What We Talk About When We Talk About the Arts | wisconsinacademy.org
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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Arts

“Now ... I should note that the point of the arts is obviously not to create economic impact or jobs; the point is to help us communicate in new ways about what it is like to be human, the good, the painful, the ugly, and the sublime. But isn’t it great to know that the arts are also a robust industry that helps fuel America’s economy and sustain U.S. jobs?”
 —Robert L. Lynch, President, Americans for the Arts

Lately when I get together with friends and colleagues who work in the arts (or, as some people say, the arts industry) I hear a whole lot about the ways in which the arts can drive local economies, build tourism revenue, and add value and vibrancy to communities.

Certainly revenue is one way of measuring growth and overall success of an industry. And while every industry needs a lingua franca with which it can describe and justify its work, by repeatedly invoking the arts as an engine for economic growth we seem to be placing unrealistic demands upon the arts—and the people who create and share them with the public. Even worse, by broadcasting this “engine” narrative, we’re inculcating an expectation of economic return—good jobs, higher property values, increased tourism—on public arts funding.

Now, I’m sure my arts advocate and administrator friends will say, Whoa, there. Economic impact is a very useful tool for justifying funding for the arts. I absolutely agree. However, if economic impact is but a singular note in a whole symphony of justification for the arts, why do I keep hearing only that one note again and again?

While a loud and crowded media landscape, sagging U.S. economy, and pitched battle for dwindling state and federal dollars have made this engine narrative all too attractive, it wasn’t always what we talked about when we talked about the arts.

This narrative linking arts to economic development seems to have coalesced around the time Richard Florida released his 2002 manifesto, The Rise of the Creative Class. In it, Florida describes his take on the transformative power of art (hint: it’s not the kind of transformation artists usually talk about). Establish a colony of bohemian-types who are fully engaged in the creative process, writes Florida, and culturally bereft areas will transform into safe and beautiful zones for commerce.

Now, it’s important to note that Florida is an economist and sociologist. In his theory of a socioeconomic “creative class,” the visual artist is interchangeable with the computer programmer. That is to say, their contributions to the creative community have equivalent transformative capacity. Still, the arts community embraced Florida’s ideas and began to transform their own communities through creative work. A deluge of studies examining “The Economic Impact of the Arts” soon followed.

By the mid-2000s Florida’s seminal work had spawned a new industry of authors and lecturers like Sir Ken Robinson and Jonah Lehrer whose breathless observations on the power of creativity were in demand across classroom and boardroom alike. Through stories of artistic inspiration and scientific discovery, these creativity gurus (as well as TED Talks and the ubiquitous phenomenon known as the Creativity Summit), told us how creativity is the seed from which the highest forms of artistic expression and scientific innovation grow and bear fruit.

However, in telling (and re-tweeting) these stories, we began to shift the cultural conversation about art from one of expression to one of production. The arts community, for whom the reasons for pursuing and funding the arts are self-evident, soon adopted this narrative as shibboleth without stopping to consider that the business world didn’t care as much for creativity (seeds) as for what creativity could produce (fruits).

By 2009, the economic narrative was so pervasive that we received with little surprise the news that the arts were going to save America from the recession. In an interview for the New York Times, incoming National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman channeled the transformative power of Florida’s creative class, saying that “when you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town.”

Landesman was not wrong. The arts industry annually generates over a $130 billion of economic activity and supports more than four million full-time jobs, according to Americans for the Arts. But you could easily replace “artists/art” with “a biotech firm” in his statement and that wouldn’t be wrong, either.

That’s because Landesman is talking about the fiscal fruits of creativity rather than the fruits for which lovers of art hunger: personal expression, sensual elevation, a glimpse of the sublime. And by repeatedly conflating the fiscal and the sensual, we relegate the arts to a portfolio of community investment, where they become just another commodity to be acquired or shed according to potential for profit or loss.

Now, I realize that there isn’t always enough time, characters, or column inches to explain all the ways in which the arts transport us to other realms of understanding or help us find beauty in a world that can be indifferent and at times downright ugly.

But it is up to the arts community to reclaim our narrative of justification, our raison d’être. If not now, we’ll be asked to do it later when the public demands answers for why chamber music or yarn bombing or spoken-word poetry haven’t yet saved the national economy.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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