March 12, 2010

The big picture on arts participation is now officially fuzzy

When you factor in personal art-making and participation in alternative, informal art forms, are the arts as a category occupying a smaller or larger share of America’s hearts and minds? The answer may depend on how we define “arts.”

There’s a moment toward the end of The Philadelphia Story when Katherine Hepburn’s character, hung over and confused about who she is and what she should want, laments to Cary Grant, “What am I supposed to think when I — I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” To which Grant’s character replies with the hint of a smile, “That sounds very hopeful, Red. That sounds just fine.”

We reached a moment like Hepburn’s at a small gathering of arts professionals I attended this week here in Chicago. The occasion was a visit by Sunil Iyengar, head of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, to present an overview of the agency’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and hear previews from two Chicago-based researchers who are writing papers analyzing the SPPA data from particular angles: Jennifer Novak-Leonard from WolfBrown on arts creation, and Nick Rabkin from the University of Chicago on arts education. (Both are going to be terrific studies, by way.)

Inevitably, the conversation in the room turned quickly into what the SPPA data leaves out, just as it has at other recent gatherings about national arts statistics (including Sunil’s own webcast conference in Washington in December and last week’s by Randy Cohen in Chicago about the new National Arts Index from Americans for the Arts).

Okay, attendance is declining at the traditional, presentational arts formats that lie at the core of the NEA study. But what about people learning to play the guitar, singing in amateur choruses, and going to salsa clubs where they both participate and watch? What about all those technologically-mediated forms of spectatorship and creation? Many of the creative, expressive things that people are doing are captured only partially in studies like the SPPA and even the broader NAI, if at all.

So we’re missing part of the picture, and we have some sketchy evidence that the part we’re missing looks rosier than the part we have.

The big question, as Paul Botts, a program director at the Donnelley Foundation, put it at this week’s meeting, is whether that overall picture is growing or shrinking. Are the arts occupying less or more of Americans’ time and attention? ...

The trouble is that we’re at a historical moment when the definitions of both terms in that phrase “arts participation” are shifting. (A humanities scholar would call them “contested,” but you’ll never hear that kind of talk from me.) The easy one is “participation,” which used to mean buying a ticket and showing up for the Balanchine or Beckett performance, or reading poetry on your sofa, but now means those things plus a wide range of informal, participatory, social, and/or virtual forms of engagement.

The harder one — the one where the shift is more like tectonic plates colliding — is what that participation has to be in in order for us to think of it as art. Where are the boundaries of the category?

Does gardening count? (The SPPA tracks it.) Cooking? Knitting a sweater for your niece? Making a video collage of yourself dancing and posting it on YouTube? Playing Guitar Hero? Or does it depend on your intention: it’s the arts if you think of what you’re doing in terms of artistic expression, but not otherwise?

This question of category boundaries also surfaced in the recent Artsjournal blogfest on “expressive life,” where the consensus seemed to be that the category we all care about is a whole lot broader than the traditionally-defined, formal arts and that we’d better start talking about (and funding, advocating, researching, marketing, etc.) the whole picture or risk irrelevance.

But that doesn’t answer the question of where to stop. Imagine a spectrum that runs from “the arts” to a series of incrementally broader notions: “creative expression”...“creativity”...“creative thinking”...”innovation”... At some point along that path we find ourselves talking about the deep affinities between the kind of creativity that drives the arts and the kind that drives science, engineering, business, and much else. Exciting, but also destabilizing, because a great deal is riding on our old conception of that word “arts.” On the other hand, even more may be riding on our replacing it with something more accurate, universal, and relevant to contemporary life.

So as Sunil and his colleagues think about what kinds of questions to ask in the next round of the SPPA, the real question they’re grappling with is whether the National Endowment for the Arts should become the National Endowment for Creativity, or something to that effect.

Meanwhile, we can take a hint from Cary Grant’s character and enjoy this uncertain moment. Our confusion may be opening us up to new priorities and new opportunities. And that sounds very hopeful, Red.

1 Comment »
Tom Shapiro — March 18, 2010

Peter, thanks for highlighting the kerfuffle generated by the recent statistical reports on arts participation. I share your concerns about the macro views of what is and isn’t arts participation, whether it’s growing or shrinking, etc.

While this macro view discussion progresses, however, it’s important for arts experience providers to also keep an eye on the micro. Ask what can be learned – and used for immediate benefit – from these studies. For instance, since more people are interested in creating art, can your organization weave arts presentation and creation together? Since in the visual arts, those who do, view (i.e. those who make art are more likely to go to exhibitions), can you partner with adult studio programs? While we can’t count on the studies to provide specific strategies and tactics to implement, let’s still leverage all this data to inspire some productive enhancements and practical ideas.

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