The state of the arts is … blah

nai_one_pager_graph_thumbnailPresident Obama in his address last night studiously avoided the phrase, “the State of the Union is strong.” If there were a State of the Union for the arts, the speaker—Who would it be?—would likely have made the same choice. For all is not well on the cultural ramparts. Just as “Wall Street Prospers while Main Street suffers,” we’re seeing some profligate spending on art again, here and there, while artists and organizations on the ground are having a really tough time.

To measure the pain and the sorrow, Americans for the Arts, the Washington based advocacy group, has come up with a National Art Index, “the first study to measure the health and vitality of the arts in the United States.” It’s not a pretty picture. The index fell 4 points last year, reflecting steep drops in attendance and support, along with other downward trends. Thirty thousand arts nonprofits have been added since the index peaked, in 1999, so demand clearly “outlags capacity”—a problem that won’t go away even when the economy perks up.

Meanwhile, a group of arts wonks (myself included) are debating the language of arts-policy and advocacy this week at ArtsJournal. The headline so far: we lack compelling and uncompromised language to galvanize support for the arts and expand the purview of cultural policy to include the things that really matter, such as technology, media, and intellectual property regulation.

What does this mean for the visual art world? Americans for the Arts is largely concerned with the nonprofit arts. Its indeces may not faithfully reflect the condition of visual art markets and institutions. Are we any better off? What would be the right measures to diagnose the health of the visual arts? And where do you see the trend lines leading in the year ahead?

1 thought on “The state of the arts is … blah”

  1. There are plenty of quantitative indicators around (viz: total sales running through the auction houses, number of galleries opening or closing, et al), but qualitatively I think it is much more difficult to judge. The sheer volume of work generated and sold over the last twenty years is NOT necessarily an indicator of good health.

    In the first instance it is an indication of the appetite for works from an increasingly wealthy global middle class population who have acquired the habit of paying more for objects to fill their houses. This is a demand side phenomenon and says little about the quality of what they are buying.

    As the money available to purchase has risen, so has the quantity of product seeking to satisfy the market. But how much of what we have seen produced over this same period has any intrinsic merit and how are we to measure this?

    A market is not necessarily ‘healthy’ simply because much is being bought and sold. For the long term stability and growth of a market, the works being created and purchased need to have value that is recognisable and tangible. Otherwise, at some stage, someone cries out “the emperor has no clothes”, and it all comes tumbling down.

    The ‘relevance’ of work to a given context, the ‘cultural value’ of an object created to express a point of view, the ability of a work to ‘move’ people to an emotion, are all intangible characteristics often assigned to Art that are hard to measure objectively. And even the collective, ostensibly objective, measures of history are arbitrary to a degree, since there is fashion even in history.

    So all our qualitative measures are based on personal, and potentially arbitrary, viewpoints, and are not objective at all.

    Perhaps that is as it should be. Since Art should, if it has ANY value, be a relationship between itself and its observer. And nothing else should matter.

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