The Problem With Supply Side Art-onomics

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I was idling away a few minutes yesterday waiting for technical difficulties to be cleared up on a conference call, and by chance Michael O’Hare was on the same call, also idling away. “Did you read the Times forum about arts funding?” he asked while we waited. “Huh?” I responded brightly. Turns out the New York Times put up one of its “Room for Debate” roundtables a couple of days ago about how to fund the arts in America, and Mike was pretty unhappy about it. “It’s all about supply side,” he said, “and nothing about” — what? I never found out because at that moment our technical difficulties got cleared up and the conference call started.

But he threatened to blog about it, and today he did. The problem, he says, is that these conversations always end up being solely about high art, something that “deepens a division between art for the educated and rich and art for everyone”:

Identfying “the arts” as what highbrow institutions offer also makes the whole conversation about the supply side, being nice to artists and arts institutions. Most arts funding gives money to arts presenters and, indirectly, offers art to art consumers. But if you give a concert that a dozen university music professors, a few critics, a charitable funder, and some composers and musicians absolutely kvell over, what have you really done for art, or for that matter for society, if nobody else comes to hear it?

What the arts most need is a demanding, competent, large audience, and supply-side programs aren’t very good for this; in fact, they are quite liable to capture by élites who use the arts to maintain their status. The research on this is long-standing and solid: the most important correlate of consumption of highbrow art [i.e., the demand side] is parental introduction to museums, theater, and concerts in childhood. Not much government can do about that, but the second is introduction to the arts in schools, especially hands-on learning, and the history of the last twenty years has been to trash this entire enterprise as a frill we “can’t afford”, along with physical education and sports for everyone.  Why the things that make life worth living — art and health — are frills or optional in a sane, rich society, and why Venezuela can afford a national network of youth orchestras and we can’t, are mystifying, but here we are.

Partly this is due to budget constraints, and partly it’s due to our current national obsession with spending every hour of every school day drilling kids in the two or three subjects that will show up on high-stakes tests throughout the year. And it’s a shame. I don’t want to romanticize the past — the music teacher who came into my sixth-grade class once a week with an autoharp didn’t do much to inspire a love of music in me, and that was back in the supposed golden age — but who knows? She might have inspired some of the other kids. And there were probably plenty of other music teachers who were a lot better than she was.

I don’t agree with Mike about everything arts related, and I don’t kid myself that we’re ever going back to the age where we all sat around and enjoyed live performances by our friends and neighbors. That happened in the past not because we appreciated art more, but because good performances were simply too hard to come by. Still, art is fundamental to human culture, and our schools should do a better job of teaching our kids about it, even if it means taking half an hour away from filling in bubbles on a test sheet. And they should teach art in a language that kids understand. Learning to appreciate high art is fine, but that’s a lot more likely to happen naturally if you learn something about art you actually enjoy first. If that means comic books and Britney Spears, fine.

In any case, click the link for much more. Mike has spent a big chunk of his career studying arts policy, and he has a lot to say about it. He even has something to say about paying $120 million for an Edvard Munch drawing: “It properly exposes the whole culture of fine arts to ridicule as a game of poseurs, ignorant speculators, and predators that has nothing whatever to do with what paintings are about, or what art does for us, and that it should be a front page story as a serious event does a little bit to damage the quality of everyone’s engagement with art.”


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