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Muse You Can Use

Why the arts must make the case for their continued existence

"All art," wrote Oscar Wilde, "is quite useless." Had you been in a spacious rehearsal studio tucked inside the Benedum Center on April 5, you might have reached a similar conclusion. Approximately a hundred artists, arts educators and arts administrators had convened to discuss the implications of a report titled Gifts of the Muse, which reached a series of provocative conclusions:

* The arts community's key funding argument for a decade or so, that the arts are a powerful tool for economic development, is unsupported by any solid research.

* Claims that the arts have other "instrumental" benefits, such as improving test scores, stand on similarly shaky ground.

* Making such claims has led the arts community away from emphasizing art's "intrinsic" benefits to individuals.

* If they are to thrive, the arts must divert resources to arts education and appreciation, even if that means fewer resources for the creation of art -- and even, ultimately, fewer arts groups themselves.

The report's authors, staffers at the California-based Rand Corporation, don't argue that the arts are without value. But the think tank does makes a Wildean case: Most of art's immediate benefits are intrinsic, subsisting in things such as "captivation" and emotional or intellectual engagement -- the effects which draw people to art in the first place but are impossible to quantify.

The report's premise, largely unspoken: With arts attendance stagnant and funding flat (at best), new levers are needed to release the cash that will keep the lights on and the pianos tuned. Rand says the best way to do that is to play on those intrinsic benefits -- essentially, to help people understand and appreciate art forms they now ignore. If arts funding has mostly been about supply, report co-author Laura Zakaras told the crowd, "We are proposing some of those resources be diverted to cultivating demand" -- and, potentially, away from the artists who create the work. That could end in more people, or at least more appreciative ones, attending fewer concerts, plays and exhibitions.

It's a quiet sort of bombshell, one that's had the national arts community buzzing since Gifts of the Muse -- subtitled "Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts" -- was released in February. One reaction is deep ambivalence. The arts community never fully embraced bottom-line arguments, says Marilyn Coleman, executive director of ProArts, the advocacy- and service-provider that organized the April 5 forum: "It's sort of been the argument we've been forced to make," she says. But yanking the arts community's most readily quantifiable pitch doesn't really help, either. "Maybe that's all we need on Capitol Hill," quips Coleman, "to have people blow holes in that argument."

Moreover, there's a concern that shifting resources to education might be robbing Peter to pay Paul. "I worry about too much emphasis on the demand side," says Janet Sarbaugh, arts and culture program director for the Heinz Endowments, one of the Pittsburgh region's top arts funders. Without funding for the artists who actually make the work, "we don't have anything."

But even qualified supporters of Rand's conclusions typically focus on one of its strategies: finding better ways to express intrinsic-benefit concepts such as "emotional engagement." "Nobody has done a good enough job of going beyond their individual organizations and saying why the [arts] sector is important," says Sarbaugh. "We need to perfect our language about why we are important to the community."

The problem, however, isn't just that no one -- Rand included -- seems to know what that language should be. Even with arts groups striving to involve the community more, if the arts are having a hard time demonstrating why they matter, the trouble goes well beyond mere words.

For years, arts funding was relatively uncontroversial. No one had to explain why funding the arts, or teaching art in school, was good. When the National Endowment for the Arts was launched in 1966 with a budget of just under $3 million, for example, there were about 7,800 nonprofit arts groups in the country. By 1992, when NEA funding peaked at $176 million, there were more than 33,000.

That was about when the so-called "culture wars" began, and the NEA came under fire from political conservatives for funding a handful of controversial artworks, most memorably Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine. But while everyone knows NEA funding dropped -- it bottomed out in 2000, at under $100 million -- it's little remarked that state and local funding more than picked up the slack. Between 1994 and 2001, according to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, state-level arts spending nearly doubled, to about $450 million. Funding from local governments, the lion's share of public support for the arts, reached $800 million in 2001.

The U.S. has by far the measliest per-capita public funding for the arts among Western nations: $6 a head, compared to, for instance, Germany's $85, according to NEA figures). Still, that money is pretty important. For a typical arts group, big or small, earned revenue (from ticket sales, for instance) makes up only half its income, sometimes less. (Unaffiliated individual artists find funding opportunities even scarcer.) The rest is contributed, from donations from individuals and corporations to foundation grants to government funding.

The fact that state and local arts funding has plummeted since 9/11 is mitigated by the continued inching upward of private giving. According to numbers supplied by Americans for the Arts, in 2003 private donations reached $13.1 billion. But more organizations are competing for that funding pie: Americans for the Arts estimates there are now more than 50,000 nonprofit arts organizations.

This has all arts groups worried -- perhaps especially the traditional "high" arts of classical music, opera, ballet and modern dance, theater and museum-quality visual art, but also jazz and other long-subsidized art forms. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for example, cut musician salaries two years running; performers got hefty raises last year, but the organization is still searching for a long-term plan for solvency. As its average audience member ages, and ever more electronic amusements beckon to the young, the symphony joins its arts brethren in fighting for relevance.

Enter the Rand Corporation. The Wallace Foundation hired the think tank to assess the benefits of the arts, and after an exhaustive review of the literature the four co-authors issued their findings in the 104-page, somewhat purply titled Gifts of the Muse.

In the wake of the culture wars, Rand found, arts groups were under increased pressure to justify themselves. They began arguing that art did things such as boost the economy, increase tourism, redevelop neighborhoods and raise test scores for schoolkids, thus benefiting even citizens who didn't make or view art. Under the influence of researchers such as former Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida, advocates even held that members of the coveted "creative class" of affluent, educated workers would be attracted to cities that cultivated vibrant arts scenes. (Though it cites Florida, however, Rand doesn't distinguish between the high arts and the more informal, socially oriented arts scene his research emphasizes).

But Rand found those arguments didn't hold water. Studies purporting to show the economic benefits of arts spending, for instance, didn't account for "opportunity cost" -- the possibility that the money might generate more economic activity if invested elsewhere, such as in public transportation. Likewise, arts education might correlate with higher test scores -- but so might a new reading program that costs less.

Rand argues the arts are better off appealing to people on the terms that the arts know best -- intellectual and emotional engagement. That way, groups could "build a market for the arts by developing the capacity of individuals to gain benefits from their arts experiences."

Gifts of the Muse turned heads nationally: Despite its claim that intrinsic benefits can generate public spin-offs -- such as "expanded capacity for empathy" among arts patrons -- the report upset some arts advocates with its "either/or" attitude toward supply and demand for the arts. Educators were pleased by the report's focus on arts education, especially for kids -- but perhaps a little concerned about findings questioning the arts' value in the classroom. Touching an even deeper nerve is the report's suggestion that this redistribution of funds might result in some of those 50,000 arts groups going by the wayside.

Likewise with Rand's trashing of the economic-development argument, a proven lobbying tool. "We don't do economic-impact studies to show that the arts are bigger than oil," says Randy Cohen of Americans for the Arts. "Support for the arts doesn't go down a black hole. The arts are supported because they're a social good" that also has economic benefits. Jeffrey Dorsey, who heads Pittsburgh's Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, says the arts were a natural choice when the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Friendship Development Associates were seeking ways to revive the East End corridor. Other redevelopment approaches hadn't worked, and artists already lived in the neighborhood; today, eight years after Dance Alloy took over its anchor building on Penn, the strip teems with studios, galleries and performance spaces.

For some, though, the report is a wake-up call. At the April 5 ProArts forum, McCune Foundation Executive Director Hank Beukema said the report was "giving us pause." Beukema worked with John Heinz in the early days of the Pittsburgh Cultural District, a pre-culture wars initiative to use the arts to revitalize a neighborhood. But, Beukema said, he'd encourage his foundation to consider taking a new focus on cultivating audiences.

Moreover, adds outgoing ProArts head Marilyn Coleman, "It was refreshing to many of us to hear someone say, 'Let's look at the intrinsic value of the arts.'"

Demareus Cooper starts to sing, filling the Brashear Association's drop-ceilinged community room with the sorrowful melody of Gaetano Donizetti's "O Mio Fernando." At a table nearby, two pre-teen girls, eating pizza and sipping bottled water, giggle at Cooper's rich mezzo soprano. But that's OK. The whole point of Pittsburgh Opera Theater's Opera Connections is to make kids and their parents feel at home with the kind of art you don't trip across every day.

Cooper, herself a voice teacher at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, is accompanied on the Brashear's upright piano by Opera education director Marilyn Egan. The Phillips Elementary School students and parents at this April session in the South Side, about 40 altogether, are preparing to see the Opera's May 13 performance of Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera, at the Benedum Center. They'll attend free, plus get a backstage tour. Some of the families attended an April performance of Faust and last year's Carmen, but Egan keeps the program, augmented with a slideshow and portable CD player, basic. With the chipper manner of the former public-school music teacher she is, she begins by instructing everyone how to say "hello" in French, German and Italian. Later she'll get them all to sing a little, react to some passages that Cooper sings, and lead an interactive reading of a picture book about a dog who sang at the Metropolitan Opera.

"We want them to feel that opera's non-threatening," says Egan. "[I]f you've never been there before, it's a big jump."

Such outreach and community-based arts education -- the "demand" side of the arts equation -- are hardly recent innovations. Opera Connections, which teams with community groups and eight local schools, has been around for three years. Local modern-dance troupe Attack Theatre continues to present an audience-enrichment show it's done for a decade: Some Assembly Required, in which the audience helps create an improvisational dance work in reaction to artwork in some particular venue, such as the Carnegie Museum of Art.

But while it didn't take Gifts of the Muse to get arts groups to cultivate audiences of the future, recent years have seen an upsurge. The Opera, for instance, also runs workshops to encourage teachers to integrate opera into their curriculums; other programs for students including "Opera Improv," a light-hearted interactive performance; and other discounted admissions. City Theatre holds special programs related to its shows, including post-performance "talk-backs" and things such as the karaoke night that complemented a recent musical. Local theater groups' student matinees get many high school kids to their first play. Newer projects at the Pittsburgh Symphony include its own talk-back shows and Symphony With a Splash, an informal concert including a cocktail hour and audience feedback.

Many of these efforts emerged from the Arts Experience Initiative, a new Heinz Endowment-funded project that grew out of studies of audience psychology and behavior by Lynne Conner. An assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Theater Arts Department, Conner learned that the alienation between the so-called high arts and the mass audience isn't "traditional" at all. Shakespeare's plays, as we all learned in high school, were for aristocrats and peasants alike, and his audiences acted much like Steelers fans in the post-season. Symphonic music likewise was a popular art. And on its arrival in Manhattan in the early 1800s, even Italian opera was a "wild, working-class experience," says Conner.

In traditional cultures, "art," like religion, didn't exist -- it was bound up with the rest of life. Modern life segregates such activities for most people, but it wasn't so long ago that audiences took a much more aggressive role in the visual and performing arts. Arts-goers socialized and ate during live performances. Criticism was vocal and on-site, and sometimes included the hurling of objects. In 1849, a microcosmic culture war between nationalist partisans of an American actor and supporters of his British archrival culminated in a riot at a performance of Macbeth at a New York theater. The militia was called in; 31 people were killed and 150 injured.

In that same 19th century, however, began what cultural historian Lawrence Levine calls the "sacralization" of the arts. Symphonies, theaters and operas began to regulate how audiences should behave. Cast into shadow by the introduction of electric light, theater-goers were further marginalized by rules prohibiting vociferous behavior, right down to stomping their feet. Eventually, the rich and middle-class, who once sat in the same theaters as the lower classes, simply built their own venues in different parts of town.

Thus was formed our contemporary image of high culture: snobby, decorous and rarefied. What the mass audience lost, Conner argues, was the sense that it was qualified to "co-author" an arts event, or tell its meaning. "A reciprocal relationship between art-makers and art consumers is appropriate and historically it is the way that art emerged," says Conner, herself a playwright. "Art is a function of community dialogue. That's how you get Oedipus Rex." Sophocles's classic tragedy, Conner says, was created as part of a civic and religious festival. "That audience -- they weren't sitting there quietly and passively. They owned it."

The sports industry does a much better job at connecting with audiences, says Conner. Fortified by perpetual media coverage of games and athletes, fans feel qualified not only to voice their opinions at events, but also to discuss the contests around the water cooler. Spectator sports are integrated into everyday life in the same way that opera and theater used to be -- and the way, incidentally, that newer, interactive art forms such as slam poetry still are. "Spoken-word is much more like great drama as it was intended than it is like today, because people were participating," Conner says.

Conner isn't advocating the dumping of beers on note-fluffing co-principal bassoonists. Rather, "[t]he energy that kind of relationship contained ... has to be acknowledged and honored." Audiences intimidated by the high-culture trappings of a symphony have to be given permission to form their own opinions about the experience -- free of arbitrary rules like the one that says you can't applaud between movements. "This shaming of people because they don't know when to clap -- it's absurd," Conner says.

The solution can be as simple as providing the audience a chance to talk about the performance afterward. Conner is encouraging arts groups to develop "audience-enrichment" specialists -- ombudsmen who help elicit that feedback, creating the sense of art traded and shared, rather than handed down from on high to the unwashed. While the long-term goal might be to increase audience, Conner says the process won't work unless it's viewed as an end in itself. "The deep underriding principle is, 'We are interested in what people think!' ... In the arts industry, that's new. That's pretty radical."

Some obstacles to the approach originate with the art-makers themselves, many of whom are unused to sharing authorship with the audience. "They equate audience participation with giving over artistic decision to audiences," says the Heinz Endowment's Sarbaugh. She adds that just as artists must heed audiences more, audiences must understand that artists lead -- they must challenge as well as entertain.

Which is not to downplay the role of entertainment. "I like the music because it's kind of fun and it's in different languages," says 10-year-old Philip Bova, among the most enthusiastic participants in Marilyn Egan's April Opera Connections program at the Brashear Association. Bova, a North Sider in Phillips Elementary's Spanish magnet program, had never been to an opera before Opera Connections got him to La Boheme two years ago.

Neither had his mom, partly because opera simply wasn't on her radar screen. "I loved it," says Joan Bova. "It's just so beautiful but [without prompting] you just don't think about it."

Ralph Lemon and his troupe are up on stage, whirling, twitching, speaking, screaming, dancing. Also on the Byham Theater stage is a wheeled video screen featuring images such as Lemon himself armpit-deep in a river, balancing a teacup on a saucer and reading out loud from a book; above the stage to the right, another video screen intermittently bears the animated likeness of writer James Baldwin, mouthing insights about race and culture culled from an archived interview with the writer.

Lemon's Come Home Charley Patton is a mesmerizing show for those prepared for its mix of modern dance and performance art. But for those who aren't, the acclaimed African-American choreographer's postmodern puzzle-piece structure and sometimes spastic movement vocabulary can be off-putting. Some at the half-full Byham for the March 19 show voice their displeasure and confusion out loud; several walk out.

At least they came. Observers might see such walk-outs as an interesting footnote to non-attendance, itself symptomatic of a profound disconnect between arts organizations and the audiences they'd like to reach.

Of course, by "the arts," people usually mean one particular segment of the arts universe: Classical music, concert dance, serious theater, museum-quality visual art -- in short, all the art forms unable to survive without subsidy. "The arts" are seldom thought to include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, OutKast or The Incredibles.

But in Andy Warhol's hometown, it seems fair to ask whether that distinction is valid. No one has to teach people how to appreciate television, pop music or big-budget movies, and no one worries about their financial well being. But if we're assessing the value of the arts, aren't the same intrinsic benefits -- emotional engagement, intellectual stimulation, sheer pleasure -- as available through The Sopranos as through a staging of Death of a Salesman? What about scrappy, low-budget groups who present challenging art with volunteer labor and little direct subsidy? Should we be subsidizing all arts more? What could nonprofit arts groups learn from their pop counterparts?

Negative feedback on the Ralph Lemon concert prompted the group that presented it, the fledgling African American Cultural Center, to reflect. "A lesson that we learned is that there is real value to preparing people for things that are challenging," says Center spokesperson Heather Clark.

Discussing the benefits of the arts can reveal the surprising in people. Jake Haulk, president of the conservative Allegheny Institute, is a reliable opponent of all things publicly subsidized, and regularly debunks the notion that the arts (alike as sports stadiums) are anything but amenities for those who already live here. But he's also a life-long lover of classical music -- an enthusiasm sparked when, as an 8-year-old North Carolina schoolboy, he saw a symphony on a state-subsidized tour. "It's ineffective to keep creating more and more supply if the demand isn't there," Haulk says. But he'd still back some kind of subsidy for the symphony, which this year received $1 million from the Regional Assets District, the biggest chunk of any arts group. "That's a personal bias," says Haulk. "Great pieces of music are important."

As the culture wars continue to remind us, arts funding also has a political component: Controversial subject matter can scare away dollars. "The minute you take a turn from the normative, that's when you get criticized for being extreme," says Tom Sokolowski, executive director of The Andy Warhol Museum. "[Art] points out things that people who are stressing the norm don't want stressed."

Meanwhile, some fear the arts community's preoccupation with funding for nonprofit groups diverts attention from cultural changes affecting far more people more profoundly. A definition of art that included pop music, for instance, would have raised alarms over the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act, which permitted the consolidation of the radio industry into very few hands. That limits access to art more than the closure of a big-city symphony ever would. Bill Ivey, a former NEA chairman and now director of Vanderbilt University's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, suggests arts advocates should also be looking at things like copyright legislation and media-ownership deregulation.

When Rand, for one, alludes to an "arts experience," it explicitly refuses to distinguish between commercial and nonprofit art. "[A]ll of these sectors provide arts experience capable of generating benefits that contribute to the public welfare," the report contends, "whether they take place in a museum, a living room, a classroom or a movie theater." Perhaps wishing to stanch the odor of elitism, many arts advocates also forgo making that distinction.

Yet even in the report's denials, critics still detect the highbrow/lowbrow gap. "I think that's bullshit when they say that," says Greg Sandow. "In the part where they [Rand] review the history of art, I don't see them talking about Hitchcock and Bob Dylan. It's all traditional and high-art stuff."

Sandow is a New York-based cultural critic and composer. He's also the Pittsburgh Symphony's point man for its Symphony with a Splash series, designed to lure younger attendees. Sandow lauds the Rand report for taking on the arts' claim to things such as economic benefits, but thinks its intrinsic-benefits claim is weak, and weaker still when Rand contends those benefits have social spin-offs such as "expanded capacity for empathy."

The problem with "the arts," Sandow says bluntly, is the arts: Sculpture, painting and novels are simply no longer as essential to interpreting who we are as are pop music, film, television, and even fashion. The funding hunt, Sandow says, is "special pleading for people who still think they're more important than they are.

"I like going to movies better than I like going to classical music concerts, because at classical music concerts, I feel I'm inside a bottle," Sandow adds. "Whereas the movies, it's just part of life. Our culture is our culture. ... We have to just break down the old walls and say, 'This is our culture, and we should teach about all of it.'"

Classical music advocates, meanwhile, have "one idea: That classical music can't be allowed to die. Well, we don't know that, do we? Life will go on without classical music." Some arts groups, symphonies among them, will always need subsidies to survive, he acknowledges. But they can earn it by making themselves more relevant: "Every arts organization need to open itself up more to the world."

That's what Sandow hopes he and the Pittsburgh Symphony are doing with Symphony with a Splash. At the April 7 concert and mixer, a volunteer from the audience was recruited to have his head shaved onstage during a performance of Samson & Delilah. "It was such a happy event," says Sandow. "The audience gave it a standing ovation."

Samson isn't a piece Sandow particularly admires, but he says outreach needn't be about dumbing things down. The February Splash was especially challenging, including an atonal composition by Anton von Webern and John Cage's famous 4'33" -- a completely silent piece in three movements whose performance generated fruitful discussion among the attendees, most of who were symphony non-regulars. "The important thing is to engage the audience and not to underestimate them," Sandow says. "You can't say, 'Here's a piece of music you might not like, but you have to listen to it.'"

While Sandow is ideologically unelitist, there's another side of the coin. "The not-for-profit arts offer an alternative, and offer a more serious and deep alternative," says the Heinz Endowment's Sarbaugh. "They need to be given a chance to be experienced." She likes a phrase she once heard: "elitism for everyone."

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson