By Gary Steuer, President/CEO of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation

The past few weeks I have felt overwhelmed with a wave of important thought-provoking articles and research studies on a range of cultural policy topics, from arts and neighborhood diversity, to what artists need to thrive, social practice art, arts philanthropy, racial equity in the arts, and beauty in the arts.

It was hard enough to find the time to read all these pieces, let alone devote sufficient time to truly digest and synthesize them, to find the connections, the threads, the contradictions. Social media is now a great vehicle for staying in touch with field developments. Good articles, or blog posts seem to spread like wildfire now via Facebook shares, Tweets, and even blogs mentioning blogs mentioning blogs. And sometimes I wonder, is everyone just sharing and re-sharing this information without even taking the time to truly read and think about the contents?

GarySteuer_EditThese ruminations made me pine for the old Utne Reader (which is still around, but my memories of it are from its early years…when I found it a great way to source interesting articles from relatively obscure publications I would never otherwise read) but one specifically geared to our sector. A publication that exists solely to cull worthy items from a wide array of sources, and compile and distribute them, but with some degree of summary and synthesis. So, since no such publication exists, at least for this month I have decided to create the Steuer Reader, a round-up of a few items that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.

Doug McLennan, Editor of Arts Journal, conducted the first ever Arts Journal poll, asking their readers, “What’s the Biggest Challenge Facing the Arts?” The results? 37% answered funding, 24% relevance/changing tastes, diversity at 15% and leadership at 13%. Doug looks at these responses and discusses the implications.

And speaking of questions, the Irvine Foundation asked “Is there an issue in the arts field more urgent than engagement?” This was part of a Q&A series “Are we doing enough?” exploring issues of arts, community, engagement and programming (two parts – link is to Part 1 – but you can jump from there to Part 2). The always engaging and thought-provoking Diane Ragsdale elaborated on her response to that first question on her blog Jumper. Her response in a nutshell: “From where I sit the most important issue in the arts field these days may be that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld – by society-at-large or even within the arts itself.” Have we become too “commodified, homogeneous, transactional and subject to market forces,” as Ragsdale suggests? Definitely worth thinking about!

The National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), and with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust and the Surdna Foundation, has launched CREATIVZ, a new initiative and website that gathers essays and invites input on the subject of “exploring how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers.” Out of the box they published an essay by the Laura Zabel (ED of Springboard for the Arts) entitled “What Artists Actually Need is an Economy that Works for Everyone.” She concludes that efforts to improve the lives of artists are “nibbling at the margins” because ultimately “our systems are broken not just for artists but for everyone.” Is broadening our focus to changing larger social systems mission drift, or in fact an exciting opportunity to put the arts and artists at the center of larger social change? These are big, big questions about the economy, education, housing, food systems…

The Atlantic and its CityLab website always seem to be generating important essays. The Atlantic published “Who Should Pay for the Arts in America,” a very important article by Andy Horowitz on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts. “The ethos on which the NEA was founded – inclusion and community – has been eroded by consistent political attack. As the NEA’s budget has been slashed, private donors and foundations have jumped in to fill the gap by the institutions they support, and that receive the bulk of arts funding in this country, aren’t reaching the people the NEA was founded to help serve. The arts aren’t dead, but the system by which they are funded is increasingly becoming as unequal as America itself.” [emphasis added]

The argument is that our heavy reliance on private as opposed to public support – relative to the rest of the world – while it gives us a more diverse funding system that is less subject to government influence, also favors the cultural preferences of the philanthropic class, which results in less equitable funding for culturally-specific and community-based groups.

And in CityLab, the ubiquitous Richard Florida writes about “The Connection Between the Arts and Neighborhood Diversity.” The article reports on new research that studied the link between the growth of cultural organizations in New York City between 2000 and 2010 and economic factors. Where did they locate, and what was the impact on these neighborhoods? (i.e. did they foster gentrification?) What the researchers found was that while many arts groups definitely tended to locate in neighborhoods of high wealth (Manhattan), two thirds of new arts groups located in neighborhoods with moderate to high levels of racial and income diversity, though they did find they were LESS likely to be located in disadvantaged or struggling neighborhoods. But here is the kicker: they did find that what they classified as “local-serving” arts groups help to reduce economic disadvantage in the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. In many ways these findings reinforce the findings of the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania. The new study suggests that New York City (and presumably other cities) should create incentives for nonprofit arts organizations to locate outside the core downtown (of Manhattan) into economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where they can help spur positive, community-building change as opposed to negative (gentrification) change.

Eleanor Savage of the Jerome Foundation spoke in NY on a “Shifting the Paradigm on Race” panel for ArtChangeUS conference – part of a five year initiative based out of the California Institute of the Arts and led by former Ford Foundation program director Roberta Uno. Savage said, “I am an artist, racial and social justice activist, and I work for Jerome Foundation, an independent foundation that funds the arts. I don’t honestly feel that the arts and culture community as a whole is operating from the standard of diversity or equity. The paradigm I experience daily is still racism, segregation, and exclusion of people of color.” Her remarks are very powerful and a reminder to all of us in arts philanthropy that we have much work still to do. Read the article here.

In the Nonprofit Quarterly Eileen Cuniffe and Julie Hawkins wrote “Staging a Comeback: How the Nonprofit Arts Sector Has Evolved since the Great Recession.” This is really a research review on how the arts have fared since the recession. As had been earlier reported by Americans for the Arts, while the economic recovery began in 2009, it did not positively impact the arts until 2012. The arts recovered later and slower than the rest of the economy, and also as a component of the nonprofit sector, took the biggest hit. In fact, locally, in Denver, many foundations pulled back from the arts during the economic downturn, exacerbating their recovery and impacting the decision of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to focus its grantmaking resources entirely on the arts. The authors find the arts suffered from three main areas of weakness prior to the recession that hindered their ability to weather the storm: 1) Undercapitalization, 2) Changing Audiences, and 3) Employment Practices (low pay, understaffing and poor benefits). And they pose three “lingering questions”: 1] Who should be a nonprofit? 2] Is technology a friend or foe? and 3] How many arts organizations are too many?

Finally, I end this round-up with “beauty”: David Brooks’ passionate op-ed column in the New York Times called “When Beauty Strikes.”  Brooks concludes, “The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good – the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.” Beautiful sentiments (pun intended) that received wide social media praise. But Brooks also said, “For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of evidence).” This was taken as a slap at social practice art – artists should stay where they belong, in the world of pure aesthetics, Brooks seemed to be saying. I have chosen to see both sides. It is valuable to reaffirm the ineffable things the arts do best, the importance of beauty, of mystery, of inner growth – qualities that can get pushed to the background as we focus on economic impact and other “instrumental” values of the arts.

And it is also useful to be reminded that engagement with social issues through art is most effective when it both STILL achieves all the beauty (and pain, and mystery and passion) that art can achieve, AND is meticulously informed about the issues being addressed. Bad social practice art is still bad art even if it has laudable social intent, and can actually undermine the cause that it intends to advance.