Arts Policy Should Leave Audiences Demanding More

By Kevin F. McCarthy, Melissa K. Rowe, and Julia F. Lowell

Kevin McCarthy is a social scientist, Melissa Rowe is a behavioral scientist, and Julia Lowell is an economist at RAND.

As late as the 1960s and 1970s, arts advocates still treated the value of the arts as a given. By the early 1990s, however, social and political pressures, culminating in what became known as the “culture wars,” had put pressure on arts advocates to articulate the public value of the arts.

The advocates responded by touting the instrumental rather than the intrinsic benefits of the arts. By intrinsic benefits, we refer to those effects that are embedded in the arts experience, such as the insights into the human condition gained from reading Shakespeare — in contrast to those instrumental effects, such as higher grades in English literature, that are a by-product of that experience.

People are drawn to the arts not to improve their test scores or to stimulate the economy. People are drawn to the arts because they provide people with meaning and stimulate the emotions.

Of course, arts advocates acknowledge that the instrumental benefits are not the sole benefits of the arts and that the arts also “enrich people’s lives.” But in general, the advocates have downplayed intrinsic benefits in favor of aligning their arguments with society’s increasingly output-oriented and quantitative approach to public-sector management. Their underlying assumption has been that the intrinsic benefits of the arts promote individuals’ personal goals and are thus irrelevant to the public policy debate about the benefits of the arts to society as a whole.

We propose a broader view that recognizes both intrinsic and instrumental benefits and the ways in which both categories of benefits can yield both private and public value. Specifically, we distinguish among three categories of benefits: those that are primarily of private value, those that affect individuals but have spillover effects for the public, and those that are primarily of public value.

We argue that the private, intrinsic benefits are the starting point for generating all benefits of the arts since the intrinsic benefits trigger individuals to become involved in the arts in the first place. Therefore, the goal of policymakers should be to help greater numbers of Americans enjoy these benefits fully enough to demand even more of them, thus benefiting society. We suggest how arts advocates, local education partnerships, and state arts agencies can pursue this goal.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Levine conducts a rehearsal
Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director James Levine conducts a rehearsal. Levine is the orchestra’s 14th music director and the first American-born one in its 123-year history.

How Art Lost Its Message

To bolster the argument that the arts produce instrumental benefits that help all Americans, not just those involved in the arts, arts advocates have borrowed from the language of the social sciences and the broader policy debate. The arts are said to improve test scores and self-esteem among the young. They are said to enhance mental health among the old. They are said to be an antidote to myriad social problems, such as gangs and drugs. They are said to be good for business and tourism — raising income, employment, investment, and tax revenue. They are said to be a mechanism for urban revitalization.

Most of the empirical research on instrumental benefits suffers from conceptual and methodological limitations that cast doubt on the purported magnitude of these effects. For example, this literature fails to distinguish between correlation and causality. It does not indicate how a specific arts experience generates benefits or identify for whom and under what circumstances. Moreover, the arts are just one of many means by which these benefits can be derived.

These problems with the empirical research do not negate the value of the instrumental benefits but do suggest that their value might have been overestimated in the past. On the other hand, we emphasize that all attempts to calculate only the instrumental benefits underestimate the true value of the arts.

People are drawn to the arts not to improve their test scores or to stimulate the economy. People are drawn to the arts because they provide people with meaning and stimulate the emotions. In other words, people flock to the arts for intrinsic, not instrumental, reasons.

Many arts supporters are uncomfortable espousing the argument about instrumental benefits to justify the arts, because they know that some of the claims are exaggerated and that they fail to capture the unique value of the arts. Yet the supporters realize that many of the people who authorize public spending for the arts — and often private funding as well — respond only if the arguments are cast in terms of the easily quantifiable and measurable instrumental public benefits.

Our goal is to improve both the way that the benefits of the arts are understood and the way that policies to increase the benefits are designed. We challenge the widely held view that the intrinsic benefits are purely of value to the individual. Some intrinsic benefits are largely of private value. Others are of value to both the individual and society. Still others are largely of value to society as a whole. Moreover, the intrinsic benefits of the arts are often unique to the arts and may not be attainable through other means.

Policymakers and Arts Advocates Must Begin to Debate the Bigger Picture, Incorporating All Benefits of the Arts

A Larger Canvas

The current policy debate about the benefits of the arts suffers from a limited perspective (see the table). Policymakers have focused almost exclusively on the benefits of the arts in the two categories shaded purple in the table: the instrumental benefits of value to the public at large. Policymakers have discounted all other benefits, including those primarily of value to individuals and those intrinsic benefits that provide value to the public.

We argue that policymakers and arts advocates must begin to debate the bigger picture. All six categories of benefits are relevant to the arts policy debate.

Ironically, the category of benefits that has been downplayed the most — the intrinsic benefits that are primarily of value to individuals (shaded in gold) — is the gateway to all other benefits of the arts, be they instrumental or intrinsic, public or private. These intrinsic, private benefits are the ones that keep individuals coming back for more of the arts and thus are the key to sustained arts involvement — without which none of the other benefits can be obtained.

The table lists two examples of the benefits in this core category: captivation and pleasure. Captivation refers to the rapt absorption that moves an individual away from habitual and everyday reality into a state of focused attention on the arts experience. Captivation transports the individual elsewhere, even if only for the sake of comic relief or sheer escapism.

The arts suggest that there is no single “right” answer, that problems can be approached and solved in a variety of ways, and that phenomena and values that do not lend themselves to measurement are still important.

Pleasure refers to the satisfaction derived from an imaginative experience that can be more intense, revealing, and meaningful than everyday experiences. An aesthetic experience can be deeply satisfying even if individuals find a particular work of art to be unsettling, disorienting, or tragic.

Arts policy misplaces its focus when it emphasizes those instrumental benefits that are not even unique to the arts. Many other public policies can contribute to higher test scores, better health, and economic growth, for instance. If the arts must compete with other policies based on their educational, health, or economic impacts, then the arts may not always fare well by comparison.

However, the arts can be particularly conducive to generating intrinsic benefits that are advantageous to the public. These public benefits have been ignored in the policy debate. We provide four examples of them here.

“Expanded capacity for empathy” refers to the ability of the arts to expose us to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. Such experiences can provide us with greater insights and understanding of people and of cultures different from our own. Although these benefits are initially personal, they can provide crucial spillover benefits to society to the extent that they increase tolerance and understanding at a time when our society is growing increasingly diverse and when the differences that divide us seem more important than what we have in common. This tolerance and understanding are central to a society that places critical importance on freedom of speech and religion.

“Cognitive growth” refers to the broadened perspective that the arts can provide on how we experience the world around us and draw lessons from those experiences. Unlike the dominant scholastic paradigm that stresses the importance of measurable outcomes and the “right” way to approach a problem, the arts suggest that there is no single “right” answer, that problems can be approached and solved in a variety of ways, and that phenomena and values that do not lend themselves to measurement are still important.

“Creation of social bonds” refers to the communal experiences shared by people who participate in the arts — from book groups to music festivals to religious ceremonies. These experiences can create communities of interest that transcend class, ethnic, and political lines; allow private feelings to be expressed jointly; and reinforce both an interest in the arts and a more general sense of community.

“Expression of communal meaning” refers to the ability of art to convey what entire communities of people yearn to express. Public memorials and monuments, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., not only commemorate important events but also give people a common outlet for expression of public values. Some art forms, such as jazz music, give voice to communities often ignored by the culture at large. Other works of art are created with the explicit purpose of changing attitudes and bringing about positive social change.

The key to reaping the full benefits of the arts is to provide people with personally rewarding arts experiences, particularly at a young age.

The key to reaping the full benefits of the arts is to provide people with personally rewarding arts experiences, particularly at a young age. In this way, people will be more likely to sustain their involvement in the arts over the years, and it is this sustained involvement that is often decisive in ultimately generating the public benefits of the arts. Although this process starts with the individual’s personal involvement in the arts, the individual’s continued involvement can benefit all of society.

Reclaiming the Spotlight

The goal of arts policy, therefore, should be to spread the benefits of the arts by introducing more Americans to engaging arts experiences. This goal requires that resources be shifted away from simply expanding the supply of arts experiences (such as live theater, concerts, and museum exhibits) and toward cultivating demand. Without sufficient demand, the supply of arts experiences alone will not guarantee audience appreciation. A demand-side approach will help to sustain and to build a market for the arts by developing the capacity of individuals to extract the greatest possible benefits from the arts. We recommend four steps that the arts community can take to redirect its emphasis in this way.

The Gates project inspires Isan Brant, of Missoula, Mont., to turn a cartwheel.
The Gates project, with fabric the color of sunrise unfurling over miles of frigid footpaths in New York’s Central Park, inspires Isan Brant, of Missoula, Mont., to turn a cartwheel on Feb. 12. The Central Park Conservancy estimated that more than one million people entered the park in the event’s first five days.
  1. Develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits. A central reason for the current emphasis on instrumental benefits is the difficulty we have in discussing phenomena that are not easily defined in concrete terms. Correspondingly, the arts community needs to develop language to articulate how the arts, in and of themselves, create benefits at both the private and public levels. The greatest challenge will be to bring the policy community to recognize the importance of intrinsic benefits. The arts community will need to raise awareness in the policy community about the need to look beyond quantifiable results and to examine qualitative issues.
  2. Address the limitations of the research on instrumental benefits. Arguments about instrumental benefits should not be abandoned, but arts advocates need to become more credible and rigorous in presenting these arguments. Moreover, research should not be limited to instrumental benefits.
  3. Promote early exposure to the arts. Early exposure is often key to developing lifelong involvement in the arts. The most promising way to build audiences for the arts would be to provide well-designed arts programs in the nation’s schools. Currently, arts education is most likely to take place in elementary school and then all but disappears in middle school and high school except in literature courses and such extracurricular activities as school plays and bands.

    Excellent arts education programs would require more funding and greater cooperation between educators and arts professionals. In addition, most of the research on building effective arts programs calls for incorporating art appreciation, discussion, and analysis along with artistic production. As much as possible, “one-shot” learning experiences should be spurned.
  4. Create circumstances for rewarding arts experiences. High-quality arts experiences are characterized by enjoyment, a heightened sense of life, and imaginative departure. Individuals who have such experiences seek more of them. Frequent participants are those whose experiences engage them in multiple ways — mentally, emotionally, and socially. The policy implication for arts organizations is that occasional participants must be introduced to compelling arts experiences if they are to become frequent participants.

Role of Education Partnerships

Budget crises in many states, combined with federal requirements for educational testing systems under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, have compelled many school districts to increase instructional time in tested areas and to decrease instructional time in areas that are not tested, such as the arts. One strategy adopted by some schools to address this problem is to tap the expertise of community arts organizations. Partnerships between schools and arts organizations could move arts education beyond offering students only occasional, one-shot exposure to the arts.

In 1999, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched one of the most ambitious arts education programs in the country: a ten-year, multimillion-dollar effort to implement a substantive, sequential arts education curriculum in four major disciplines — dance, music, theater, and the visual arts — for all children in kindergarten through grade 12. A core component of the plan is to build partnerships with community arts organizations to supply the programs.

We found, however, that the schools and arts organizations had some notably different goals for the partnerships. Schools emphasized professional development for teachers as a key goal, but that was rarely mentioned as a goal of the arts organizations. Schools were equally concerned with finding grade-appropriate programs that could be integrated with the school curricula. But providing such programs was not an explicit goal of the arts organizations. The goal most often mentioned by arts organizations was promoting public awareness and appreciation of the arts. More than half of the schools said the arts organizations were not accommodating their needs.

The most significant policy implication pertaining to education partnerships is that schools must assume responsibility for creating a coherent arts curriculum and must become better-informed consumers of arts programs. The key is to move the programs away from being exposure-only experiences and toward becoming integrated components of a sustained, sequential curriculum.

Benjamin Entner prepares an art exhibit called To Never Forget: Faces of the Fallen.
Benjamin Entner, left, prepares an art exhibit called To Never Forget: Faces of the Fallen, at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., on March 3. The exhibit showed portraits of 1,327 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Role of State Arts Agencies

Since the 1980s, the primary providers of public resources for the arts in America have been state arts agencies (SAAs). Important changes in public arts policy are thus likely to require SAA involvement.

The 1990s and early 2000s have been difficult for many SAAs. In 2003, a record 43 of 56 SAAs reported declines in the general fund appropriations budgeted to them by their state legislatures. In 2004, 34 SAAs reported further budget reductions, with 9 reporting cuts of more than 30 percent. Six SAAs faced serious threats of elimination.

The budget cuts reflect a culmination of social, economic, and political trends over the past 40 years. These trends have made all public arts agencies, not just SAAs, vulnerable. Society has become more pluralistic, making it harder for public agencies to choose what sort of art to fund. State fiscal squeezes have translated directly to pressure on arts agency budgets. And growing political expectations for government to be more efficient, accountable, and responsive have required SAAs to justify every arts program like never before.

A big problem for SAAs is the perception, if not the fact, that SAAs exist to support arts providers rather than citizens of the state. Since the 1990s, SAAs have tried to counter this perception by focusing more on the instrumental benefits of the arts provided to citizens. The problem with this strategy is that other industries or activities also deliver instrumental benefits, perhaps better than the arts do.

Fortunately, many SAA managers are now rethinking the public purposes of the arts and how to serve those purposes. “Why art?” the managers are asking themselves. “Why should tax dollars go to the arts and culture, rather than to a sports team or a shopping mall?” Despite the recent hard times for SAAs, they may turn out to be pioneers in redefining government’s proper role in promoting the arts in a pluralistic democracy.

An important first step for the managers of each SAA is to recognize that its constituency comprises all state residents, not just arts aficionados, artists, and non- profit arts organizations. As public servants, the SAAs should invest in those arts institutions, activities, and artists that produce the greatest possible benefit for state residents by engaging them in rewarding arts experiences.

Audiences Eagerly Await

Policies that focus on building individual capacity for arts experiences should find broad support among the American people. According to public surveys, over 75 percent of Americans agree that the arts “are a positive experience in a troubled world,” “give you pure pleasure,” and “give you an uplift from everyday experiences.” Nearly 90 percent of Americans routinely agree that the arts are vital to the good life and that they enhance the quality of communities.

Policies that focus on building individual capacity for arts experiences should find broad support among the American people.

A majority of American parents believe that the arts are as important to their children’s education as reading, math, science, history, or geography. Close to 90 percent of American parents believe that the arts should be taught in school, and 95 percent believe that the arts are important in preparing children for the future. This breadth of public support testifies to the extraordinarily high value our society places on the arts — a view so widespread that it practically calls out for policies that can tap into this strong grassroots support.

The first task at hand is for arts advocates to work with schools, community groups, state agencies, and policymakers to craft a new language to communicate the value of the arts. All of these groups have a shared interest in serving their communities by articulating a common vision of the role and public benefits of the arts.

The overarching goal is to boost the benefits of the arts by extending their reach as vital tools of communication among the citizenry. After all, art alone does not make for a vital arts culture. It is the interplay among artistic creation, aesthetic enjoyment, and public discourse that creates and sustains such a culture. The goal of arts policy should be to bring as many people as possible into engagement with their culture and into communication with one another through meaningful experiences of the arts. square

Related Reading

Arts Education Partnerships: Lessons Learned from One School District’s Experience, Melissa K. Rowe, Laura Werber Castaneda, Tessa Kaganoff, Abby Robyn, RAND/MG-222-EDU, 2004, 115 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3650-5.
Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, Arthur Brooks, RAND/MG-218-WF, 2004, 123 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3694-7.
State Arts Agencies 1965-2003: Whose Interests to Serve? Julia F. Lowell, RAND/MG-121-WF, 2004, 57 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3562-2.