Let It Ripple, or The Arts As A Public Good

by August Schulenburg

in Fall Forum,Interviews

Post image for Let It Ripple, or The Arts As A Public Good

Heading into our 2011 Fall Forum on Governance: Capitalizing an Art Form, we wanted to provide a more in depth look at some of our speakers. We’re thrilled that our closing speaker, Margy Waller, took a moment out of her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.

Margy Waller is a Senior Fellow at Topos Partnership and Special Advisor at ArtsWave, where in 2008 she contributed to the report,The Arts Ripple Effect (PDF). I remember reading the report when it first came out and being struck by how many of the ways I talked about the value of the arts turned out to be less effective at building what the report calls “broadly shared public responsibility for arts and culture.”

In other words, most people think the arts are good, but a significantly lower number consider them a public good. How do we change that? Waller shed some light on the question in the following email interview.

1. In 2008, you helped lead a research initiative designed to develop an inclusive community dialogue leading to broadly shared public responsibility for arts and culture in the Cincinnati region. What was the most surprising finding of that research?

There were a number of surprises. And of course – all of the things we learned, we’ve put to use in our communications — our website, photos, business cards, community report, videos, and so on. Every communication is an opportunity to build broader support – and we think about it that way. As we looked for a new conversation starter about the value of the arts – we were surprised by the topics that didn’t work for us the way we expected.

This first-in-the-nation communications research effort for the arts sector, commissioned by ArtsWave and conducted by Topos Partnership, revealed that the existing landscape of public understanding is not conducive to a sense of broadly shared responsibility for the arts. To achieve that objective, we need to change the landscape by employing a message strategy that:

  • Positions arts and culture as a public good – a communal interest in which all have a stake,

  • Provides a clearer picture of the kinds of events, activities and institutions we are talking about,

  • Conveys the importance of a proactive stance, and

  • Incorporates all people in a region, not just those in urban centers.

Holding typical arts messages up to these standards clarifies why some messages, even emotionally powerful messages, fail to inspire a sense of collective responsibility. Art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., all speak to private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages do not help them think of art as a public good.

Messages that are more communal in nature, such as the commonly used economic investment message, or a message about creating a great city, fail for other reasons. For instance, traditional economic messages end up competing with other (usually more compelling) ideas about how to bolster an economy.

Of the many communications approaches explored in testing, one stood out as having the most potential to shift thinking and conversations in a constructive direction. This approach emphasizes one key organizing idea:

A thriving arts sector creates “ripple effects” of benefits throughout our community.

We learned that the following two ripple effects are especially helpful and compelling to enumerate :

  • A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument.
  • A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

2. TCG’s Fall Forum focuses in part on redefining our assets. What assets do you think theatres possess that they might be forgetting or undervaluing?

The art is important for its own sake, of course. And the effort we make to make sure that people see the work is a terribly important part of what we do.

Still, our research reveals that we may benefit from shining a bright light on certain assets when we are working to build community support for our theaters and the arts sector. Despite our best efforts, many residents will never be consumers; they may choose other arts events or pursuits. Yet they benefit from having a healthy and thriving theatre community – and in order to make sure they are there for us when we need public support, we have to show all citizens these benefits.

First – we know that people already believe that a vibrant arts environment also means more people coming together to share experiences and ideas, connecting with each other and understanding each other in new ways. These connections build trust and a stronger network of community residents.

It’s just that this isn’t the first thing they think of when they hear the word arts. That’s why it’s so important we reinforce this belief with images, and stories, and events, and more. Theater has an advantage when it comes to sharing ideas – most people see it as quite accessible, that is – it’s easy for them to imagine taking part in a conversation about what they learned and felt after a show.

We should capture that asset and let everyone know how it changes community. When a play generates a conversation between people who would not have otherwise had a chance to talk, share that information with a photo or a blog post or newsletter article. Use photos from talkback sessions on websites, in written materials, and the next time a reporter asks for a photo. We want broad audiences to see these benefits.

Theaters play a major role in making neighborhoods and communities exciting, vibrant, vital places. I often think about what happened in the neighborhood around 14th and P Streets in Washington DC during the time I was living there. That neighborhood changed dramatically — and it’s impossible to deny the role of theaters in the neighborhood since they were pioneers. Now, there are shops, new apartments and condos, restaurants, clubs, yoga studios, and a grocery store. And there are people on the street all the time–making it a very appealing place for residents and a draw for tourists. We’ve seen this happen in blocks all across the country. Think about how different the street in front of your place looks on the night of an event. We need to show photos of those changes and differences, reminding residents and policy-makers of the role the arts and artists play in changing places.

Theaters are an asset to neighborhoods — any neighborhood. In a recent state of the city speech, my mayor said that when there is a show at one of our theaters, all of the restaurants in the neighborhood are full and as he said: “I think that’s just fine.”

Margy Waller is an advocate for building community through the arts. She works at ArtsWave where she is a Special Advisor and she is also a Senior Fellow at Topos Partnership. Previously she was Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, with a joint appointment in the Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy programs. Prior to Brookings, she was Senior Advisor on domestic policy in the Clinton-Gore White House. Margy was named one of the nation’s 25 most “powerful and influential” nonprofit arts leaders, Top Ten Tweeter by SoapboxMedia, and Rising Civic Star by Cincy Magazine. She’s appeared in and on numerous media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News. She’s a non-practicing lawyer and photographer of the arts-all-around-us on her blog: cincinnatiartgrrl.

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also the Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays includeRiding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq) and actor (currently filming The Golden Scallop). Learn more here.