Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

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Why are the arts important?

by Dwight Newton, Nougat Magazine, February 2007

If you are reading Nougat, the answer to the title question may seem self-evident. Those of us who are active in the arts – artists, musicians, performers, writers, promoters, managers, patrons, audiences – understand their importance on an intuitive level that we rarely pause to question. It’s like asking why air is important, or food, or sunshine. The arts are not a diversion – mere entertainment. They are what give meaning to our lives.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy wrote, “...the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose – and it is the test of the quality of a nation's civilization.” Some years ago I was on the staff of a state arts commission in a western state. This state had a vital arts community on all levels, from the poorest Native American and Latino communities to the elite urban galleries, symphonies, operas, theatre, and ballet. The commission’s staff was among the most dedicated and talented group of people I have ever known and they often worked miracles with minimal resources. The great bulk of resources went directly into school arts programs. Support from the state legislature was paltry at best and had to be justified in hearings at every new budget cycle. We had a number of staunch supporters in the legislature, but there was always someone on the hearing committee who just didn’t get it. When I attended one of these hearings I nearly gasped when a legislator asked, “Do we really need an arts commission?” (This person was later quoted in the news regarding her opposition to proposed legislation that would ban the carrying of concealed weapons in public parks. In her words, “An armed society is a polite society.”) Government support for the arts has always been controversial because those to whom art is important often have a fundamentally different world view from those to whom it is not. If you cannot be moved by art to empathy, how can you be moved by suffering to compassion?

Government arts agencies have always struggled with having to justify their existence in difficult budget years. They are constantly looking for data to support their budget appropriations. Government agencies are normally forbidden to expend resources in political advocacy. Most people, including those in the arts, are unaware of the many non-governmental entities that are working to make the arts in America sustainable. Popular advocacy, especially on the federal level, comes from Americans for the Arts (AFTA). State arts agencies are assisted in advocacy and development by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), and by nonprofit research organizations including the Benton Foundation and the Wallace Foundation. In addition to NASAA, there are regional organizations that support government arts agencies, including the Southern Arts Federation, now headed by former Kentucky Arts Council director Gerri Combs. In Kentucky there is a very small, but very effective organization called Arts Kentucky ( that is able to do advocacy activities that the Kentucky Arts Council is not allowed to. They have a good advocacy network for getting out action alerts relating to legislative issues affecting the arts. (Disclosure: Arts Kentucky also provides free peer consulting and educational programs to arts organizations across the state through its Kentucky Peer Advisory Network, on whose roster I am listed as a technology consultant.) Fortunately, we in Kentucky seem to understand the importance and value of the arts to our identity, and how that identity is fundamentally tied to our economic health. When even California’s Arts Council was seriously threatened with extinction a few years ago as states across the nation reeled from post 9/11 budget shock, there was no serious discussion at all of cutting the Kentucky Arts Council’s budget.

The amount of money going to arts organizations is miniscule compared to the actual costs of operating them. But the granting process often serves as a trigger for matching funds from other sources – an imprimatur that assures foundation and other grantors that an applicant is worthy. Any funder has an agenda and applicants for funding have to play to the intent of the granting source. When the artistic product is altered to adapt to the funding resource, this can be a harmful relationship. In most cases with state agencies, the granting process is managed with scrupulous fairness, with certain checks and balances of which most people outside the inner circle are unaware. This is a good thing but it can sometimes result in a diluted funding pool with projects and organizations getting funding without regard to worthiness or need. A large symphony or opera organization, for example, that might have an endowment fund and a solid support foundation, can eat up a huge chunk of public funding at the expense of smaller school programs. This is not to say the big organizations are not worthy, but a large amount of public funding to them may have less impact than small amounts to many others.

State arts organizations were given ammunition in their arguments for legislative funding in 2002 with a report from AFTA called Arts & Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and Their Audiences. This report indicated that “America's nonprofit arts industry generates $134 billion in economic activity every year, including $24.4 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. The $134 billion total includes $53.2 billion in spending by arts organizations and $80.8 billion in event-related spending by arts audiences…” ( Any legislator reading these numbers could easily see that a minimal investment in arts funding would have huge payback in tax revenues and other economic activity. Then in 2005 an important report appeared from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, called Reframing the Debate About the Value of the Arts (, turned the AFTA report on its head, suggesting that the economic impact was overstated and that the intrinsic value of the arts should be the subject of advocacy rather than the extrinsic impacts on social or economic development. Arts organizations nationwide groaned when this came out because they had invested a lot of energy into promoting the AFTA argument – which dealt with nicely understandable dollars and cents – and were now being told the data was unfounded and that they should be promoting much more amorphous benefits like “expression of communal meaning” and “expanded capacity for empathy.”

I have always promoted art for art’s sake. Art’s importance is self-evident and self-sufficient. I’m not sure what the current state of these arguments may be among arts advocates, but I do know that the initial reaction was denial of the RAND report by AFTA and others, which was especially painful because previous important RAND projects had built massive credibility for the company. They just didn’t want to believe it. I would hope that arts organizations and funders will embrace the newer paradigm because it would be healthier for all in the long term.

-Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Public Information Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His personal websites are at and