Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do You Have a Good Argument for Your Institution?

At my grocery store, if you bring your own shopping bag, they give you tokens that you can use to donate money to local nonprofits. As I drop 5 cent tokens into my slots of choice, I often wonder: could my museum be on this list? Would it be appropriate to ask for donations here alongside the food bank and the women's shelter? Would anyone put their token in our slot?

This boils down to a fairly basic question: what's the value of our institutions? We all have arguments we make to prove our worth--economic, educational, social--but many of those arguments are insider-focused. They are successful with audiences who already believe in the intrinsic power of art or the role art plays in civic engagement, but it's unclear how helpful they are to the people who aren't attending, participating, or supporting. I don't think many of them pass the the grocery store token test.

Last year, the Fine Arts Fund in Cincinnati (now called ArtsWave) released a terrific report that examined this question in detail. The Fund wanted to find the most effective ways to promote public action for the arts in their city--not among established arts supporters, but among diverse members of the public who may have only a glancing relationship with arts institutions.

Here's how the project worked: researchers worked with small focus groups to understand their associations with arts and culture organizations and developed several framing arguments for public support of the arts. Then, they interviewed 400 people by phone and online, presenting them with a short framing argument (80-120 words), followed by a series of open-ended questions intended to determine how memorable the argument was, how it influenced their perception of the public value of the arts, and how likely it was to inspire action. The goal was not to find out what people like about the arts but what might impel them to actively support arts organizations and projects.

The results are fascinating--not just for the arguments that did work, but even more so for the ones that didn't (jump to page 15 of the report). A few gems:
  • To many people, "culture" is about ethnicity. If you talk about a "cultural institution" or an "arts and culture" project, people might think you are talking about something specific to a set of individuals who share common heritage, not something universally shared.
  • People often think of art institutions as providers of individual entertainment opportunities. If you want to go to the museum and I want to go to the baseball game, we're each making our own choices with our recreational time and money. This perception makes it hard for people to get behind the idea of public support for the arts--why should I subsidize your personal interest?
  • Arguments about broadening your horizons through art and the spiritual and health benefits of art work for established arts enthusiasts, but for others, these arguments may fall flat. A lot of things can broaden your horizons, reduce your stress, and connect you to transcendence. While these statements were interesting to some people in the study, they were perceived as highly specific to individual experiences and did not impel any sense of public responsibility.
  • If you talk about arts and kids, people may quickly assume that you are talking strictly about the education system and the role of art in schools.
  • While arguments about the role of art in engendering civic pride and local distinction were effective, arguments about the role of arts in city planning or civic improvements were not. Participants quickly got distracted in talking about the problems of their city and were not sufficiently convinced that art has a role in addressing those issues.
  • Arguments appealing to the long history of arts support in the city made some people feel defensive about contemporary public issues and interests. "We should do it because we've always done it" is not compelling to people dealing with difficult tradeoffs and stresses.
What did work? The framing argument that was most successful in Cincinatti was:
A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community... 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.
The authors noted that this "ripple effects" framing was effective because:
  • it focuses on public benefit, not individual enrichment.
  • it positions the arts as having a geographically diffuse effect, not tied to specific events, institutions, or districts with which individuals may or may not associate.
  • it pairs a practical idea of community health (economic vitality) with something more emotional and aspirational (bringing together diverse voices).
  • it doesn't focus strictly on the dollars and cents of economic impact (which invites potentially unhelpful comparisons), but more broadly on the idea of vibrancy and vitality.
Some of these findings may be specific to Cincinnati, but I find the overall report extremely helpful as I think about how to talk about arts in Santa Cruz--both as the director of an institution and as a member of the city arts commission. It can be hard to step outside our own rhetoric and circles of support to realistically judge what people do and don't understand about what we do and why our institutions exist. We don't have an unalienable right to public support. We have a responsibility to frame what we do in a way that inspires people to act. And maybe, hopefully, to drop a token in our proverbial slot.

What inspires you to support the arts? What arguments do you find effective or unsuccessful in your region or organization? When a friend asks you why he/she should support the arts, what do you say?
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