Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beyond Preaching to the Choir: How Can We Convince the Naysayers?

Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Red Rocks.
The proverbial choir (Actually, it's the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). CC image via Flickr user tracy out west
This week I want to talk about the power of the arts- and how we, as arts advocates, convey this power. Since I started writing this blog in April I've tried to touch on the myriad arguments we use to advocate for the arts, from the instrumental (job creation, economic driver, creative workforce driver) to the intrinsic (an artwork that gives you the chills or makes you laugh or cry or think).  But preaching to the choir is an easy trap to fall into as an arts advocate. It’s hard to know how all these arguments sound on the receiving when so frequently the only response we get is not “that’s not true” but rather “there’s not enough money.” Read on to find out what some advocates are saying about how to go beyond the proverbial choir to convey effective messages about the power of the arts. 

What works?
     Here’s an example of the kind of unconstructive negative feedback I’m describing: the director of the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, KS, recently wrote an eloquent op-ed in favor of public funding for the arts, in response to the demise of the arts commission in her state (read my coverage of that event here). Most of the negative comments on piece amount to “that’s all well and good but we don’t have the public money” or, more simply, “then you write the check.”
     Aside from the fact that these public funding antagonists aren’t up on the issues (lest we not forget that the shuttering of the arts commission in Kansas actually cost the state $1.3 million in matching funds—more than the budget of the entire arts commission itself), what kind of message will reach these folks? It may be unrealistic to reach the real antagonists, but the “on-the-fencers” may be a group we can convince – with help from the right messages.

With apologies to McLuhan, the ripple effect is the message
    That’s where this terrific piece from Santa Cruz's Museum of Art & History director and participatory guru Nina Simon comes in. In a recent blog post, Nina highlighted the relevant points from a report conducted (pdf, 10MB) by Cincinnati-based group ArtsWave. The report studies just what I’m talking about above- how do our messages sound to those who haven’t drunk the arts Kool-Aid? ArtsWave surveyed Cincinnati-ans who are not part of the proverbial "choir" and found that what doesn’t work are the arguments about health benefits, stress reduction, civic boosterism/local pride. In other words, the arguments that often fall into the "intrinsic" category.
     So if those arguments aren’t effective, which ones are? ArtsWave found the effective arguments involved an "arts ripple effect:"

The arts ripple effect creates at least two kinds of benefits:
1. A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc.

2. A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

     Simon’s piece focuses on advocating for specific institutions (as director of the Museum of Art and History, this perspective is obviously important to her.) But I think the arguments she presents apply to the arts as a whole, beyond the institutional level. And I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but the effective arguments highlighted in the report – thriving economies, thriving communities – are exactly what ArtPlace is striving for.
     The arts community is not as divided as maybe some other advocacy communities are (though I’m sure hair splitting goes on somewhere). But it’s still great to see a consensus around efficacy of both arts messaging and arts initiatives. In other words, look at what the arts can do - and in ArtPlace's case, they are doing it here, here, and here!
     This feeds even more into ArtPlace director Carol Coletta’s argument that I mentioned last week - the more effective ArtPlace (and other arts ripple effect programs) are, the more likely it is that we can get more funding for arts and culture- whether public or private.

Simon also notes that what works to advocate for the arts in Cincinnati or Santa Cruz may not work somewhere else. What have you found is an effective arts advocacy in your community?

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