How Art Works

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has just released a report titled “How Art Works.” It announces a new five-year research agenda, to analyze the benefits of the arts to society–individual benefits, community benefits, and economic benefits. The core of the report is a new “system map” (see graphic below), and each research project will focus on one or more of the components in the system.

The system map reflects several key assumptions guiding the research project:

  • Arts engagement is at the heart of how art works.
  • The raw fuel needed to keep the system going is the human impulse to create and express.
  • Benefits can accrue separately to individuals and communities.
  • Arts engagement makes important contributions to the capacity for a society to invent and express itself.
How Art Works System Map
How Art Works System Map

Arts engagement is at the center of the system. Everything revolves around people and communities engaging with the arts. If there’s no engagement, the NEA argues, the arts can’t have any benefits. If there’s great art sitting in a museum in the middle of nowhere and no one ever looks at it, there are no benefits. If only a small subset of the population engages with the arts, then the benefits would only accrue to that subset, thus disadvantaging the others who don’t engage with the arts.

The map is designed to be pretty easy to understand, because it’s an overall vision guiding a range of research projects over the next five years. The inputs are at the top and the outputs–the benefits–are at the bottom.

The inputs are (1) the human impulse to create and express; (2) the arts infrastructure (the institutions and places that facilitate the creation and consumption of art); (3) education and training (the skills and knowledge that inform artistic expression, and the consumption of art).

The outputs are (1) benefits of the arts to individuals (including transformations in thinking, social skills, and character development over time); (2) benefits of the arts to societies and communities (including sustaining communities, transferring values, economic benefits; and (3) the broader societal impact of the overall society’s capacity to innovate and express ideas.

At the left side of the graphic are what they call the “multipliers”: forces that broadly influence the entire art system.

Here’s the NEA summary of the system map:

The system map is a conceptual diagram of how variables relevant to the topic How Art Works “talk” to one another. It is a picture of the complexity inherent in discussions of art’s impact and it suggests a set of hypotheses about the relationship between arts engagement and the arts’ impacts on individuals and their communities. The map offers a platform for mounting a research agenda to test the strength of these relationships and their underlying hypotheses.

In the full report, each of the components in the map are expanded significantly, identifying specific elements and activities, that then lead to specific research questions. The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis (ORA) has identified three overarching research goals:

  • Identify and cultivate new and existing data sources in the arts.
  • Investigate the value of the U.S. arts ecosystem and the impact of the arts on other domains of American life.
  • Elevate the public profile of arts-related research.

My sense of what’s going on: What they’re really looking for are quantitative measures of the benefits of the arts, that would justify national, state, and community investments in the arts. Then, arts organizations and advocates could use these data in making the case for money with politicians and nonprofit funding agencies. They’re looking for evidence of benefits in any of the following areas:

  • Health and well-being: Does arts participation increase individual health and/or community health?
  • Cognitive capacity, learning, and creativity: Does arts participation make you smarter and/or more creative?
  • Community livability: If there are more local opportunities for arts participation, does that make a community more desirable, pleasant, healthy?
  • Economic prosperity: Does arts participation increase the economic success of a city or region–whether real estate values, average salaries, growth in new businesses, or whatever?

Of course, the NEA has been exploring these questions for years already. The report ends with a summary of 31 projects, both completed and planned, that align with the system map and these research questions. What’s really new here is the “system map” concept itself; the idea is that it will help the NEA better understand how all of its different research projects fit together–and in particular, help them to understand which areas may have been relatively neglected in the past.

Anyone involved in the arts has a stake in this research. Most people who work in the arts feel as if arts funding is under siege–in the U.S., the various government entities have often found it easy to cut arts funding, either because they thought the arts was a private sector responsibility, or because they thought the arts were only consumed by a small elite. In U.S. schools, arts education has losing support for decades–with many schools now having almost no arts education.

Should society support the arts from revenue that is provided by taxes on everyone? Is there a national interest at stake? What do you think?