A New Reflection of Cultural Vitality
On January 20, Americans for the Arts released the National Arts Index—a new framework to measure the vitality of the U.S. cultural sector based on 76 national indicators grouped by 4 overarching themes: Financial Flows, Organizational Capacity, Arts Participation and Competitiveness. In a field where obtaining data can be like pulling teeth, assembling the breadth of this information is an accomplishment in itself. For me, the real value is that we finally have in place an annual, national reflection of a creative sector that embraces a range of activity inclusive of both nonprofit and commercial cultural delivery models.
Reflections aren’t always pretty though. The National Arts Index shows us definitively over an 11-year period that the rules of engagement have changed. Buffeted by changing demographics, the economic business cycle, technology and increasing diverse cultural choices, traditional art forms that have been historic cornerstones of American public life and cultural identity are struggling to compete successfully to obtain the sources of financial support and the audience numbers they need to survive. By revealing long term trends and a key annual measurement of the vitality of the sector, the Index provides an additional incentive to seriously rethink how we support the development of creative expressions and access to the creative process through new models of engaging individuals and communities in the arts.
There are two sides to every story, and from another angle, the Index reflects that the demand for arts and cultural experiences is there. A greater interest in arts and culture is demonstrated through the index by rises in personal participation and expenditures for creative activities (Indicators 30, 32), more individuals obtaining degrees in the performing and visual arts (Indicator 37) and gaining employment in creative jobs (Indicators 17, 18 and 24.)
If the interest is there, the question becomes, “What kind of experience do cultural consumers want to have?” The fact that engagement through creation is on the rise (supported by both the Index and the 2008 SPPA), even as the traditional indicators of demand (participation at nonprofit live events) have decreased, tells us that more opportunities for interactive participation may be the key as Americans take advantage of the myriad of cultural choices available to them. The successes of popular culture like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and even the Guitar Hero video game, even by those who are not particularly artistically inclined, show that the perceived power of a cultural experience is valued not only for the cultural content but also for the opportunity to participate in the creative process.
I have always felt that America’s cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths and that the theoretical divide between the not for profit arts and creative industries has prevented the U.S. arts and cultural community from articulating its full value to the American public as well as inhibited our ability to move the conversation forward beyond financial support for the arts. It is my hope that now we can begin discussions, representative of all interests, on how to foster a thriving and healthy cultural sector that meets the creative needs of all Americans beyond a system that reinforces a flailing sustainability model.