Making the Case: Effective Messaging for the Arts (Part 2)

Posted by Ms. Margy Waller, Mar 09, 2010 3 comments

Continuing from my first blog post...

Feeling like we'd leveled off in our effort to build broad support for the arts, we decided to get more information. We studied how people think about the arts -- that is, we engaged in some real research over the past 18 months. With this information, we’re crafting a new communications strategy—one built on a deeper understanding of the best ways to communicate about the arts—that we believe will lead to increased shared responsibility and motivate action in support of the arts.

In order to create a more constructive dialog, we had to explore the dynamics of the current public conversation—in the media, for instance—as well as in the thinking of the majority of people who do not focus on the arts in their daily lives. Understanding attitudes and beliefs more deeply is a key to negotiating them more successfully in future efforts. A new argument, or lens, on the issue is useful to the extent that it can move people to a collective perspective and shared action in support of the arts.

When legislators, business leaders, community leaders, and others all take in the same core message seen through the same lens—and in turn repeat them to their own constituencies—the resulting echo chamber can begin to transform the accepted common sense on the issue.

After a year of investigation and interviews with hundreds of people in the Cincinnati region and surrounding states, this research—conducted with the Topos Partnership, a national communications framing organization—found that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns of thinking that ultimately obscure a sense of public responsibility in this area.

For example, it‘s natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. Problematically, entertainment is a matter of personal taste, not public responsibility, and perceived as an extra, not a necessity. We need to change the landscape by employing a message strategy that:

•     Positions arts and culture as a public good—a communal interest in which all have a stake;
•     Provides a clearer picture of the kinds of events, activities, and institutions we are talking about;
•     Conveys the importance of a proactive stance; and
•     Incorporates all people in a region, not just those in urban centers.

Holding typical messages up to these standards clarifies why some ideas, even emotionally powerful ones, fail to inspire a sense of collective responsibility. Art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., all speak to private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages do not help them think of art as a public good, and therefore inspire action.

Messages that are more communal in nature, such as the commonly used economic impact message, or a message about creating a great city, fail for other reasons. For instance, traditional economic arguments often compete with other (usually more compelling) ideas about how to bolster an economy.

Of the many communications approaches we tested, one stood out as having the most potential to shift thinking and conversations in a good way: A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community. Two ripple effects -- that people already believe in -- work well to build more support:

o        A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument and becomes about creating an environment where people want to live, work, play, and stay.

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

Now conversations move beyond polite nodding – you know, the kind we got when we talked about ROI or economic impact of the arts. We know we’re on to something when people offer their own examples -- like how their neighborhood changed after an art center opened or the experience they had connecting with others at the fringe festival.

3 responses for Making the Case: Effective Messaging for the Arts (Part 2)


March 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

Hello Margy --
I applaud your work in Cinncinnati to identify which aspects of the arts -- and a healthy arts sector -- resonate as a "public good." The question of reframing is hardly new but your new strategy to build shared responsibility for the arts (available at through the "nice arguments" clutter to suggest common ground with folks who care about neighborhood health and vitality and quality of life and would never use the words "the arts" to describe what they care about.

Well done.

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Joseph Futral says
March 09, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I like where you are going with this. I had an inkling with your previous blog. Ultimately this is where the change will come:

"when people offer their own examples — like how their neighborhood changed after an art center opened or the experience they had connecting with others at the fringe festival."

I have given the ROI arguments. I have shown people where an arts magnet school out scored a math and health sciences magnet school on SATs scores (on BOTH sections—yes, the math section, too) for as far back as the county kept records. I've argued and quoted Einstein to show how the creative process is similar to, if not actually intrinsic to, science. And the results are always the same, just as you noted—polite nods but little if any action.

But there are other issues that need to be addressed. Much of the arts world is seen by the community as elitist and present a sense of entitlement. Either artists are "Geniuses" given $500,000 over 5 years while a widowed mother of 4 tries to make ends meet as creatively as ANY artist. Or artists are approachable and everyone is an artist whether they are on the creation end of the process or the audience/participant end of the process. We, as artists, are as much at fault on how we are supported or perceived as anything.

What I like about your ripple points is they seem based on an idea that artists need the community as much as the community needs the artists. Not Marxist art, but purposeful, human to human art and process. I think this is very important.

I do think, however, the notion of art and entertainment is not always such a confusion. For instance, I know a dance presenter who was on a subway when he over heard two people excitedly talking about seeing _Lord of the Dance_. After a brief exchange he eventually asked if they would be interested in seeing some of the dance he presents. They said "No, we don't like dance." He responded "But you just saw a show with the word 'dance' in the title". They replied, "Yeah, but that wasn't dance, that was a show." People know the difference, I think. they just aren't buying it.

I could be wrong,

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March 09, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I do agree that arts and entertainment are enmeshed. This problem is in part created by a drive for numbers of people to visit our art institutions and the large numbers are created by having parties or seeing the museum as a community center full of activity.

This leads me to your 2 "ripple effects." These two you list are effectively fed by entertainment that brings people together in a city, community, art institution.

I must be missing something, because I see a circle here.

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