Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Proving what we know is true

This post originally appeared on ARTSblog.

As artists and arts advocates, we all know, deep down, that Art Matters. But we continue to grapple with how best to talk about that value, to “justify” (a loaded word) or “prove” that the continued investment in infrastructure, arts education outreach and daily artistic input into the population-at-large is necessary to the creation of a tolerant, educated, empathic and energized society. The great work of Randy Cohen and Americans for the Arts on the economic front, including the creation of the Arts and Economic Prosperity Calculator, have gone a long way towards standardizing the arguments around economic impact of arts and culture, and has essentially gotten us all on the same page. But, and this language is getting to be a cliche, economic impact is only part of the answer – half of the answer at most, really – and getting to the point where we can talk about the intellectual, emotional, social, empathic impacts of the arts in the same specific, data-driven way as we can talk about the economics may open up a brave new world of advocacy for money, time and respect from the government, the funding establishment, the education system and our patrons.

Of course, in some ways, we’re already good at getting at some version of what researcher Alan Brown calls the “intrinsic impact” of art – mostly in the form of testimonials from arts patrons. A well-formed interview can get you incredible stories of the transformational power of art, and such things, when well-packaged, can prove very valuable in the conversation with arts skeptics about the value of artistic work. But interviews are really, truly only part of the answer here, and as part of the National Arts Marketing Project Conference session, Did the Campaign Work?: Integrating Impact Assessment into your Strategies, we (Theatre Bay Area) will be unveiling a year-long research and development effort to create a web-based service for theaters and other arts organizations across the country to quantify the intrinsic impact of their work, generate easy-to-read dashboards, and provide sample survey and interview protocols to generate a new type of conversation using a new vocabulary. Working with research firm WolfBrown and arts service organization partners in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, Theatre Bay Area will generate a year-long set of activities focused around in-depth work with 18 theatre companies (including some of the most influential regional theaters in the country from Arena Stage to the Public Theater) across the course of a season. This work will include a whole battery of efforts from surveying to long-form interviews, video testimonials, web interface development, and a series of community forums in fall 2010 and summer 2011 – all in an effort to spark a change in the way we, as artists, evaluate and value the arts. Because ultimately, no matter how much we believe it in our hearts, we can’t effectively argue for the value of the arts to anyone if we can’t speak about the parts of art that go beyond restaurant tabs, parking fees and tolls – in a language our debate partners understand.

We’re not trying to replace anything, we’re trying to add. In his book No Culture, No Future, Simon Brault notes, “…[A] one-dimensional and instrumental approach that would only justify or value artistic creation solely where it has calculable economic impact would be immensely more devastating for our society than underestimating the cultural sector’s economic contribution.”

The expansion of the argument for the arts, which began to work its way into the social and intrinsic impact spheres in the 1990′s, must now move from half-million-dollar-plus one-off studies to egalitarianized, easily accessible, standardized tools that anyone from the smallest to the largest cultural institution can use to demonstrate and analyze their own value and their great effect on the social fabric. We need as many tools as possible, and must, in Brault’s words, “come to terms with variable logic and negotiate with a multitude of new partners.” To that, I’d only add, “in a language as concrete and standardized as that which we use to talk about economic impact.”

For more in the Intrinsic Impact: Audience Feedback 2.0 study, visit, or come to our session!

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