Sep 24, 2009

Impact This

If you haven't checked it out already, Ian David Moss' Createquity blog, an essential source on arts funding issues, is so amazingly good it's almost in its own category of resource; "blog" hardly does it justice.

Really, this guy not only knows his stuff, he's also quite happy and prepared to share it--and share it in various formats. Case in point: He not only offers this exhaustive, 7,000-word analysis of Americans for the Arts landmark "Arts & Economic Prosperity" study, he also helpfully follows up with a "Cliff's Notes" version of the same post, hitting the highlights. You should read the whole thing, but to hone it down even further, his argument goes like this:
The study, which is for the most part constructed quite carefully and with admirable attention to detail, clearly shows that nonprofit arts organizations play a significant role in the nation’s economy, more significant than we are often led to believe...

At the same time, the study does not show in any real sense that the arts cause the economic activity with which they are associated. Many of the supposed impacts could be and probably are the result of substitution effects rather than newly generated value or wealth. For example, the meal that patrons had before the show was going to get eaten in some form or another regardless of whether there was an arts event involved that night...

As a result, while the study deserves to be taken seriously as an estimate of the size of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in the United States, other claims about its deeper significance have tended to be overblown. Foremost among these claims is the idea that because the arts return an amount in taxes to government that is greater than the amount that government puts in, the arts represent a good “return on investment” from a financial standpoint. This is simply not true.

Moss' take helps confirm my suspicion that the economic-impact case for government funding of the arts has never been a slam-dunk. When we point out the size and robustness of the nonprofit arts sector, which got where it is today with only a minimal amount of public funding, we risk looking like we're doing fine, no need for help, thanks; and as Moss painstakingly points out, when we start talking about the arts' economic impact in terms of return-on-investment, we've strayed from reality and left ourselves open to the completely common-sense response, articulated most forcefully by Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard, that measured in ROI terms the arts don't begin to compete with other, particularly for-profit sectors.

Moss' analysis makes it clear that the economic-impact case is just one tool in the arts advocacy toolbox, and suggests that it may be more useful in terms of preserving the status quo--in bolstering the sense that arts organizations of all sizes are entirely respectable, grown-up professional businesses that make an integral contribution to the nation's economic health, not to mention its spiritual health--than in making the case for increased arts funding.

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