Art Works Blog

Taking Note: "Intrinsic" Versus "Instrumental" Benefits of Art

Washington, DC

Different Strokes / The Chicago Bean by papalars via flickr

A growing number of us, by choice or by vocation, are in the habit of discussing the arts in empirical terms. Whether it's a matter of public policy, justifying one's own activity as an artist or arts professional, or for purely academic motives, we all want to know: how can we relate the arts to other spheres of American life? By doing so, how can we understand how the arts "add value" to those spheres?

Tucked within this query is often a baseline anxiety. We wonder if anyone will take seriously our arguments for the arts' centrality without having recourse to the statistics, charts, and tables that so many other industries can use to directly illustrate their social and/or economic benefits.

At the same time, we are unwilling to cede too much of the arts? value proposition to traditional metrics. Our dilemma---an ambitious social and economic agenda for the arts coupled with a lingering belief in "art for art's sake"---has produced two familiar phrases: the "instrumental" and the "intrinsic" benefits of the arts. Yet too often we see them in opposition, instead of as two sides of the same coin.

Several distinguished speakers at a June 7 symposium in Chicago may help to change all that. "Future of the City: The Arts Symposium" is cosponsored by The University of Chicago and the NEA. It features four panels (including a lunch keynote conversation with actor Wendell Pierce and writer/producer David Simon from The Wire) that will explore the arts' value to cities through public participation, civic engagement, and creative placemaking.

But the scheduled kick-off panel is what prompted me to think about the perennial tug-of-war between "intrinsic" and "instrumental," and to start viewing it as false contest. That session, which I will be moderating, is titled "Valuing Culture in the Global City," and will include three people who are richly acquainted with data-driven models for setting urban policies. Two speakers hail from the U.K.: John Holden, an Associate with the think tank Demos, and Alan Freeman, principal economist for the Greater London Authority. The third is Carol Coletta, a former president of CEOs for Cities, here in the U.S., as well as current director of the NEA-sponsored program ArtPlace.

Each of these speakers has proposed or implemented citywide metrics that acknowledge not only the social and economic utility of the arts to urban areas, but also core values embedded in arts experiences. They consider, in highly pragmatic terms, the influence of aesthetic pleasure, creativity, and cultural vibrancy on people's decisions to reside and remain in cities that offer such experiences. Using different vocabulary, each speaker recognizes the need to express the arts' value to cities in a way that does not sell short the fundamental premise that the arts enrich us as human beings and as citizens---that they contribute to quality of life and to the livability of communities. The speakers demonstrate, through their achievements in cultural policy and urban planning, that intrinsic and instrumental benefits can be reconciled through intelligent metrics.

As Alan Freeman and his colleagues wrote in a 2009 paper, "[T]he intrinsic benefit of art needs to be properly taken into account. If this isn't happening, it is not the fault of economic theory, but the failure to apply it."

Can't make it to Future of the City: The Arts Symposium? Attend the conference virtually via live webcast on June 7, 2011 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Or follow the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #futurearts. The full schedule of the day's events can be found here.

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