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The Benefits of
The Arts

The Benefits of The Arts: pg. 38-39

To begin with, what benefits do the arts provide? Every current stakeholder in the arts industry is clear that the arts provide enormous benefit, but it can be difficult to articulate those benefits to those not already convinced. Vocabulary and categories are helpful in doing so.

One particularly important approach to this task is the Rand Corporation’s 2004 report, Gifts of the Muse which presents two types of benefits the arts generate: instrumental and intrinsic. It lists the instrumental benefits as being economic, cognitive, behavioral and attitudinal, health, and social. The Gifts’ intrinsic benefits are identified as immediate benefits (such as pleasure and captivation), growth in individual social capacities, and benefits that accrue largely to the public.

Widely discussed and accepted, the categories are not wholly satisfactory. First, there is considerable overlap between “benefits that accrue largely to the public” and the economic and social instrumental benefits. Second, “instrumental” implies that the arts do something, that they provide recognizable (perhaps even quantifiable) advantages. The category of intrinsic benefit seems to be set in contrast to that. However, any benefit the arts provide does something—even if it is “only” enhanced self-esteem or self-actualization. Additionally, researchers in the field are increasingly discovering ways to quantify what have in the past been considered to be impossible to measure. (As one example, Animating Democracy’s Impact initiative has done much work on creating and implementing tools for measuring such ephemeral things as changes in “Desires, hopes, or vision . . . .”

Another problem with “intrinsic” is that it reinforces an artcentric tendency to believe that some “get it” and (many) others just do not and cannot. It can serve as a barrier that makes some feel excluded and, consciously or not, provide an excuse to limit efforts to connect with those outside the circle.


An alternative means of categorizing the arts’ benefits would be helpful if for no other reason than to encourage more thinking on the subject. One possibility is to classify those benefits as core and ancillary. In this construct, core benefits are those that enhance the human spirit and improve social relationships. To further refine the concept, for individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence—self-understanding, self-acceptance, identity, and pleasure to name a few. Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment—facilitating relationship building and understanding. In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital—both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference.

Ancillary benefits, in contrast and simply put, are all the benefits that do not fit in those categories. Among these, of course, are cognitive enhancement, improved health, and economic development, to name a few. These are valuable to individuals and/or communities but are not the most important roles of the arts.

This core/ancillary classification of benefits addresses the arts community’s discomfort with the emphasis placed on economic arguments for the arts. It can also satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing a focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. The mission of arts organizations can then be envisioned as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.

To summarize:

Core Benefits of the Arts: those that enhance the human spirit or improve social relationships

• For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence • Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment• In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital

Ancillary Benefits of the Arts: all other forms of benefit

The Metamission of the Arts - Arts and Service: pg. 46-47

To address the environmental threats to the future of the arts industry, arts organizations must articulate (and live out) their core purpose in ways that are viable in the new landscape. The biggest challenge may be reconciling deep-seated artcentricity with the need to serve, to further the public good in ways the public sees. Simply “being there” will not be sufficient.

There is not any question of whether art will continue to be made and appreciated, it will; it is the fate of the current arts industry/infrastructure/ establishment that is of concern here. (And to clarify, this is not a discussion of the role of artists. This is about institutions.)

So what has been the assumed underlying core mission, the “metamission,” of arts organizations that organizes their relationship with art and their communities? In the Western world, since the time of the Church in the Middle Ages the role of the arts establishment has been the production and/or presentation of art. (Note that visual artists are the producers of individual works; the institutions—galleries and museums—produce and present exhibits, exhibitions, and collections. In the performing arts, choreographers, composers, and playwrights create the equivalent of blueprints for work that others produce and present.) This worked as long as costs (primarily labor) were low and support sources (the Church, government, wealthy individuals, and corporations) were sufficiently committed to the product to fund it. Today both sides of the equation have shifted so much—increased expense and rapidlydeclining will (or ability) to fund a Eurocentric spectator experience—that an existential threat exists for the industry.

What needs to change?

On the resources side, the key to the future lies in a dramatic increase in perceived public value. Increasing voter and stockholder understanding of the value of the arts will, of course, increase the potential for public and corporate support. In addition, heightened awareness of the arts’ public value will vastly expand the number of people interested in making personal contributions. But the path to this Nirvana runs through being valuable to people in ways far beyond continuing to do what we’ve always done. (There is little that can be done on the expense side of the professional arts, since labor will only grow relatively more expensive over time. One option would be to adopt a greater role— not an exclusive role—as supporter of opportunities for citizen artists to create and perform. This would cost less and would help develop awareness of public value.)

Survival depends upon re-examining mission. The fundamental “metamission” shift needs to be from focus on a product and its delivery to a focus on community and how the arts can support it—a service orientation, one honoring the integrity of the art.

Simply put, it’s not “about” the art; it’s about the arts’ interaction with people and how the arts benefit them. While this may seem a radical break from current habits of thought about art in the industry, it is essential.

The industry must seek more ways for its work to benefit larger segments of the public directly, especially those who are not now convinced that any significant benefits exist for them. Fortunately, in practice this transformation need not be as world-shaking as some might fear.