This past summer I sat in a room at the Americans for Arts Annual Convention on a beautiful afternoon and listened to folks from Memphis talk about how art and business have created a partnership that works (you can find a longer blog post about it here).
The conversation wasn’t what I expected to hear.
I expected to hear the tired old platitudes about the ROI arts can provide; pie graphs, bar graphs, numbers galore. Bottom line revenue creation. Profit points. Cost projections. Economic development. Blah, blah, blah…
But as I stiffened my spine to sit through another pile of accounting buzzwords, the corporate guy got up and said, “When we’re trying to hire quality people, the town’s cultural footprint is important in attracting the right kind of people.” In short, “I don’t really care about the arts themselves or the money the arts can make; I only use them as a tool to make sure we get quality employees.”
There was a palpable, audible, unified grumble that cascaded across the room. However, I leaned forward in my chair, newly in love with this guy who cut through the bull and told it like it is.
I loved that he wasn’t making ArtsMemphis give him a line about the economic impact of the arts. What he needs is a vibrant community and ArtsMemphis can provide what he needs. Easily. It’s what ArtsMemphis is designed to do.
That’s how arts should market themselves to business — arts as a quality of life issue, not an economic one.
Sure, there are economic benefits to the arts, and all the pie graphs certainly aren’t meaningless.
But they aren’t compelling.
Just the fact that artists are starting to use terms like “ROI” is telling.
Did any of us go into the arts because we took an accounting class?
Do any of us get excited when we see a pie graph? Doubtful. And because we are not passionate about the economic impact of the arts, we cannot be compelling in its defense. It’s a language few of us speak.
But what is compelling is how the arts can make a town into a community; how it can make a group of people with disparate opinions into a unified mass of shared concerns.
This is why many of us went into the arts. And when we explain this we speak from the heart and our arguments are more likely to resonate.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t also draw up the pie graphs and the bar charts. The arts ARE an economic driver.
But the arts also drive the quality of life in our communities and, in a world that is rebranding “Human Resources” into “Talent Management,” that is an argument worth making.