Accessibility in the Performing Arts Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

18). Assessing the economic impact of the arts on these communities allowed the researchers to then produce a national impact estimate, the results of which were stated above.

Ultimately, the researchers found that when communities "support the arts, [they] not only enhance the quality of community life but also invest in their economic well-being" (Cohen, Schaffer, & Davidson, 2003, p. 30). The researchers concluded by noting that while "the very legitimate question remains as to whether economic impact should be the rationale for increasing funding and access opportunities for the arts […] at this time in history, economic development is perhaps the most persuasive message when making the case for arts support to local, state, and national leaders" (Cohen, Schaffer, & Davidson, 2003, p. 31). To understand why the researchers presumed that the economic argument in support of the arts is the most persuasive, one must consider the second attitude regarding the public funding of the arts that encourages leaders to cut funding for the arts first when attempting to tamp down budgets.

As mentioned above, the arts are often the first things to be cut during budgetary planning because "they are often perceived to be luxuries, worth supporting in good times but hard to justify when the economy is struggling," regardless of the tangible (but under-reported) societal and economic benefits they provide (Cohen, Schaffer, & Davidson, 2003, p. 17). However, this attitude represents only one side of the issue, because even when considering these benefits, there remains unease "about having the government decide which works and kinds of works of art merit support, given the role that art can play in the formation and sustenance of moral conceptions" (Brighouse, 1995, p. 36). This means that anyone attempting to understand the budgetary issues faced by the arts must recognize that at any given point, there is a sizable constituency that believes the government should have no role in the creation and dissemination of artistic works, regardless of the potential benefits.

For reasons stemming from the increased political polarization of the last thirty years, "it is even harder than has usually been thought for liberals to legitimately advocate state funding of the arts" in the face of "conservative attacks on the functions of the democratic state in America" in regards to arts funding (Brighouse, 1995, p. 35). This is not suggest that support or opposition for public funding of the arts necessarily aligns to political or party affiliation, but rather is simply a recognition that public funding for the arts has been a traditionally liberal policy goal, such as the aforementioned case of the Works Progress Administration, and that the ascendancy of American conservatism over the course of the last thirty years has brought with it an attendant focus on constraining and controlling public support of the arts. In fact, one of the motivating factors contributing to Brighouse's analysis of attitudes regarding state funding of the arts was the 1989 passage of the so-called Helms amendment to the National Endowment for the Arts budget, which stated that:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated pursuant to this act may be used to promote, disseminate, or produce

(1) obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or (2) materials which denigrate the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or (3) material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group, or class of citizens on the base of race, creed, sex, handicap, age, or national origin. (1989 NEA Appropriations Bill, in Brighouse, 1995, p. 59)

As Brighouse rightly points out, the problem with the amendment is not that it constitutes censorship, because denying funds for expression is not nearly the same thing as actively limiting expression, but rather that the language of the amendment singles out one group for undue, implicit criticism (homosexuals) while effectively neutering any funded art by prohibiting based on the possibility that it might offend people of "a particular religion or non-religion," which is to say, anyone (Brighouse, 1995, p. 60). The latter issue reveals that the point of the Helm's amendment is not so much to censor publicly-funded art, but rather to end the practice of funding the arts altogether through incremental legislative action. This gradual de-funding of the arts on the national level has reverberated throughout the states as well, and research has shown that while State Arts Agencies accounted for "the largest single source of public arts funding in the United States" with a peak of "approximately $447 million in fiscal year 2001," in the last ten years State Arts Agencies have been faced with budget reductions ranging from 25-100% (Urice & Eyyuboglu, 2005, p. 206, 208).

The relatively recent reductions in public funding for the arts has starkly demonstrated the crisis faced by the arts in the United States, but these budget cuts must considered a symptom of a larger problem, rather than its cause, because while public funding for the arts has decreased dramatically since 1989, this only exacerbated the decline which was already evident following a period of substantial growth during the 1960s and 70s (Scheff & Kotler, 1996, p. 28). Various researchers have attempted to explain this decline as the result of "the economic recession, changing philanthropic priorities among foundations and corporations, […] and increased competition for contributions due to the significant growth of the sheer number of nonprofit organizations competing for funds," but these explanations merely shift the question; one must still ask why arts funding decreases disproportionately following a recession, or foundations and corporations shifted their values, and answering these lingering questions is the larger goal of this study (Scheff & Kotler, 1996, p. 29).

As discussed above, the decrease in funding as a result of economic depression and recession is due to the ultimately unfounded perception of the arts as a luxury, and changing philanthropic priorities necessarily insinuates a change in attitude regarding the value of the arts in contrast to other endeavors. The third explanation seems to propose the bursting of a kind of arts-organization bubble, and this might be believable if one could identify a period of stabilization following this possible bubble, but not such stabilization has occurred; instead, the decline has continued for thirty years (a period that is actually longer than the expansionary decades of the 1960s and 70s). Thus, when attempting to uncover the reasons behind the decline in patronage and support for the arts in general, and the performing arts in particular, one must go beyond these cursory justifications and attempt to define the explain the changes in attitude and perception that inform them.

Thankfully, the last ten years has also seen important research into the variables which influence the reception and perception of the arts, and this research serves as the central component of this study. In their analysis a New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, McCarthy and Jinnett (2001) discuss a number of barrier facing those who might participate in the arts, both as performers and patrons, and they note that one of the most commonly cited barriers to participation is intimidation, which, as in many other fields, ultimately stems from a lack of experience (p. 33). This is an example of a perceptual barrier to participation, and it is much harder to overcome than practical barriers to participation, such as "high cost, inconvenient location, lack of information, scheduling conflicts, etc." (Zakaras & Lowell, 2008, p. 13). Taken together, these two categories represent the key factors responsible for the decline in arts patronage over the last three decades, but they do not function in precisely the same way, and as such, it is important to recognize that while closely related, they are responsible for different elements of the larger problem.

Practical barriers to participation can be overcome relatively easily, because their solutions are equally practical in nature, but perceptual barriers are especially pernicious precisely because they are rooted in the individual's perception of the arts, rather than any tangible aspect of a particular arts program. Thus, even when all practical barriers are overcome, there may still remain perceptual barriers that "inhibit interest and create resistance to participation" (Zakaras & Lowell, 2008, p. 13). However, recognizing these barriers to participation is the first step towards confronting the reasons for the decline in arts patronage and formulating methods of combating this decline. This is why research into these barriers represents a far more important contribution to the field than the previously addressed economic studies, which, while helpful in determining the extent of the problem, are definitionally incapable of discussing the underlying causes.



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