The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.
The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US, arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming. Arts and culture seem to just be there.
The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.
Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours. You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes. While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”
Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given. Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience. The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.
Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”
Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment. But value is not just about getting a steal. Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.
Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.” And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:
Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.
Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.
Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums. As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.
Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”
Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive. Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.
The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.
However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons. These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.