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Fine Arts:

A Pragmatic Case for Public Funding

A majority of Americans nowadays have little knowledge of, or interest in, let alone enthusiasm for, what are called "fine arts."  So why should they support something they care nothing about?  This is a hard question that arises whenever the subject of public support for the arts or other cultural projects comes up.  And it's a good question to ask, if you're a practical-minded citizen concerned about how government spends your tax dollars.  A good question deserves a good answer.  So try this one:

Fine arts are a magnet for talent and brains.

That's the short answer, but it requires some explanation for fuller understanding.  After all, what good are artists' talent and brains, when what we really need are talent and brains for business and government?  As it turns out, the two are connected in a very businesslike "supply-and-demand" relationship.

Communities—be they business or government, be they local, state, national, or global—function best when led by the best leaders and innovators available, particularly those with the special knack of understanding individual projects in relation to a "big picture" scheme of things in general.  For this particular mix of talent and brains, we need the most talented, the most liberally educated, the most critically thinking, and the most broadly experienced people available.  What attracts such leaders and innovators? 

  • Money: Obviously, it attracts most people.  But it isn't very discriminating; money attracts not only the best of the best but also the worst of the worst, and a lot in between.  But other attractions are more targeted.

  • Challenge: Some administrators like the idea of starting with an already successful model that they can refine and improve upon, while others savor the challenge of starting, either from scratch or with a rough example, and using their ingenuity to raise it to a superior level.

  • Living environment: It's probably a safe bet that most world-class leaders and innovators don't relish the idea of immersing themselves and their families in an undeveloped or even degraded backwater.  They've invested considerable time, effort, and money to become educated and experienced, and they'd prefer that these investments be rewarded, not penalized, by their chosen habitat.  The ideal environment is devoid of corruption and crime.  It has sound infrastructure.  It's conducive to honest and fair business practices.  It's stable, but open to prudent innovation.  It's clean and healthful for its inhabitants.  It provides good general education, facilities for recreation, and care for the indigent.  No real-world environment is ideal, but so long as opportunities exist for remedying any deficiencies, the outlook is satisfactory.

For leaders and innovators of superior talent, education, experience, and vision, money is just one of several attractions, and by no means the overriding one.  The outstanding individuals we seek are primarily those well rounded enough to consider challenge or environment more meaningful and rewarding than enormous income.  Indeed, there's one facet of the living environment that we haven't yet mentioned: arts.  Arts are a form of recreation, and they appeal to just about everyone, and just about everyone can participate in them in some measure.  (To paraphrase the wry observation of one critic, "If you can't sing well, you can sing loudly; and if you can't sing at all, you can always scream."  As evidence of this in today's world, it would appear that screaming—or its equivalent in the visual arts—has a hugely marketable mass appeal.)

But the fine arts are something more.  They demand of the artist a substantive level of innate talent, extensive training in both mechanical precision and aesthetic nuance, a rigorous personal vision of perfection, and an obsessive desire to transform the first two of these into the third.  Fine arts are a melding of aesthetics and intellect, a connection to world culture and history, an awareness of potential and an inspiration of vision.  No, one needn't be a genius to enjoy a Mendelssohn concerto or a Botticelli painting; such works are beautiful and majestic and just plain fun to experience on a purely superficial level, even for small children; mature intellectual involvement and worldliness simply broaden and intensify the interest.  As such, fine arts have a special appeal to the very sort of extraordinarily talented, brainy, and worldly  individuals we need to undertake the major conceptual and decision-making tasks of strategic leadership and innovation.  For, in the course of developing and refining their talents, many of these big-picture thinkers have acquired a strong love and appreciation of the arts through upbringing, through education, or simply through cultural or even accidental exposure to elegant artistry worlds beyond the commonplace.  It's an exceptional artistry to which they find themselves intensely attuned, and which, once so attuned, they'd be loath to do without.  In business terms, they provide a market demand for fine arts.  And the obvious suppliers for that market are high-grade artists and art institutions.

We see the results of (mostly) superior leadership in prominent American cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Buffalo-Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Seattle, and San Francisco, which have the advantage of this extraordinary investment in arts and are on par with major cities in Europe, eastern Asia, and Australia.  No, they surely didn't become prosperous solely because of their arts; there are many other contributing factors, most involving the creation and investment of wealth.  But it's virtually certain that otherwise comparable communities are less prosperous without an active fine arts base.  If you doubt this claim, compare the aforementioned cities to other American cities without strong fine arts institutions, as in the Deep South or the Great Plains, and draw your own conclusions.

Granted, world-class arts institutions are enormously human-intensive, and therefore often so expensive that they can't generate enough revenue through ticket sales to pay directly for their own operation, and must in addition rely on outside support.  There's nothing new about this; fine arts have had major support from the public sector for centuries—initially from priests, kings, and other noble patrons, and later in the post-monarchic environment from the increasingly educated and affluent entrepreneur, merchant, and professional classes.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, fine arts received additional support from both private philanthropy and government endowment, justified by the arts' importance in preserving cultural identity, heritage, and national prestige.  Today, lofty visions of culture, heritage, and prestige have faded in the American psyche, and the fine arts are valued in more pragmatic terms.  Though often too costly for self-maintenance, they're well worth their cost in terms of the indirect benefits to which they contribute by attracting a superior brand of leadership: wise planning, prudent innovation, ethical vision, a homing instinct for prosperity, a concern for general well-being, a sense of sustainable balance between liberty and responsibility, and acknowledgement of the necessity of a safety valve of artful socio-political commentary and criticism of the very powers that support them.

What it boils down to is our initial claim: An accomplished and thriving fine arts community is a magnet for talent and brains, both from within the arts and also from other fields in which the appeal of the arts is strong enough to be felt as a necessary condition of civilized life.  Fine arts draw others with special talents, to transform a mediocre community into a first-rate one.  A community with art museums, professional theater, a symphony orchestra, an opera or ballet company, and perhaps a school of fine arts might seem gross extravagance to many.  But the bottom line is that such a community will get the pick of the crop when it comes to attracting intelligent, well educated, and worldly wise professionals and global leaders of government and business, the top-notch of whom are wise enough to attach great importance and value to things besides money.  Some would even gladly forego the prospect of huge salaries in order to live and work in a community with an active professional fine arts tradition.  Granted, the existence of a fine arts community doesn't guarantee superior leadership, but it significantly improves the odds of it, with the quality of leadership and the arts working with and reinforcing each other.

In other words, fine arts programs have value to a community, not because everyone enjoys them, but because they attract a high quality of thinking from which everyone benefits.  Thus, even if fine arts programs can't directly raise enough revenue to support themselves, it's still in everyone's practical interest that they be supported and sustained.  For if fine arts languish, the attraction to the most talented, educated, experienced, and capable leaders will fade.  They'll eventually abandon what they increasingly perceive as a cultural wasteland, and migrate to wherever the environment is more favorable to their interests, taking their talent and brains with them.  A community devoid of fine arts must be satisfied with the dregs of leadership.  Instead of capable and broadly visionary humanitarian planners, it will likely have to put up with tunnel-vision schemers at best and blind bunglers at worst.  Fine arts, like good education and public health, are an investment that forward-looking communities make in themselves, an investment that pays off for everyone in the long run.


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