities” in New England.
While there, I had the chance to share our new research with the audience. The response was inspiring. So many people there seemed to recognize the polite head nodding we get when talking about ROI of the arts in dollars and cents. Like us, they also know it isn’t persuasive enough to decision-makers. So, the arts remain a vulnerable policy choice in the public arena.
These New Englanders are as happy as we are to know more about how the public thinks about art and what people value about our art: the vibrancy it brings to our neighborhoods and the way it connects people.
Like me, they struggle with when to talk about art as entertainment and when to avoid that idea. Talking about art as entertainment puts people in a personal, consumer frame of mind – we know now that this is a barrier to thinking about art as a citizen. In the citizen mode, it’s easier to support the arts collectively, as a public good.
So, we discussed the importance of keeping these stories separate.
When we want to promote the value of the arts to everyone – even those who don’t participate by going to concerts or shows – we will focus on stories like how the new theatre on 14th street in Washington DC changed the neighborhood, filling it with people and activity. And how the fringe festival in Cincinnati brings people together from all over the region – people who might not meet under any other circumstances.
Hundreds of interviews in our region provide the proof that this works. Just because art IS entertainment, doesn’t mean we have to always present it that way. When we want to move people to action that supports the arts sector – we should avoid the entertainment lens on the issue. On the other hand, when we are trying to sell tickets, art IS entertainment!
To wrap up this week of important dialog about new strategies for building support for the arts, I’ll share the fun that the New England audience got to see.
This is the video of a surprise public dance my organization put together for our annual community fundraising campaign for the arts.
You’ll notice that we don’t name any arts organizations – we just SHOW how the arts bring people together AND make our city vibrant!
If you want to see the “Making of Splash Dance” video when we release it in a few weeks, sign up for our occasional emails here.
Feeling like we’d leveled off in our effort to build broad support for the arts, we decided to get more information. We studied how people think about the arts — that is, we engaged in some real research over the past 18 months. With this information, we’re crafting a new communications strategy—one built on a deeper understanding of the best ways to communicate about the arts—that we believe will lead to increased shared responsibility and motivate action in support of the arts.
In order to create a more constructive dialog, we had to explore the dynamics of the current public conversation—in the media, for instance—as well as in the thinking of the majority of people who do not focus on the arts in their daily lives. Understanding attitudes and beliefs more deeply is a key to negotiating them more successfully in future efforts. A new argument, or lens, on the issue is useful to the extent that it can move people to a collective perspective and shared action in support of the arts.
- Positions arts and culture as a public good—a communal interest in which all have a stake;
- Provides a clearer picture of the kinds of events, activities, and institutions we are talking about;
- Conveys the importance of a proactive stance; and
- Incorporates all people in a region, not just those in urban centers.
Holding typical messages up to these standards clarifies why some ideas, even emotionally powerful ones, fail to inspire a sense of collective responsibility. Art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., all speak to private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages do not help them think of art as a public good, and therefore inspire action.
- A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument and becomes about creating an environment where people want to live, work, play, and stay.
- A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.
Americans for the Arts -- "the nation's leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America" -- is hosting an online discussion about support for the arts. They invited Margy to participate by blogging about The Fine Arts Fund's new research report on communicating about the arts. Here's the host's description of the discussion:
"The Private Sector Initiatives team at Americans for the Arts is leading efforts to increase partnerships between the arts and the three main areas of the private sector: business, foundations, and individuals by partnering with a national network of Arts & Business Councils, Business Committees for the Arts and United Arts Funds. These partnerships deliver economic and social benefits to communities, generating jobs, and galvanizing neighborhood revitalization efforts.....Follow the Private Sector Blog Salon on March 8-12 as more than twenty leaders from across the country discuss issues related to private sector giving and the arts."
Margy is answering one of the questions posed in her invitation to participate: "So, how do we make the case for supporting the arts in 2010?" While many of the bloggers are focusing on private sector fundraising, our research is designed to provide a way to engage the community in a broader discussion about support for the arts.
Join the national conversation on the Americans for the Arts blog site!
In the evening, I like to escape into a novel and I'm almost always reading one. (Hardly a weekend goes by without a visit to my neighborhood library -- luckily mine is open on Saturdays and Sundays.)
Last night, I came across this paragraph in my current novel, The Art Thief, by Noah Charney. It's entirely consistent with everything we've learned in our recent research on how people think about "the arts" -- through the lens of the contemporary protagonist who is tracking a series of thefts of paintings.
"[Art crime] was considered high class. At the top level of the caste system, art crime was socially acceptable, even thought of as prestigious and intriguing. It was the only serious crime for which the public tended to root for the criminals....The average citizen felt somewhat detached, and sometimes threatened, by fine art. It was considered elite and elusive...and therefore frightening to many. It was with some satisfaction that the public read about gracefully orchestrated art thefts. It was a combination of voyeurism into a glamorous world apart, and a satisfying jab at an institution that felt exclusive."