The Space Between Stories and Numbers

Posted by Mr. Clayton W. Lord, Mar 14, 2011 0 comments

Clayton Lord

Last week, arts advocate Arlene Goldbard spoke at the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations conference in Austin. Goldbard believes we need to start using a more empowered (and less-numbers-based) vocabulary for arguing for the value of the arts. At one point she said this:

"The best argument for arts education is that children today practice endlessly interacting with machines, developing a certain type of cognitive facility. But without the opportunity that arts education affords to face human stories in all their diversity and particularity, to experience emotional responses in a safe space and rehearse one's reactions, to feel compassion and imagine alternative worlds, their emotional and moral development will never keep pace."

Later, she noted:

"Students today are preparing for jobs and social roles that have not even been imagined yet. They cannot be trained in the narrow sense for jobs that do not yet exist."

Goldbard argued that arts education, with its ability to instill social skills, empathy, intellectual development, critical thinking, etc., would allow students today more flexibility as those as-yet-unknown jobs and roles revealed themselves over time.

She also said that we all already know that, and many of us can speak passionately about our belief in those correlations - but that instead, we shrink away and fall back into the world of data, tables, and numbers that we feel decision makers want to hear.

At the same conference, Tom Kaiden, the head of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, shared his organization's shorthand for effective advocacy - "Stories + Data = Truth."

Taken in context with Goldbard's arguments, and looking at it from the point of view of a community-level service organization, my main takeaway was that the nature and power of our arguments are being called into question, and the fact that we often flee from our inherent artistic skills as storyteller in favor of flat statistics and numbers has become problematic.

And yet, I fear that rhetoric and storytelling doesn't get us there, not by themselves.

The gap between data and anecdote is profound and frustrating, so wide as to make them seem at times like two separate languages - one the common tongue of our legislators and funders, the other the natural way we speak to each other and think about ourselves and our value.

If we are to carry forward new arguments about arts and arts education that veer less from our natural inclinations as storytellers, I believe we need to construct a bridge between data and story and use it to take skeptics along with us.

At Theatre Bay Area, we're working on that.

Through our national work on the Intrinsic Impact of art, working with WolfBrown and eighteen theater companies across the country, we're attempting to formulate a sort of bridging vocabulary that passes between graphs and stories.

By turning an analytical eye on the previously "unmeasurable" parts of art (those intellectual, emotional, empathic qualities that Goldbard believes would take the next generation of schoolchildren more confidently and flexibly into the future), we're aiming to fill the sling with a new set of arrows that might be better received by those we're looking to woo.

I wrote more about why this is important in a post on earlier this month.

As part of this work, we're conducting a small pilot with the Park Square Theatre in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Park Square, which has a vibrant education program that brings thousands of schoolchildren in throughout the season, has worked with us to have a set of those students complete the intrinsic impact survey and discuss how it helped them digest the art they saw.

By taking a look at how students are responding to the work, we hope to create a value statement for Park Square around the ways that their programs are augmenting the actual thought processes of the students who take part.

And we also hope to gain a new data-based understanding of what the transformative power of art really can be.

Toward the end of her speech, Goldbard returned to the theme of speaking from our truest place.

She said, "Our power to persuade is at its height when there is absolute congruence between the story we tell ourselves and the world, when there isn't a hair's breadth of distance between what we know and what we represent."

For years, our visualizations of our value have been filled with things that are only a small part of what we believe make art vital. We hope to help change that.

Please login to post comments.