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Arts funding report sparks controversy

In a study that upsets some advocates, Rand urges emphasizing enlightenment, not practical aspects.

February 16, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

After wading through stacks of economic and educational studies used to drum up arts funding, Rand Corp. researchers say the numbers don't make a persuasive case and that arts advocates would do better to emphasize intrinsic benefits that make people cherish the arts.

Flawed methodology and overgeneralization hamper much of the research used to argue the economic and educational benefits, contends the Rand report, "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," issued Tuesday.

Besides, the report says, trumpeting the most quantifiable and utilitarian benefits doesn't address the biggest long-term challenge facing arts organizations: cultivating an arts-savvy public that wants what museums and performing groups offer. To that end, Rand proposes that advocates become less fixated on what the arts can do for business growth and kids' math and reading scores, and stress intangibles such as enchantment, enlightenment and community-building.

"People get involved because they think the arts are fulfilling; they don't do it to get better grades and increase their income," Kevin F. McCarthy, a Rand sociologist and the report's lead author, said in an interview. "But the arts community is afraid to talk about this because they think it won't convince the skeptics."

Some arts advocates are miffed that the Rand report, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, a cultural and educational advocacy group, casts doubt on economic studies that have been proven lobbying tools.

They also don't see the wisdom in drawing a line between intrinsic and practical benefits; both, advocates think, need to be part of the arsenal to boost the arts.

"It's confusing. I'm not exactly sure what the motivation is for this," said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a service organization for the nation's municipal arts agencies. His organization's 2002 study, "Arts & Economic Prosperity," calculated that the nonprofit arts sector injected $134 billion a year into the national economy and spawned nearly 5 million jobs.

Ultimately, the Rand report argues, the arts won't flourish unless more arts lovers are minted through sustained exposure during childhood. That means shifting some "attention and resources" away from the "supply side" -- the creation of performances and exhibitions -- and more toward the "demand side" -- the grass-roots cultivation of youngsters and their parents through public schools and community arts programs.

Without citing individual economic studies, the Rand authors criticize what they see as common flaws in methodology -- notably their failure to compare the effect of arts spending with that of other possible uses of the money. Rand also contends that research suggesting that arts instruction has a spillover effect in other subject areas has not been specific enough to be persuasive.

Randy Cohen, vice president of research for Americans for the Arts, said the Rand criticism "makes for excellent debate" but misses the point. "We're not doing these studies to show that the arts are bigger than oil. We're doing it to show that funding for the arts is not a black hole, that it does have a return in the form of jobs and government [tax] revenues."

Abandoning economic arguments would "provide good reason for public policymakers to cut us altogether," said Diane L. Mataraza, a Florida-based arts consultant whose 2004 economic impact study for the California Arts Council pegged the total annual heft of the state's nonprofit arts sector at $5.4 billion.

Sandra Gibson, president of the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, said the Rand study could open a fruitful new line of persuasion for arts advocates, if it sparks more research. "Anecdotally we can demonstrate lives changed. I think this is an attempt to use social science to make the case. I think this is a beginning."

Along with the Rand report, the Wallace Foundation released a national survey of 1,200 adults that showed 36% regarded funding the arts in their communities as "very important" and 45% viewed arts funding as "somewhat important," while 70% supported increasing arts education.

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