If You Fund It, They (Still) Won’t Come

Q: Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does saving them mean?*

Why do so many people think the arts need saving? Well, first of all, the arts bubble from the latter half of the last century is bursting, as predicted by the late Alice Goldfarb-Marquis in her book Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding. Arts funding and profitable arts work is drying up, and drying up quickly. I’ve written about this from both a jazz and classical perspective, and this excellent blog post by David Beem provides the perspective of an accomplished classical insider (the post went viral in the music community this weekend). Basically, people are concerned that when incomes in the arts disappear, then the arts will disappear, so we should do something to save them. Who are these people? They consist of:

  • A small percentage of the general population who love the arts and want to make sure that they are there for the next generation, and
  • Artists and arts-related businesses (recording labels, agents, venues, etc.), and arts educators, all of whom want to continue making a living in the arts. These groups lobby for funding, and attempt, as much as possible, to package their thinly veiled self-interest as a priestly calling. (All of the romantic bunk about the long-suffering artist, living in poverty, selflessly wrestling with demons for the sake of humanity is part of this mythology; it’s seductive, especially for the young.)

The rest of the answer to this question, then, is simple: They want to “save the arts” because people enjoy making music, and they like dancing, acting, painting, and writing poetry and narrative. They would also really, really like it if those activities paid the mortgage for a nice three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs or a hipster condo in the Village. “Saving the arts” is really just code for “let’s patch up and re-inflate the arts bubble.”


The question then tells us more about the people asking the question than anything else and I don’t mean the contest judges, I’m speaking broadly about the arts community, whose voice is reflected in this question. What do I mean by that? The question is phrased vaguely, as all of these types of questions usually are, in a manner that does not properly define the topic. It asks about saving “the arts”–ok, what does “arts” refer to? Pop music? Club Music and Electronica? Country and Western? Knitting? Of course not–this has nothing to do with these and most other forms of artistic expression. They are referring to the high-brow, elite, and sophisticated fine arts, as exemplified by the Western traditions in art, dance, music, theatre/film, and literature that have been canonized over many centuries.

But really, the premise is absurd. Save the arts? You’d no more be able to “save” the arts than you could destroy them. This gets us back to the folly and hubris (that I wrote about in my last post) of trying to shape or manage a culture. We in the arts community, however, will have none of it. As a whole, we are completely enamored with the idea that there’s some piece of legislation, some law, some new government position, some new agency, or some new education initiative, that can create demand for the arts; all they need to do is find it and/or fund it and just watch the box office revenue come pouring in. Unfortunately, it never does.

The means to this end are taxes, grants, awards, surcharges, tariffs, exemptions, rules, guidelines, Ministers of This and Secretaries of That. In Canada, as I wrote last time, they even have laws in which one group of Canadians tells the other 99.99% of Canadians that, when they turn on their radios or televisions, they have to listen to or watch a certain percentage of art that was made by racially (well, politically) pure Canadians. (We all know that, left to their own devices, these ill-informed and ill-educated Canucks might–gasp–actually listen to music of their own choosing, and we cannot allow that. Pass a law! Save the Arts!) So, we see here how the supposedly “free-thinking, freedom loving, and iconoclastic” arts community quickly embraces bureaucracy and political coercion when they think (wrongly) that it will line their own pockets.

Why not just admit the obvious? Perhaps 5-8% of the population will be interested in regularly engaging with the fine arts in the first place, so create the structures that will support those numbers. This means that not every town will have a symphony or an art museum. This means that universities should consider building unique programs that respond to regional demands and capitalize on the strengths of their faculty, rather than just blatantly duplicating the programs that are found within 100 miles in each direction. (My colleagues at Grand Valley State University will attest to the many unsuccessful proposals I have made in this regard over the years!) This also means that not everyone who likes to paint, sing, or play the trombone will be able to make a living from it. In fact, almost no one who likes to paint, sing, or play the trombone, will be able to make a living from it.

The arts, broadly defined, are thriving like never before. I’ve written about that several times, so I won’t repeat myself here. The problem is, the arts are not thriving in the ways that the conservatives in the arts (yes, they’re conservatives, not political conservatives, but conservatives nonetheless) would like them to thrive. Hence, “saving the arts” is just code for “saving my arts job.”  It might not be pretty, but it’s probably true.

*This is the fourth round question for Spring for Music’s Great Blogger Contest, from which I was eliminated. I expected the last round question to be one that would try to draw the bloggers out on how to increase arts attendance and engagement. I’m sure we would have had the usual “solutions” dragged out in turn–education, state funding, federal funding, community outreach, unique programming, etc.  This question seems out of sequence to me. The previous question–whether there should be a Secretary of Culture–is one of the possible solutions for “saving the arts,” so it would make more sense to go from the general to the specific, not the other way around. Still, it made me wonder how I would answer it if I were still in the contest, so I did!

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4 Responses to “If You Fund It, They (Still) Won’t Come”

  1. Interesting post, Kurt.

    Some thoughts:

    The focus should be on providing incentives for support of the arts. It really isn’t about ‘saving’ the arts , but rather about ‘encouraging’ the arts.

    I’d rather my tax dollars were spent on the arts than bombing people halfway around the world.

    That said, I am not sure how best to support the arts via the government.

    I think the answer is providing performance spaces versus funding individual organizations.

    This serves the idea that we are never sure what new art forms are emerging – and which ones are dying away . My favorite mental exercise along these lines is using Detroit as an example. Are they better served by having the DSO or would some other focus better encourage the development of the arts in that particular community? And given the economic state of Detroit, what are the priorities? Given the opportunity and fical point afforded by performance spaces, communities may develop the programming most resonant for their communities. And it may end up engaging more people as creators than the current model.

    Another thought is that when looking back at previous civilizations/cultures we often only have their art (inclusing architecture) as an artifact. Even the impact of their military expansion is often reflected in the art they introduce in the conquered territories.

    Finally, I will posite that more emphasis and support of education including arts education is really at the core of building an appreciation for the arts. Study after study has shown the value of an arts education even beyond the arts. The continuing decline of the US in the arts and sciences, as well as other areas is arguably related to the de-emphasis of the arts and the lack of a critical appreciation for them.

    So if our well being as a nation – or as a species – is related to the development and understanding of the arts, then we the people should be doing something about nurturing the arts. And as the arts are a collaborative and participatory experience we should be engaged as a community.

  2. Alexandra Bonifield Reply April 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Reblogged this on criticalrant.com Alexandra Bonifield and commented:
    Save the arts? Why bother?

  3. Reblogged this on Bostron's Rants and commented:
    A provocative look at the arts-funding question…

  4. I think this is a great answer – bravo! It’s worth noting that Charles Ives speculated that maybe the best music ever written in the world won’t be written until the last person trying to make a living at music is gone and gone for good. Don’t get me wrong – I love making a living at music. I always tell people that I feel so blessed to be getting paid for something I’d do for free anyway. But I think it’s a symptom of our entitlement generation to assume that we should get to make a living at something most people are happy to do as a hobby.

    The military makes it vey clear what the bands’ function is. We exist primarily to 1) boost morale and camaraderie among troops, and 2) serve as a public affairs tool for the military and the country. That first function includes the parades, retirements, funerals, parties and other military ceremonies. It also includes deploying to the four corners of the Earth and playing for troops who work incredibly hard in unbelievable conditions. The second function includes the rest of the public concerts we do locally and across the country, including schools, street parades, concert halls, and festivals. This part of our job is simply to make people feel good, happy, and patriotic; to get the message out about what it is we do, here and abroad; and to build bridges through an international language.

    The reason I’m saying all this seemingly off-topic stuff is that we need to remember who’s important here. Notice that our primary function is NOT to commission new avant-garde music; it’s NOT to give a haven to the standard literature; it’s NOT to demonstrate how many chord substitutions you know over F blues; and it’s NOT to challenge and entertain ourselves. There are often appropriate places for these things to happen, but not at the expense of a confused, alienated audience. When we had a meeting with the rock band to determine new programming (and why AREN’T rock music and knitting considered arts, anyway? Because they don’t need “protecting”?), we started by figuring out what the most popular songs of 2012 and 2013 were for different age groups and demographics. We then figured out which ones matched our strengths as a group, and we built set lists around them. I’m not saying there’s not room for challenging pieces – I’ve long thought we as military bands underestimate our audiences – but we have to remember our two functions. The military feels these functions are important enough to spend the money on bands; but if we stop performing these functions, they’ll see no need to keep us around. Audience first, baby – that’s what’ll “save” the arts, and it’s completely up to us; not the government, not charitable organizations, and not school systems.

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