"It's one-stop shopping," said Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program director, Andras Szanto. "Give us one day out of your busy lives, and we will try to introduce you to much of the recent research and give you an overview of the major current debates."
He was speaking about "Measuring the Muse," a conference at Columbia today on the value of creativity in the economy and the status of arts participation. Co-sponsored with Alliance for the Arts and funded by the Wallace Foundation and Columbia University Arts Initiative, the conference will include addresses by National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin.
Mr. Szanto said he and Alliance for the Arts president Randall Bourscheidt "fantasized about bringing together a critical mass of this research," a lot of which "tends to get released in an ad hoc fashion. Part of the idea we had in mind was something like conferences in the medical field, where everyone gets a brief time to state the essence of their research."
There's a lot to discuss. "The arts policy research field has made a quantum leap over the past 10 or 15 years," said Center for Arts and Culture Director Stefan Toepler. The director of arts policy and administration at Ohio State University, Margaret Wyszomirski, said that a decade or so ago people "constantly bemoaned that we didn't have enough research and information." But "in the subsequent 10 years, we've gotten a lot of research, and now everybody complains we can't digest it all."
A special afternoon session will discuss a major RAND study, released in February, called "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," commissioned by the Wallace Foundation.
The report is in part about how we value the arts, said Mr. Szanto. In recent years, there has been research into the instrumental benefits - how arts help to bring to life other good things such as tourism, safer cities, better educational performance, etc. But the report says that may be at the expense of the value of art in and of itself. "We need to start looking at why people choose to enjoy the arts, not just how we can stimulate the creation of more art," Mr. Szanto said.
A co-researcher of the report, Arthur Brooks, who is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs, said the upshot of the report was that arts advocates have been selling the benefits of the arts in ways that don't have to do with arts per se: its effect on the economy, juvenile delinquency, and so forth.
"You don't get any of those benefits unless people like the arts and choose to consume the arts," he said. "It's not that economic impact is wrong, it's that we're focusing on a weak part of the argument, and leaving out the central part. The instrumental benefits ride in on the intrinsic benefits: that's the big point of the RAND study."
Mr. Brooks mentioned a conversation he had had with members of the Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta about a proposed cultural district. After raising instrumental benefits, such as bringing in tourists, Mr. Brooks was asked, "What would be the economic impact of building a new runway versus a cultural district?"
"In the terms of how I was selling it, he was asking about the opportunity costs," Mr. Brooks said of the council member. He added that the question would probably not have been raised if he had also come at the subject from the quality of life (arts for arts's sake) perspective.
At the conference, two talks will examine participation, not just audience attendance but more broadly as "social capital" - the network of associations, experience, and interconnections that foster trust and reciprocity and are the glue of society. Two other presentations will address "creative industries," a subject Ms. Wyszomirski described as "the next generation of economic impact studies."
Studies used to be about how the arts affect the economic life of the community, "now it's that, but also how do we develop" the creative infrastructure in which arts thrive. Ms. Wyszomirski said that discussing "creative industries" involves understanding the interrelatedness of the range of creative activities - art, entertainment, and craft.
Two other presentations will address the nonprofit sector of philanthropy and giving; three presentations will examine current research into specific art forms: theater, dance, and visual arts. Another pair will examine arts through the lens of geography.