Idea Blog

I asked Steven J. Tepper to respond to Kyle Thetford’s “Does Art Help the Economy?”

Posted by: admin | Posted on: July 17th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Happy mid-July! Here at Curb, we’re constantly hearing and reading ideas and wondering what each other thinks of them. Yesterday as I read “Does Art Help the Economy?” by Kyle Thetford, (Atlantic Monthly — find it here), I wondered if Steven J. Tepper had a moment to let me know what he thought. Turns out, he did! His response follows:

We can celebrate that Britain’s cultural budget this year did not suffer dramatic cuts.   There is a deep longing in the arts community to believe such policy decisions reflect an enlightened understanding of the intrinsic benefits of the arts. Related, there remains a deep antipathy toward the marriage of the arts with the economy – for more than 100 years, arts advocates have held fast to the belief in “art-for-arts” sake. But, the argument hashed out in Kyle Thetford’s column in the Atlantic is as old as tea leaves – framed as an either/or proposition when instead it should be a both/and proposition.  The arts are both an important part of the economy AND they bring intrinsic benefits.   In economic terms, the arts may be better investments than other pure economic drivers, like a waste disposal plant, because they have positive externalities for their communities in addition to their direct economic impact. The arts do spur innovation, entrepreneurialism, intellectual property and economic growth.  But they also create pride, connection, understanding, enjoyment, and wellbeing.  But, we would be naïve to think that policy makers will support the arts for these intrinsic benefits. Policy, for better or worse, is almost exclusively debated in economic terms – optimizing growth, productivity, and jobs.

I wish we lived in a world where other values were prominent in policy decisions. But we don’t, and the arts world can yell until they are blue in the face, but if they want public investment they have to walk in the policy door dressed up as Economic Man.  There are only a handful of policy areas where we can talk about intrinsic value – saving historic and natural landmarks is one such area.  But, in these cases, policy makers and the public at large can visibly see what non-intervention looks like – a forest, canyon, park, lake, monument might disappear, be destroyed, and become unavailable or inaccessible. Under such conditions, intrinsic value arguments can win the day. But, people are surrounded by art in their everyday life – music, film, books, fashion, and theater.   If anything, most people feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice they have when considering their cultural options.   Intrinsic arguments under such conditions simply will not fly.  So, whether we like it or not, we are left with arguments about investments, innovation, entrepreneurship, and jobs.

Thetford is wrong to suggest the U.S. needs to look across the pond to learn the value of economic arguments –we have been using these arguments for years.   Our out-going NEA chair, Rocco Landsman, has spent the past four years describing and defending artists as workers who bolster the economy. Americans for the Arts, our largest advocacy organization that promotes public investments in the arts, has been conducting and using economic impact arguments for close to 20 years.  We get it.   Maybe someday, policy leaders can credibly use “quality of life” arguments to defend and promote public investments; but for now, Economic Man stands tall and speaks with the loudest voice.

Thanks, Steven!

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