Public Benefits of Arts & Culture: What's changed? Why does it matter?

Of late, a simple truth has been made plain to me: people invest in what they value.

But how people derive that value is constantly changing. For example: my grandfather, who lived to be nearly 105, placed a high value on classical vocal music throughout his life. As a young man, he and his brother would sneak into the “cheap seats” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera to hear the stars of the day. As an older man, he came to value the Metropolitan Opera on the radio, particularly when he moved to a city that didn’t have a professional opera company. And as a very elderly man, he grew to value the sounds of the volunteer church choir, singing live every Sunday. 

Though the ways that he defined and participated in classical vocal music changed, his love of the art form – and the value that it provided to him – was unwavering. My grandfather’s journey with music is but a small example of how the ways in which patterns of cultural participation continue to change. And in the last ten years, we have seen a significant shift in what our audiences and communities are demanding from arts and culture. Today’s patrons want to engage with their favorite art forms in new ways. 

As the agency that uses voter-approved tax dollars to support arts and culture organizations in Cuyahoga County, we see enhancing the public value of arts and culture as core to our mission and crucial to sustaining public funding for arts and culture in the future. Here at Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, we imagine that new forms of cultural participation might change the way that the public perceives the value of arts and culture. 

We want to learn more about how Cuyahoga County’s arts and culture organizations serve the community, and how residents perceive the value that these organizations provide. To that end, in early 2014, we engaged Holly Sidford of the Helicon Collaborative and Nick Rabkin of reMaking Culture to work together and dig into these questions with us, with our cultural partners, and with local residents. 

Their findings have been refined into a short paper, which was presented in a workshop at the Grantmakers in the Arts national conference in Houston in October 2014.

This research reinforces what many working in the arts and culture field might already know: cultural organizations that continue to concentrate their efforts on attracting audiences who participate passively in their offerings will continue to struggle to demonstrate the value that they provide. In contrast, organizations that embrace the new modes of cultural participation – including active participation, learning, and making arts & culture – will generate more value and, ultimately, build a more sustainable future.

What’s next for CAC with this work? The findings of this study will serve as the groundwork for a planning process that we will kick off in 2015, in partnership with Holly and Nick and their teams. At CAC, we know that we were founded to help sustain the arts & culture sector; to do that, we must step up to help organizations build the capacity to sustain themselves in a changing world.

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