Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts

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Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts

A wide range of benefits can be gained from involvement in the arts, but we contend that many of them-and particularly those most often cited by arts advocates-are gained only through a process of sustained involvement. Three factors help explain how individuals become involved in the arts and thus gain access to the benefits the arts offer.

The gateway experiences that acquaint individuals with the arts constitute the first factor. Although these initial experiences can occur at any age, they appear to be most conducive to future arts involvement if they happen when people are young (that is, of school age, particularly pre-teen). The second factor is the quality of the arts experience: Individuals whose experiences are fully engaging-emotionally, mentally, and sometimes socially-are the ones who continue to be involved in the arts. Continued involvement develops the competencies that change individual tastes and enrich subsequent arts experience. The third factor, which is the key difference between individuals who participate frequently in the arts and those who do so only occasionally, is the intrinsic worth of the arts experience to the individual. Those who continue to be involved seek arts experiences because they find them stimulating, uplifting, challenging-that is, intrinsically worthwhile-whereas those who participate in the arts infrequently tend to participate for extrinsic reasons (such as accompanying someone to an arts event). The model of the participation process that we developed not only highlights these points, but also suggests how to build involvement in, and therefore demand for, the arts.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

The study's key policy implication is that policy should be geared toward spreading the benefits of the arts by introducing greater numbers of Americans to engaging arts experiences. This focus requires that attention and resources be shifted away from supply of the arts and toward cultivation of demand. Such a demand-side approach will help build a market for the arts by developing the capacity of individuals to gain benefits from their arts experiences. Calls to broaden, diversify, and deepen participation in the arts are, of course, hardly novel, but efforts along these lines have so far been hampered by a lack of guiding principles. Our analysis of how individuals develop a life-long commitment to the arts suggests a variety of ways in which to promote this objective.

Based on our study, we recommend a number of steps the arts community might take to redirect its emphasis, shifting it toward the promotion of satisfying arts experiences:

  • Develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits. The arts community will need to develop language to describe the various ways that the arts create benefits at both the private and the public level. The greatest challenge will be to bring the policy community to explicitly recognize the importance of intrinsic benefits. This will require an effort to raise awareness about the need to look beyond quantifiable results and examine qualitative issues.
  • Address the limitations of the research on instrumental benefits. Since arts advocates are not likely to (and should not) abandon benefits arguments in making the case for the arts, it is important that they be more specific in how they make that case in order to develop the credibility of the arguments. Future research should take advantage of the theoretical and methodological insights available in the non-arts literature. Moreover, future research should not continue to be limited to instrumental benefits.
  • Promote early exposure to the arts. Research has shown that early exposure is often key to developing life-long involvement in the arts. That exposure typically comes from arts education, community-based arts programs, and/or commercial entertainment. The most-promising way to develop audiences for the arts would be to provide well-designed programs in the nation's schools. But this approach would require more funding, greater cooperation between educators and arts professionals, and the implementation of effective arts education programs that incorporate appreciation, discussion, and analysis of art works as well as creative production. Community-based arts programs, if well designed and executed, could also be an effective way to introduce youth to the arts, but they tend to be severely limited in resources. And yet another way to facilitate early arts involvement would be to tap into young people's involvement in the commercial arts. High schools, for example, might consider offering film classes that engage students in discussions of some of the best American and international films.
  • Create circumstances for rewarding arts experiences. Arts organizations should consider it part of their responsibility to educate their audiences to appreciate the arts.

Most of the benefits of the arts come from individual experiences that are mentally and emotionally engaging, experiences that can be shared and deepened through reflection, conversations, and reading. The strategies we recommend for building arts involvement would help make these experiences accessible to greater numbers of Americans.

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