Apologizing for the Arts

Posted by Ken Busby On March - 1 - 2011

Ken Busby

We in the arts spend a lot of time apologizing…at least I do. I find, however, that when I apologize for something, I usually can gain some empathy for my position. Let me illustrate.

If you are speaking to a congressman or senator that isn’t especially receptive to public funding of the arts or arts education, I often ask if he or she were able to participate in the arts when they were in elementary school and middle school. Invariably, in one way or another, these “adults” had some form of quality arts experiences growing up–going to the theater, attending a ballet performance, a field trip to the museum, etc. And so I ask them what that experience meant to them.

Usually, the response is something like, “It was great. I really enjoyed it!” At that point, I generally offer my apology–saying something like, “I’m sorry that your children or grandchildren won’t be able to have that same experience.”

Deer in the Headlights

“What do you mean?” is usually the question that follows. And I remind them that by their vote against the National Endowment for the Arts–or a vote against a state arts program–they are effectively removing arts experiences from the schools, depriving children of having the same kinds of experiences that they enjoyed.

There is usually a stunned look. And for the staunchest opponents, the comment comes–well, the private sector will make up the difference. I remind them of some of the rural counties where unemployment is in the double digits and where there are no major industries. Who in the private sector is going to see that children in these areas have access to quality arts experiences? The public official usually begins mumbling at this point.

Offering a way out

So as not to end our conversation on a really negative note, I offer them a way to correct the situation. It goes something like this…

We all understand deficits and the need to balance budgets and a challenging economy. All we want is parity–a commitment from you Mr./Ms. Elected Official to seeing the arts on an equal footing with healthcare, social services, and defense. We want recognition that the arts are about developing the creative class, educating an intelligent workforce, and creating a stronger economy, while at the same time adding beauty to the world around us. We’re suggesting that the arts and arts education can flourish at the same time as social services and healthcare and defense. It’s about balance.

Reaching Parity

Instead of shooting from the hip and taking the easy way out (cutting funding for the arts because some people would rather have more welfare, more police, and more entitlements than children seeing ballet performances or children listening to storytellers talk about their state’s history, even though at the federal level and state level, public funding for the arts accounts for less than 1/10th of one percent of overall budgets), we need to encourage lawmakers to embrace the arts as a tool that will make our communities stronger and more vibrant.

We will have a better educated workforce that will be able to find better jobs because they can think analytically, communicate clearly, and dream big dreams because they were exposed to the arts. Supporting public funding of the arts makes economic sense, and the bonus is that our communities are enriched with music, dance, art, and so much more for all to enjoy!

13 Responses to “Apologizing for the Arts”

  1. Deb says:

    Oh snap, Ken! What a great way to get the conversation rolling with officials. I agree that the conversation is about what kind of graduates we want entering the workforce, and indeed, what % of students we would like to see graduate at all!

    I saw Dr. Linda Darling Hammond speak last month and she presented some really compelling statistics about graduation rates and life-long economic impact. The powerpoint she shared is available to download: http://www.portlandonline.com/mayor/index.cfm?c=52483

  2. Excellent template to begin an important discussion with leadership and seize an opportunity to influence. Kudos!

  3. Jennifer Boudrye says:

    There can be no better investment in our children and in society that arts education. True “21st Century Skills” require creativity, critical analysis, collaboration and synthesis. Our future computer geniuses, diplomats, inventors, educators, scientists, entrepreneurs… will all tap their creative capabilities and they need a well to tap!

  4. Kathy says:

    This would be a fine example, except those congresspeople you describe don’t worry about their children or grandchildren having access to the arts….because they do.

    Many of them probably have healthcare, and attend private schools as well.

  5. Jessica says:

    Thanks Ken for sharing this very simple strategy with us! I too am finding frustration when speaking about the arts with those who don’t seem to understand its value or life lasting importance. Janet Brown, Executive Director of Grantsmakers in the Arts said in her keynote address last week at the NYC AIE Roundtable’s Face to Face conference,”Art is what it means to be human.” By hooking people in with their own personal arts stories and experiences, there is a greater understanding of what we currently face and what could be lost.

  6. Oh YES, Ken! You nailed it! It’s not at all what I thought the post was going to be about by the title. What a unique take on the issue. Thanks!

  7. Ken, thank you for the very well-written blog post – the title sucked me in very quickly! We work very hard to demonstrate the value of high-quality art curriculum – we have been doing this for over 25 years! Most schools we talk to understand it, however the budget for the arts and the time allotted to teach it seem to shrinking each year. I’m looking forward to reading more posts from you on this very important subject!

  8. [...] was reading ARTSblog today and ran across, this post by Ken Busby. In it he explains how he always leads his debates about the need for the arts and art [...]

  9. Dion Wright says:

    Dear Mr. Busby,

    Your argument is excellent. If only you didn’t have to make it to people owning different cultural sensibilities from the sophisticates who carry the expanding edge of creative effort. The value of supporting the incomprehensible is not so easy to communicate to people’s whose own creativity is prosaic, economically-based, and pedestrian. The more refined one’s apprehension of the creative, the more elitist it seems to Joe Average. This is a sort of inversely proportional law.

    Legislators listen to the voters, and the voters are NOT elitist. The more esoteric the creative effort, the less public apprehension and support for it, ergo: the less legislative support. This is a conundrum that I’ve spent over fifty years trying to solve, but have only solved it marginally in a personal way. I’m not sure at all that there is a public solution, but God bless you for seeking it.

    In Neolithic times, we are moved to speculate, the Art on the cave walls was tied directly to the social economy, in that the featured animals were the food. Artists of the contemporary moment are not connected to the general welfare of the economy in any such way. Find a way, and you solve the problem. It remains almost insoluble so long as Art is seen as an economic drain rather than as an asset. The Arts need no apologist, but perhaps some artists do.

    best regards,

    Dion Wright

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