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WE NEED NEW BEANS TO COUNT


Clayton Lord
3/2/2011

As an industry, the arts suffers from a value problem.This was thrown into sharp relief for me in an interview I had with an artistic leader from rural Wisconsin, who pointed out, “We’re all bean counters because the people we deal with, what they count is beans.” In almost everything we do to advocate for the arts, we place financial worth front and center, and in so doing we allow, even encourage, the people we’re trying to convince of art’s value to forget that that value is much more than economic.
 
Explicating value is difficult, especially for something as impermanent and subjective as art. But we all know what that value is – we’re artists, we believe strongly in the ability of art to stretch across divides, to instill empathy, to educate about new experiences, to encourage creative and critical thought, to transform relationships.  More than that, we believe in something even more primal to what we do, pre-language, pre-thought: an ur-impulse in art that, upon contact, rearranges something within us when we interact with it, changes our emotional and intellectual make-up in some fundamental way, and leaves us different.  We believe that art makes better people.
 
And yet we spend all of our time talking about the fact that one dollar into the arts generates eighteen dollars out.  We talk about butts in seats, and dollars per head, and return on dollar-for-dollar investment.  We talk about side impacts to restaurants, businesses, parking garages, coffee shops.  We count the beans we know how to count, and then present them to other people who know how to count them, and declare ourselves valuable.
 
The unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon is that we end up convincing people that art is a luxury, not a necessity. Sure, if that theatre shuts its doors, those other businesses are going to lose some traffic, but, when you’re looking at the beans we look at, the loss of this art or that art, seen in purely economic terms, is manageable.  By not formulating and disseminating a vocabulary about the arts that includes terms for explaining the ethereal, or intrinsic, impacts of the work we do on the people who watch us do it, we’re turning off the part of the conversation that is about what a world without art would do to the people living in it.
 
The author Barbara Kingsolver, in her book High Tide in Tucson, writes about wants and needs, and the difference.  She says, "Want is a thing that unfurls unbidden like fungus, opening large upon itself, stopless, filling the sky. But needs, from one day to the next, are few enough to fit in a bucket, with room enough left to rattle like brittle brush in a dry wind."
 
I would argue, and I think we would all argue, that art and the expression of empathy, emotion and connectedness that goes along with art, is as fundamental a need as anything else that would rattle around in that bucket, but it’s clear to me that not many others think that way.  The NEA is under threat (again), arts education continues to disappear from schools, as it has for the last three decades, etc, etc.
 
It is time to start trying to grow some new beans, to start quantifying, as best we can, the formerly unquantifiable, most-important-part-of, art.  And that’s what we’re currently trying to do in a national study of the intrinsic impact of live theatre.  In 18 theatres in six cities across the country, we’re distributing over 49,000 surveys that have been designed by the research firm WolfBrown to quantify the intellectual, social, emotional, empathic impacts of the art we do. 

Accompanying that work, we’re conducting interviews with audience members, artistic and administrative staff, and major thinkers in the arts across the country to try and better understand how they talk about the arts—all with a goal of developing a new vocabulary (and a new web tool to utilize that vocabulary) that will allow us to more accurately express why art matters. 
 
For the sake of the field, and the betterment of the people we serve, we need to get started counting some new beans, and we need to teach the people who control our funding how to understand their worth.
 
For more information on the Intrinsic Impact study, visit http://www.theatrebayarea.org/intrinsicimpact
 


To continue the coversation with Clayton, join him at the Meeting the Shifting Demands of Philanthropy Professional Development Workshop at the 2011
Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, June 16-18 in San Diego.


Comments

I think this is a great initiative that is extremely relevant to the challenges arts marketers are facing today globally. Do hope to stay connected with the progress of the project, and potentially help in any manner possible at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Mumbai, India

Cheers
Sriram


"I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending -- an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilsm at bay."

William Kentridge

To my mind, at its best, the kind of art that interests Kentridge is powered by and is a reflection of a deep truth, a particle of the understanding of the mystery of life, that gives the lie to fanatics of all stripes. It helps answer questions about how to live together in the world.


This is so on-target. And personally, so apropos – being an artist/arts administrator and married to my accountant … a cost accountant no less… whose inclination is to count widgets!

I opened a small arts business three years ago. My husband/accountant is now beginning to see that “widgets” can come in intangible forms with even greater value – like compliments, personal fulfillment, joy, another person’s bright eyes and softened face, laughter, not to mention the art that happens as a result!

My hat's off to you as you work to grow lush beanstalks in the greater art and business world. I'm a very small seed in the garden but if I can help, let me know.


My question to the budget cutters of the world is this, "in what way does reducing arts funding advance our culture?" Responsible budget management is only one aspect of leadership. In the Walmart age, low price and quantity rule. Leaders, public and private, must fight for the higher self of individuals and communities, despite its relevance to economic activity.

Without the arts we cut the cord to elevated thought and behavior.

Great article and we are looking forward to the survey results.


Total agreement here- Very well said , as I just posted something to this affect on another site- The arts in our education is how we pass on our culture to our children, to give them a higher understanding of the world in ALL situations, from math to language to science.


Thank you for writing this. I do not belong to any specific advocacy group, but I participate in and am a supporter of the arts. Even the arts I do not personally consume. And for years I have been bothered not only by the decline or arts funding and education, but with the troublesome tendency among most advocates to use the, "The Arts creates X many jobs in this city. The creative thinking skills they instill in people influence the flow of Y amount of information into the economy. Therefore, arts are a large economic force."

In it's own right, that may, or may not be true. But as you say, when you define the arts in the same way you define businesses, restaurants, and malls, you invite their overall impact to be compared to same. And with few exceptions, a community arts organization, in terms of pure economic power, is not going to compete with the monetary clout of other organizations within that community.

Yes, it is more difficult to present the importance of the arts by focusing on the intangible and the, dare I say, spiritual aspects of it. But being difficult does not mean it isn't worth the effort. That is why we do desperately need this dialogue in the arts community. By no means should we ignore the economic impact numbers, but in the end the very purpose of the arts, and the very purpose people choose to contribute their money to them in the first place is FAR beyond dollars and cents. It is about the very soul of a community. A culture of a people. That is what is being lost in the debate about supporting the arts. That is what we must find a way insude into said debate.


Thanks for the inspiring, thoughtful, and very truthful article. I am wrapping up a month of blog postings about Risky Programming (particularly related to children's theater programming) and this was a nice clincher.
http://www.piccadillyarts.com/blog/11/03/07/value-problem-arts

Seriously, if we could all find, use, and illustrate a new language for success, we might see more funding (maybe?) and more risks taken programmatically in schools and on the stages. We can encourage imaginative thinking and possibly produce children that are creative, thoughtful problem solvers instead of champion test takers.

There is a place for quality art that fits into a curriculum or a piece backed by a popular book, but it angers me and discourages me that I continually run into folks who "have to" program with this in mind for a variety of reasons. I know there are many programmers that want to take risks but to your point, feel bound by an "all or nothing" means of defining and measuring success, especially since we rely on government funding. I often think too that foundations with their constant evaluations place too much emphasis on surface findings.

I was just saying the other day regarding education for my son (now 3) that I want to find or set a new proverbial bar. If he won't get what I consider to be must-haves in school because the funding isn't there at any level, then I have to back up and find another way - grow new beans.


I totally agree! I am part of the Playback North America -- a newly-formed network currently with members from 50 Playback Theatre companies (and growing daily) from the US, Canada and Mexico. (More about Playback below.) We are seeking ways to describe and measure the profound impact of Playback Theatre, and will be very interested in the vocabulary and web tools you develop. If it's not too late, I hope you will include some Playback companies and audiences in your study. If interested, please contact Christopher@PlaybackNorthAmerica.net

Playback Theatre is an artistic practice of deep listening and embodied empathy, used in over 50 countries to build community and build understanding across differences. In a Playback performance, volunteers from the audience briefly describe important moments from their lives (often on a theme), and 4-6 actors instantly turn it into theatre using movement, music and dialogue. Audience members often cry, laugh, get new insights about their lives, and feel more connected to each other and to humanity.


Firstly thank you very much for this great work for the art. I m an art lover and love folk and tradition. Actually there is no language to express the real beauty of art, but we all express it in a way that is our different language. As I feel that mostly performer who belongs to the rural areas they perform very much but they cant spread their art form to a wide areas or abroad firstly due to language and secondly due to the economy. As I belong to India from Bihar I know many artist who are outstanding but the most problem is to reaching to the real and true people is the meaningful thing. But they cant move from there places.In the whole year sometimes they perform their art and disappear like a rainy season toad.I m very happy to connect with you. I'll very glad to be a part of your mission which is for art only...thank you..

O.P.Pandey.


Thank you for writing about what we give up when we focus on economic impact.

WESTAF held a symposium to examine how to make the case for the arts beyond economic impact studies and included everyone from an expert in rhetoric to Stephen Tepper to an arts lobbyist. The proceedings are well worth reading.

To access them and more discussion from Diane Ragsdale and others, visit this robus post in the Advocacy section of the National Performing Arts Convention Website. http://www.performingartsconvention.com/advocacy/id=29


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