WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Last week, I was catching up with economic news by listening to American Public Media’s Marketplace, and was introduced to journalist David Brancaccio’s blog and column titled Economy 4.0. I was struck by the plethora of indicators trying to measure community health and happiness. Most interesting were the Happy Planet Index, which measures countries’ environmental footprints, and the Genuine Progress Index, which incorporates metrics like the costs of crime and commuting. Other favorites include the Well Being Index and the World Values Survey. The purpose of these indices is to inform policy and advocacy work at the national, regional, and congressional district level.

Arts and culture, however, play only a minor role in determining the overall state of community health in many of these indices.  However, there are a number of other indicators and indices that focus on the the arts and its potential impacts, such the Urban Institute’s Cultural Vitality Indicators (they have also compiled a number of resources and other examples of measurements related to this work). Also, Americans for the Arts is now developing a community-level assessment based on its National Arts Index.  But these measurement tools have yet to play a significant role in broader measurements of health, economy and social capital.

In the podcast I listened to, Brancaccio quoted economist Joseph Stiglitz: “What you measure affects what you do. If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.” What do we want to do, and then how do we go about finding the right measurement in order to do it? What can these social and economic indicators suggest for current and future arts and culture evaluation? Should we advocate for arts and culture to represent a more significant component of emotional health? Of life satisfaction? If so, how? Conversely, how can we incorporate these alternative metrics into specific arts and culture indicators?


It’s not new: understanding – and trumpeting – the “economic impact” of arts and culture has been a small industry in the field for some time. Most notably, Americans for the Arts has conducted three national studies of “The Arts and Economic Prosperity,” and is beginning a fourth. The rationale is that policy-makers continue to be convinced of the value of arts and culture by highlighting their impact on jobs and revenues, even if those policy-makers see no intrinsic benefits to arts and culture.

In a recent Financial Times article, John Kay, a leading British business economist and academic, bemoans the standard methodology of cultural economic impact studies.  What arts impact studies typically measure “is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs,” suggesting that measuring resources consumed is not a valid method of evaluation.

I’ve always felt that economic data about cultural activity worked best as part of a broader set of advocacy strategies that articulated all of the ways arts and culture add value. As Randy Cohen, AFTA’s Vice President of Local Arts Advancement, pointed out in an e-mail to me, “this sort of [financial] measurement is standard procedure in most industries. Perhaps [Kay] doesn’t view the arts as an industry.”  He also commented that Alan’s research into the intrinsic value of the arts is an important part of the story, as is the impressive data emerging about the impact of arts education: “it’s really a question of ‘and’ not ‘or’ when making the case.” The moral of the story? As long as civic leaders are swayed by economic numbers, they have a role to play in describing the value of arts and culture.


A Cure for the Edifice Complex?

November 8th, 2010

The recent economic challenges have heightened awareness of and concern for the proliferation of visual and performing arts facilities built in the last 20 years with unsupportable debt and/or insufficient working capital.  Given the challenges that arts groups face raising public and private sector support to build expensive “starchitect” designed facilities, it is not surprising that building campaigns often skimp on raising additional endowment for current operations and future capital improvements.

The recent announcement that Larry Goldman, New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s founding CEO, is leaving to head the center’s affiliated NJPAC Development Corporation prompted me to wonder why more arts groups do not take leadership roles in the development of surrounding commercial property.  Those who develop arts facilities usually cite the positive impact that Lincoln Center has had on residential and retail development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but often fail to recognize the opportunity Lincoln Center missed by not investing in that neighborhood’s development.  More recently, organizations like Playhouse Square in Cleveland have made adjacent commercial development a core part of their missions to provide audiences with a satisfying overall visitor experience.  They have come to realize that taking a proactive role in the development of nearby shops and restaurants on land they control can provide an ongoing source of ancillary revenue and take some pressure off the need for philanthropic support.


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