The Argument for Funding Arts Organizations (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Tim Mikulski, Aug 05, 2009 3 comments

While monitoring the news for this publication and another that I put together for the State Arts Action Network, the past six months have made me feel a little like the newspaper sellers on the street corners of old, calling out, “Extra! Extra! The arts have been murdered!” in order to sell more papers. Unfortunately, that seems to be what is happening in many locations throughout the country.

In a time of recession, we all know that the arts are often the first things cut from all kinds of budgets. Parents may decide to end their child’s piano lessons to save that additional $50 per week. Schools might lay off an art teacher, forcing the only other one in the district to travel from site to site each day. States decide that the state arts agency could do without $500,000 that will fund a badly needed human services program instead.

But what happens when you’re in a meeting with a legislator and he says, “How can we possibly fund the arts at a higher level when people need to be able to afford their heating and electric bills?” Or you are talking to a superintendent who is planning to use the salary of the music teacher she wants to lay off to pay for a school social worker.

We knew that our field had to get away from trying to demonstrate the intrinsic value of the arts, and move towards proving our economic might. That’s where our Arts and Economic Prosperity data comes in handy. And, then you can point to people like Dan Pink who make the argument that the business world needs more creative workers—those who have an arts background. Plus, we can say the arts help improve test scores for young students.

But as our public debt deepens and we start to see the proverbial writing on the wall, what is that new argument for funding arts organizations and programs?

What argument do you find is most effective in your interactions with policymakers and funders? Will it still be effective two years from now?

This article comes from Arts Watch, a weekly collection of news articles on topics such as cultural policy, arts education, and public investment in the arts.  If you would like to receive Arts Watch, please sign up.

3 responses for The Argument for Funding Arts Organizations (from Arts Watch)


August 08, 2009 at 4:32 pm

First, I would caution arts advocates to never repeat or use a negative statement or idea such as, "the arts are the first to be cut". This actually reinforces the negative idea every time it is repeated, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another example of reinforcing a negative that is frequently used in arts messaging is – “the arts are not a frill". Again, we’ve reinforced it by repeating it.

We fall into this messaging trap over and over again, by allowing our detractors to shape our message. The content of messaging is critical, and the wording must be precise, thoughtful and most importantly strategic. George Lakoff's book, " Don't Think of an Elephant" is a good reference on how to frame your debate, as well as how not to.

The "argument" that I find most effective with policymakers is honesty.

I do not debate from a victim mode. I believe that our industry is as viable and important as any other industry.

The jobs we create are real. The children we educate and inspire are real. The communities we serve, and the outreach we do are real. The stacks of research and statistics on the economic impact and importance of arts and arts education are real.

The educational and economic and social impacts are good and logical arguments. However, the-arts-for-arts-sake argument – their unique ability to touch our souls, to bind us to one another, to make us laugh, weep or even move us to anger – is still a valid and important one. One we should never forget.

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August 11, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Tim, thank you for this thought-provoking post, and Jan, for your dead-on comment. It had never occurred to me that, while trumpeting on about "the arts needing to be taken seriously as a legitimate part of our society!" I was, in fact, playing the victim, and verbalizing something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I was inspired to write a response to you here:


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August 12, 2009 at 12:16 am

Tim, thank you for the great post.
Jan and Corwin, thank you for the additional thought provoking comments.

Jan, honestly I never thought of it that way before. Thank you for opening my eyes to a new way of talking about the importance of arts in our culture. Simply being honest about the arts and what they do to benefit our society really is the most simple and best argument for their sustainment.

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