Being There for the arts

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

An interesting discussion on Barry Hessenius’ blog concerning the public perception of the arts and what to do about it. This is the issue, as Barry phrases it:

What is the Arts Brand – not that of any individual arts organization – but the whole of the arts?

I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand’s image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.  We’ve moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education.  We’ve expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance.  And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values.  Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.

But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a  frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support – both financial and otherwise.  While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that’s not our brand image.

How do we change that part of our brand?


Somehow, we have got to figure out a way to move the brand in the public mind to being considered a value of such magnitude, and one without any reasonable disagreement, that the consensus is that the arts are as important as the ecology, as necessary as education, as valuable to the individual as health.  Unfortunately, the overall brand is more than just the sum of the individual brands of the thousands of organizations that comprise the field.  It is both a part of those individual brands and something distinct and separate from them.


Mind you that effort is not simply a catchy slogan or fancy logo. While the Art Works phrasing initiated during the Rocco Landesman NEA era is of value, it simply isn’t, by itself, enough to have changed the public’s brand perception.  Partly that is due to the fact that for the most part, the audience for the slogan and the meaning behind it, is largely us. It is  principally directed inward. It preaches to the choir as it were.  We haven’t had the money or other resources to mount an effective campaign to make the public aware of it.


The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you – but to far too many) – an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities – despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support.  (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.)  People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.

My response was:

Quick thoughts:

You differentiate between messages that are directed inward (preaching to the choir) and outward (often leading to the interpretation as an elitist identity). You either are speaking to insiders who get it or to outsiders who need to be told.

The problem I see is that as long as we phrase the message as being *for* outsiders there will always be an ‘us’ and ‘them’ type divide. Art will always be what other people do. And no matter how well we link it to social values like benefits to the economy, outsiders’ connection to the arts will always be tangential and conditional.

Which suggests that we *need* to make the message an inward directed version that simply includes more people. Make the message something that highlights their inclusion, that they already belong. Phrase it in such a way that they get it. If you have to make the message either inward or outward, and outward has this built in limitation, what is needed is an inward directed message that simply starts from a wider position such as to embrace more of the people who can feel as though they belong.

The thing most people take for granted is how embedded art is in our lives, and so we need to remind them that they *do* have a stake in art. Not for the economy, but for their own way of life.

Imagine the world without art, and you have a comparison of how much we depend on art for our existence. Every parent has a kid who learns the world through creativity. Ever adult was once a child who drew pictures. Most people’s homes are decorated with creative flourishes, and these are far from incidental. *Everyone* recognizes beauty and includes it in their lives. Everyone listens to music. What would a world be without music? If folks can even imagine that we have a case for the human necessity of creative acts and for the requirement of art for a human life.

The best brand for the arts as a whole will be a reminder that art is not optional for human life. The confusion has been that the individual brands for individual art forms and institutions have the tendency to overreach. It is not the case that Opera is itself necessary, and it is only our attachment to it that offers up a claim along these lines. We need to think deeper. Spaghetti may be optional, but food is not. Imagine a world without any food. We cannot argue the case for food simply on the merits of spaghetti….

Barry said:

I agree with you too Carter. But see my reply to Margy above. How to we implant the message in the public consciousness? I am less concerned with what the message ultimately is. I believe smart people in our field such as Margy and yourself can help create smart messages – but how do you get them into the public mindset? That’s the issue.

And taking the idiom of planting and fields to heart I gave it my best Being There, Chance The Gardener, metaphorizing:

I think there is also a dichotomy here as well, between what one puts out positively as a message promoting the arts and what needs to be done to silence the negative/counterproductive messaging that stalls people’s identification with the arts. In other words, it may be more important to *not* say certain things that would otherwise orient perception of the arts in a polarizing and marginalizing way.

Human psychology is endlessly weird, but also strangely predictable. With entrenched world views there is something frightening about how pervasive and deeply situated our motivated reasoning, our confirmation bias, and also the backfire effect seemingly are. One of the hurdles we definitely need to transcend is the negative perception of the arts, based in part, as Margy points out, on the way we frame things. We simply need to stop feeding this negative framework. You don’t often change minds with direct rational appeal, but rather need to open the cognitive space in which new ideas can flourish.

Consider it something like weeding a garden patch before sowing seeds. The soil must first be prepared. And it is little wonder that the positive messaging is so fruitless when sown in hostile and barren environments.

So yes, I too believe that folks like Margy will come up with great ideas for the branding the arts need, but in the meantime we can do the work of clearing the field and removing the stumps and boulders. For a crop to be planted and eventually harvested we need to have a soil that can support what we hope to grow.

So the question for us field laborers becomes, “What are we doing that marginalizes the arts? What do we need to stop doing so that the soil will have a chance to become receptive again? What messages and actions undercut the value of the arts in general, even if they are enacted in the name of specific arts and specific art causes?” Anything on this list needs to be looked at closely and weighed against the goal of the more arts appreciative society we hope to one day build.

My two cents worth, at least.

Then a day or so later Joe Patti wrote a blog post that specifically highlights the activity of ‘clearing the field’ necessary to reorient perception. The examples were the practice in Korea of using English names to circumvent the traditional attitudes of hierarchical interaction that were embedded in the practices of only referring to people by honorific titles, and in Japan conducting board meetings in English to, “break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society.”

If arts culture and culture at large are something like a garden we cultivate, what we do positively in messaging our values only thrives to the extent that it is permitted to grow by the conditions of the soil in which it gets planted. And to amend the soil it is sometimes necessary to remove the dead wood, clear the obstructions, break new ground, before the honest work of planting can even take place.

Peace all,


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

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