How Do We Talk About the Value of the Arts?

There are seemingly countless ways to make the case for the arts. The trick is knowing which ones are most effective. Leaders at five different arts organizations explain how they talk about the value of the arts, and how those messages are connecting with the audiences they are trying to reach.

For Alecia Kintner, it was a Mexican folk dancing class in an after-school program in Los Angeles. Jane Best credits growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, the “Band Instrument Capital of the World.” Anne Romens’ family held season tickets to the local children’s theater, and Carlton Turner remembers being mesmerized by the sound of his father’s singing voice. As for Randy Cohen, his love of theater and the visual arts helped him find a sense of joy and accomplishment at school.

These five people have no trouble explaining why art became important in their lives. Their challenge lies in making the case for the arts to funders and audiences. As representatives of regional and national arts organizations, these advocates spend much of their time convincing potential donors, elected officials, and members of the general public about the value of the arts—especially in a time of competing priorities, charged politics, and tight budgets.

What kind of messaging does making the case require? Can data help paint the picture for those more interested in the bottom line than in brushstrokes? For answers to these and other questions, we talked to five thought leaders on the front lines of promoting the arts:

Anne Romens is program director for the Creating Connection initiative at Arts Midwest, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that primarily serves a nine-state region but also extends learning and networking opportunities to the entire United States. Its constituents include audiences and artists, but Arts Midwest focuses its advocacy efforts on arts organizations, providing them with training and toolkits to help them “shift their messaging and programming to align with existing public values,” Romens says.

Jane Best is director of the Arts Education Partnership, a national network of organizations dedicated to advancing the arts in education through research, policy, and practice. The audience for its advocacy includes state policymakers and other education stakeholders, for whom the Partnership holds convenings, provides counsel, supplies research, and offers reports on the impact of the arts in students’ lives.

Alecia Kintner is president and CEO of ArtsWave, the Greater Cincinnati region’s local arts agency and the nation’s first and largest community campaign for the arts. Because it is funded primarily through workplace giving, ArtsWave targets the general public in its appeals. “[We] push to figure out how to communicate the value of the arts and also to collect and use data around arts impact in new ways,” Kintner says.

Carlton Turner served as executive director of Alternate ROOTS until February 1, 2018. The 41-year-old arts service organization supports artists in 14 southern states and the District of Columbia who are doing work at the intersection of arts and activism. Making up its “secondary audience,” says Turner, “are cultural policy makers, philanthropy, and advocacy organizations working on issues important to our community of artists.”

Randy Cohen is vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts (AFTA), where he has worked for 26 years. The mission of AFTA, founded in 1960, is to serve, advance, and lead the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. “I boil our advocacy process down to three simple questions,” Cohen says: “One, what’s the message? Two, who gets the message? And three, who delivers the message? As advocates, we have to be ready for multiple audiences.”

Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

Why do you think communicating the value of the arts has traditionally been a tough sell for arts organizations?

 
Anne Romens: There has been a long history in the United States of arts budgets living on the edge and being the first cut and last restored in times of economic recession or economic distress. We wanted to understand why we were seeing that pattern, why the arts are treated as sort of a frivolous nicety instead of a necessity that’s delivering valuable services in the community. Part of it has to do with recognizing how the sector has traditionally spoken about itself. A lot of marketing messages and materials will focus on putting an artist on a pedestal and saying, “You should want to do this, because it’s really important” or “This is a high-quality artistic experience.” That’s great for individuals who are already part of the arts-going public. That’s not necessarily the message that is going to draw someone in if they don’t know who that artist is or if they’re not familiar with that art form.

Jane Best: In classroom instruction, I think things like art, music, and foreign language might have been a tough sell in the past. But when the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in December 2015, which replaced No Child Left Behind, arts was included in the definition of what is involved in a well-rounded education. Now there are opportunities to fund programs in the arts in ways that have not been accessible before. Even so, our messaging across the board in education has to improve. One thing you’ll notice, whether it be arts or science, is a lot of people tend to talk to each other about how important their work is rather than push their work outside the silo. The more an arts champion can really talk to science and math people and work together on opportunities to teach kids, the more colorful the messaging is.

Alecia Kintner: For decades, this organization and others across the country would show pictures of a prima ballerina or a Monet and say, “Isn’t this wonderful? Please give.” That kind of messaging implied that everybody had a common, personally transformative experience or connection to a certain art form. What we’ve since learned through an intentional, research-based approach is that the public values two things about the arts that would compel them to give: Arts organizations need more specificity around how they are going to create a more vibrant economy, and how they are going to create a more connected community. That became the vision going forward for this organization and it flipped our purpose really from “What do the arts need?” to “What does the community need through the arts?”

Carlton Turner: As a sector, we are our worst enemy in terms of setting ourselves apart from everyday people and from everyday life.  When the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] was faced with the possibility of being defunded and dismantled at the beginning of last year, I challenged my peers within the arts sector to not look at this as just a fight to save the NEA but to look at it as an opportunity to organize across sectors. There were all of these services and organizations facing elimination—the dismantling of health care, the dismantling of immigration, and the dismantling of structures working to support communities at the margins. But we didn’t step up and say, “We want to use this space to stand with these other sectors.” I think that would have gone a long way to build some relationships and to build viability for the arts as more than just a product but actually as a galvanizing force to unite us in a time of need.

Randy Cohen: I think we have great case-making tools. We have great research. I think folks are mobilized now more than ever before. But, if you’re not really aware of it or are maybe uncertain about how to talk about the value then there’s an element of truth to the statement that we still need to do a better job of making sure arts advocates are ready to make the case. Also, a lot of folks are not always able to find time to meet with their legislators. I call it the “habit of advocacy.” You’ve just got to do it and keep doing it. We definitely have the tools, but we’ve all got a job to do to make sure everybody’s picking up a set for themselves.

So how has your organization been working to address this challenge?

 
Anne Romens: There’s been a tremendous amount of research in the arts over the years, but what we hadn’t found was any research that actually dug into what it is that the public values. We wanted to step back and ask, “What’s most important in your life? How do you want to spend your time? What’s important in your community?” This research was conducted in collaboration with Metropolitan Group, a social change agency and author of a strategic approach to public will-building. The core message that emerged is that people value participating in arts and cultural activities because of the opportunity to connect—with family and friends, with others in their community, with themselves, and to their cultural identity. And, no matter how you sliced the demographic, no matter how you looked at who was responding, every single demographic category wanted to engage in arts and cultural activities more than they currently are. Now it’s up to us to rethink the way in which we’re talking to people about what we have to offer and to shift the programs that we’re offering in a way that aligns with these values that they hold dear.

Jane Best: In a world of reduced resources, being able to really speak to impact is important. The Arts Education Partnership is home to a database of the best research that exists on why art makes a difference in a kid’s life—the impact it has on math skills and critical-thinking skills. When you look at kids who are receiving instruction in the arts and those who are not, there’s a lot of great evidence around reduced absence rates and fewer discipline issues as well, especially in high-needs school districts. If the arts are the one thing that gets a kid out of bed and makes them want to be in school because they’re looking forward to in-class instruction or an after-school program, that is going to serve them well in life and reduce our achievement gap.

Alecia Kintner: We listened to our community and tried to figure out how the arts play into solutions to community problems. Then we specified five things that we think the arts do for this community and in this place in time. They all align with bigger community objectives and that’s the key. The first is how we use the arts to put Cincinnati on the map to attract talent and new businesses and cultural tourists. The second is how we use the arts to deepen the roots of people who are already here in our region. A third is our future workforce and how the arts play into creating well-rounded kids who are creative problem-solvers and critical thinkers. The final two are how the arts bridge cultural divides and enliven neighborhoods. Our thesis is that all of these things add up to that more vibrant economy and connected community.

Carlton Turner: The community that we primarily serve is a community of artists who are looking to use their art, their talent, their skills, their aesthetic practice to advance social justice goals. We have not spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince people outside of the arts and community development sector about how important the arts are. Although we do find ourselves in those spaces sometimes, we’re often trying to figure out how to best serve the population of artists who are trying to figure those things out for themselves. Every year, we have about 250 artists who come together for a weeklong retreat to share their work, learn from each other and to have discussions about what issues are happening in the field that are pertinent to the South but also to the nation. We think about if we’re shifting the culture we’re working from into one that resembles the world that we’re trying to be. How can our communities be structured differently to serve a much greater purpose and to correct a lot of the challenges that we see?

Randy Cohen: We want to make sure advocates for the arts have a quiver full of case-making arrows. You’ve got to be able to segment your market, know who those key decision makers are and what’s important to them. But whoever I’m talking to, whichever arrow I need to pull out of the quiver to reach that person and connect with them, I always start by reminding people about the fundamental benefits of the arts. They’re fundamental to our humanity. They are fundamental to a healthy community. And, they also strengthen our communities socially, educationally, and economically.

Last June, we published Arts & Economic Prosperity 5, which is an economic impact study of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences. We estimate it to be a $166 billion industry that supports 4.6 million jobs. We did localized studies as part of this project as well. We did 341 study regions across the country in all 50 states in communities as small as 1,500 people and as large as 4 million. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a small rural community, a large urban city, or a suburban neighborhood. If the arts are happening there, there’s a measurable economic impact. So it’s possible for many people to go and actually access all the data for their community. When you’re speaking to your city council it’s great to be able to talk about really incredible national numbers, but when you can talk about what’s going on locally, right there in your own backyard, that’s so much more impactful.

What messages or strategies have you seen resonate most with the audiences you are trying to reach?

 
Anne Romens: Different organizations have gone through our Creating Connection training and then started to apply some of the messaging tools that we have to make those research recommendations tangible. We’ve seen a number of them test that traditional marketing approach of putting that high-quality artist on a pedestal and making that the selling point against messages that are more rooted in what the public values. For example, the San Jose Jazz Festival created two ads and paired them against each other on Facebook. The traditional ad showcased all of the names of the people who would be performing, while the other ad was more about the experience you have at a jazz festival and showed people connecting with each other and having fun. That message outperformed the first ad, because it was much more rooted in the patron experience. Many arts organizations have already been doing this kind of values-based messaging. It’s great to see their work amplified and more social media campaigns and messaging shift in this direction.

Jane Best: Now there’s a robust opportunity for the arts to be included in STEM and in 21st-century learning communities where it’s preparation for life skills. I sat and watched a theater program teach preschool kids counting and math skills through movement. That’s a powerful testimonial when you’re seeing people integrate arts with other subject matter. I think we need to be able to bring more examples like that to life, so people across the country can see what’s happening in places where it’s really working. We package our success stories mostly around four areas: Is the program raising student achievement? Is it supporting effective educators and school leaders? Is it transforming the teaching and learning environment? And, is it building leadership capacity? Everything we do revolves around those four concepts.

Alecia Kintner: We tell stories around each of our five blueprint areas through video, anecdotes, and data points that all relate back to individuals who live here. For instance, we can count every single arts and education experience provided by our 40 largest-funded organizations. We know that ArtsWave-funded groups are in over 500 schools a year and offer 186,000 experiences that wouldn’t be in the school system were it not for these organizations. We can also count or see that the number of free, accessible, and nontraditional locations for arts experiences has doubled since we introduced the blueprint. We’re getting arts organizations outside their galleries, stages, and theaters and into airports, senior centers, hospitals, and parks. It’s in your backyard and we can show you that on a map.

Carlton Turner: When we communicate to audiences that don’t consider themselves part of the arts sector, I think the message comes from a values base. It’s about deconstructing the arts and helping people understand how art is an extension of the values of a community, of the practices of a community, of the things that they hold in high esteem and the things they think are important. It takes [art] out of the idea that it’s just a thing that you see on a stage or something that you experience in a museum or something that is contained in a space. Instead, it’s actually permeating through every aspect of your life. I think the more we dismantle this idea of the professional space being the only valid space for real artists, the more we’ll see the proliferation of arts on a level we haven’t seen in our lifetime or in the life of our country.

Randy Cohen: When it comes to advocacy, I’ve got a golden rule at Americans for the Arts: No numbers without a story and no stories without a number. We’re about creating stories, experiences, and memories, so you start with that and then you deliver the numbers. The numbers just show this wasn’t an accident.  

Last year, we published Americans Speak Out About the Arts, which is one of the largest public opinion studies that the arts ever conducted. Sixty-three percent of the population say, “The arts lift me up beyond everyday experiences” and 73 percent say, “Arts are a positive experience in a troubled world.” Those findings cut across all socioeconomic strata, so it’s not an affluent phenomenon or an urban phenomenon. We live in these really fractious times and people want connectedness in their community. Here’s the public saying, “Look, we’ve got an answer to this. It’s the arts.”


Maureen Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, documentary filmmaker and aspiring alto who works in communications for a global development organization in Washington DC.

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