As Charity Goes, So Goes the Arts?

Posted by Roland Kushner On December - 12 - 2013
Roland Kushner

Roland Kushner

I was happy to see the editorial “Handsome is as handsome gives” from long-time musician and arts advocate Arthur C. Brooks in the Wall Street Journal on Nov 25. Brooks, also an accomplished social scientist and president of American Enterprise Institute, cites studies, cites studies showing how increased generosity is good for one’s health, well-being, and attractiveness.  He cheerfully encourages readers to give generously so they might reap those rewards for themselves.

It turns out that Brooks missed one other benefit of increased generosity: it’s good for the artistic instinct and the progress of the arts.  There is a strong connection between the vitality of the arts and private support of all charitable causes that has persisted over many years.  Here’s some interesting data about that connection.

Last August, Americans for the Arts released the 2013 National Arts Index report, our fourth annual measure of vitality of arts and culture in the U.S.  The report spanned 2000 through 2011.  Co-author Randy Cohen and I calculate the Index score from 78 indicators of attendance, participation, consumption, investment, returns, volunteering, performances, compositions, imports and exports, government funding at all levels, numbers of artists and more.  The Index shows how dynamic those years were for the arts.

And not only the arts … we experienced recessions, booms, crises, recoveries, wars, political changes, technological advances, demographic shifts, new social movements, and of course, changes in the arts.  Intuition and experience suggest how that some of those dynamic forces – mostly macroeconomic – are positively linked to the arts: GDP, employment, stock market, population, and income. Some behavior and attitude patterns are arts-friendly: charitable giving, consumer confidence, leisure participation.  Each of these forces (and others) has its own record of growth and decline in recent years. How closely do the arts track these other forces?

We correlated annual measures of some of these to the National Arts Index over 2000-2011. A correlation coefficient tells how closely two or more series track each other. It ranges from – 100%, when series move in opposite directions, to +100%, when they’re always moving together and to the same degree.  A high correlation between the Index and any of these measures means that they’ve moved consistently together over the years.

Many of the correlations were positive but one caught our eye, given the season and Arthur Brooks’ happy report and advice.  The highest positive correlation we found was between the Index and the authoritative Giving USA annual tally of private sector giving including from individuals, businesses, foundations, and bequests.  The arts are certainly the recipients of charitable giving but human services, education, health, and other nonprofit services attract donations.  Given the importance of private support, the positively correlation is not a surprise.  The surprise was its magnitude, which is 88% for those years.

We thought that maybe this was because private arts philanthropy is already in the Index.  So, we did a tweak to eliminate the effect of five indicators of private generosity to the arts: total private giving and foundation funding, plus arts share of household giving, corporate giving, and foundation giving.  This adjusted index with 73 indicators tracks the full Index with 78 indicators very closely.  But it maintains a very high correlation (86%) with Giving USA, meaning that the strength of the correlation is not because of charitable contributions to the arts, but in addition to them.

To state the relationship clearly, as charity has gone since 2000, so went the arts.  In bad times and good, these two forces have moved up and down together very closely.  This is not “joined at the hip” synchronicity, but maybe it speaks to how they’re joined in the heart.  Charitable giving and engagement in the arts may emanate from the same instincts, values, and attitudes.  It’s not just that nonprofits are partially funded by charitable giving.  It’s a deeper bond, the notion that the arts and charity together are ways that people see to build and enjoy a better world.  There is a strong shared instinct and hope for a community and society characterized by beauty and care… an instinct that propels support of charities and engagement in the arts at the same time.

Of course this instinct cannot prevail when times are tough and there is less income available for beauty or charity.  The Index also correlates with worker and proprietor incomes over those years.  This is not a strong a relationship (though it’s still significant), but it reinforces how arts depend on consumers having discretionary income.

What does this say about the arts in 2012 and 2013?  If the relationship between the arts and charities is still strong, there is reason to be optimistic: Giving USA’s report on 2012 annual giving was up three percent over 2011 … a result that creates hope for the 2012 National Arts Index score due in spring 2014.

Finally, this not only concurs with what Arthur Brooks has to say, it amplifies it: Certainly giving generously makes you happier and healthier.  Better still, it’s another way to make a better place for the arts in our communities and lives.

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