Philadelphia’s Arts, Culture + Economic Prosperity report is an impressive document that, like so many other research efforts of its kind, attempts to make the case for the importance of the arts using economic indicators. Part of a national effort of Americans for the Arts involving research from communities across the country, the work has developed from a methodology originally launched more than three decades ago at Johns Hopkins University and widely imitated and often improved upon thereafter. My own experience, based on a study I helped conduct in New England in the late ’70s that was funded by the US Department of Commerce, is that such studies do work – that is, the economic argument is often an effective way to get the attention of and convince skeptical public officials and others that the arts matter (and deserve to be funded).
But a question that nags at me is whether there is something more transformational that can institutionalize the arts into the lifeblood of our communities. And having just attended a public event in Chicago key-noted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renee Fleming, and others that announced the decision to make the arts a core subject in the school curriculum, I wondered what convinces a mayor to become the public champion of arts education. Turns out Emanuel studied dance very seriously and believes in the importance of the arts in human development. Had the arts been a core subject in the communities where some of our other public officials were educated, one wonders whether we would need to rely on economic impact studies to garner their attention.