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Meta-Views: The Economic Crisis and America's "Art Ecology"

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This talk was given on Saturday, Nov 14, 2009, at the symposium called "The Arts and the Economic Crisis," organized by the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University.

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Let me begin with an invocation, in the form of some numbers. $21 billion in economic impact. 160,000 jobs. 26 million visitors. 2 million student visitors. 7.5 million tourists. These are the indicators of the arts industry in New York City, the findings of a recent study by my organization, the Alliance for the Arts. I'll return to these numbers before I close.

This morning I'd like to speak about the role of cities.

Quite simply, the center of cultural life is the city and the regeneration of the arts economy must be led by cities. Unlike France--and more like Germany--there is no one city that sums up our national culture. But New York has the largest concentration of artists and cultural activity and is also the most likely to lead the US into a new period of cultural globalism.

I'm not talking about triumphalism or culture as an instrument of foreign policy--Coca Cola and rock 'n' roll bringing down the Berlin Wall. Our goal should be the creation of an international culture, with cities like New York as a showcase and laboratory as well as a testing place. This will help Americans understand a world they no longer dominate and play a constructive part in a world system.

To succeed in such a strategy, we must invest in the infrastructure of the arts as a principle of economic and community development. This means increased support from government and philanthropy for every part of this system, as an integral part of a national effort to strengthen cities.

Cities have a unique capacity to provide an infrastructure--a community--that allows the arts to flourish. Schools to teach the art forms and education programs to enlarge the cultural experience of young people. Affordable housing for artists. Developmental spaces where art is created, apprentices are trained, and experimentation and collaboration are facilitated. Presentation spaces for exhibitions and performances. Large audiences that are willing to participate in and pay for the activity and the products. A collection of public and private funders to close the gap between earned income and cost. Critics and journalists who shape the perception of cultural activity and give it a sense of cohesion. Systems such as prizes to reward excellence.

Cities share their wealth (as well as their problems) with their regions. In the case of New York, both the audience and work force for the arts extends to the tri-state region. This means that 15 million people depend on the economic health of New York City, not just its population of 8 million, and the entire region is enriched by the city's cultural life. At Lincoln Center and on Broadway, producers speak of the "New Jersey effect," referring to the disproportionately large contingent from this state in their audiences. (In my own experience, I rarely go to the Metropolitan Opera without seeing a former head of the Institute of Advanced Studies, still a resident of Princeton.)

The problem with my suggestion that cities and the nation invest more in the arts is the lack of provability. The arts are an industry, but the nonprofit sector is undetectable in the economy because of the lack of reliable and timely data. On the positive side, the IRS requires nonprofits to file 990 financial reports and government funding agencies require financial information of all applicants, but this information is primarily about previous years. This information permits research organizations, such as the Alliance for the Arts and Americans for the Arts, to "make the case" to public officials through our reports on the economic impact of the arts, such as the one I cited at the outset.

But this research is largely a holding operation. It is necessary to show life during the adoption of government budgets, but has not since the 1980s resulted in significant growth in arts funding. As for assessing the impact of the recession or other cataclysms, we have almost no real-time data on the industry. No monthly reports of housing starts or minute-by-minute reports of the stock markets for the arts.

I should say that a significant advance in data-collection is now moving across the land in the form of the Cultural Data Project, which originated nearby in the enlightened city of Philadelphia and has been adopted by California, New York, Massachusetts, Georgia and Maryland, as well as Pennsylvania. The CDP collects much more detailed financial and other quantitative information than most earlier systems, making it a rich new source of research data. I hope the National Endowment for the Arts will consider requiring that applicant organizations use the CDP, as city and state agencies do where it has been adopted, so that it realizes its potential to be a uniform national data system.

Even the Cultural Data Project does not, however, require the collection of detailed information about the audience for the arts. To understand our place in the world, the arts must know its audience, but most organizations lack the resources to collect demographic data and even those that do usually do not share it. There is no central collector of audience and attendance information, depriving the field of one of its most useful measurements and its strongest argument for public or philanthropic support.

As I said earlier, cities are the locus of the arts industry. It's demonstrable that artists and cultural organizations cluster in cities. Another characteristic of cities is that, increasingly in the post-industrial age, they also have both commercial arts businesses and other "creative industries," as we have come to call them. (Creative industries is a broad category that includes architects, designers and electronic media workers.) The economic and social vitality of many American cities now derives in large part from this concentration of creative activity, measured in terms of the audiences that participate in and the creative workforce that produces it. The ineffable but undeniable attractiveness of cities, and therefore their viability, depends on this mix of artists, creative professionals and those who like to live near them and experience their work.

Let us hope that the national government will lead a movement for a new urbanism, a systematic approach to building up the economies and physical and social infrastructures of American cities. The creative industries, led by the arts, could be the bedrock of this rebuilding effort. We know how far we have to go when we consider that, during the debate over the federal stimulus program, members of Congress, such as Diane Feinstein, were quoted as saying that the arts should not be included in any plan to create jobs. Such thinking is still deeply ingrained in the American outlook, and it will take both more research and more persuasion to change it. For the record, wiser people in Congress and the White House prevailed, and $50 million in stimulus money was directed to the National Endowment for the Arts, which in turn passed it on to state arts agencies.

Now, back to those numbers. As I said at the beginning of my talk, in New York City the arts are an important part of the economy. The sector generates 160,000 jobs, employment for those who work directly in some cultural institution and for those who serve it indirectly, like employees at hotels and restaurants. Americans for the Arts uses the slogan "Arts = Jobs" and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, has come up with a new theme for the NEA: "Art Works."

Everyone would benefit from a wider understanding of the power of the arts to contribute to the economy, and the arts would benefit by being perceived as a valuable industry and therefore eligible for investment and support.

Some scholars and members of the arts community are uncomfortable with making the so-called "instrumental benefits" case for the arts, fearing that it demeans the high purpose of culture. They are right, up to a point. But we are Americans, and, as Agnes de Mille wrote in her autobiography, "In America, if you can't wear it or eat it or sell it, what value does it have?"