I have been ruminating on this post for a couple days.  I started thinking about this issue when I saw a number of images showing coal workers and their plight. At the same time, I was seeing a number of tweets about #SavetheNEA.

I assumed that the importance of arts is a result of my own sample of twitter, rather than a random subset of Americans. I am always weary of sampling error, when your subset unduly influences the research.  Sampling is like when you ask your husband how dinner was rather than your picky child.  If you really wanted to understand the effectiveness of dinner, you would need to average both stakeholder’s responses.

In looking at the numbers, arts are a real force in the American economy. They constitute 4.23% of the GDP adding more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy. They employ almost 4 times the fuel industry. (Source, Source, Source. Source, Source)

So, why are politicians not standing beside artist and museum professionals at podiums talking about keeping American jobs?  The arts have an associated elitism where coal miners scream American populism.  There are historical factors that made coal miners “real” Americans.  But, I want to focus on the factors that makes arts and culture not “real” Americans.

We often place ourselves as elitists.  Sure, we speak the language of inclusion, including people of color in marketing or funding small outreach departments. But in terms of our actual institutional norms, we don’t change the way we do things. We maintain opaque norms that are impenetrable to many Americans; and we don’t entice. We continue to do lip service to inclusion but choose not to change the way we do things. We want people to come to our facilities, but we don’t want to change the way we do things. We want our potential new audiences to change for us.

With the real possibility of NEA funding cuts, the national impact to the arts could be seismic. In larger markets, private funding could buoy organizations, but in rural markets there will be major gaps. So, what are doing to change this? We are saying that what we do is important by sending out press releases about the learning that happening in our galleries, festooned with photographs of young children of color.

Really fighting for our sector requires much more.  When the car industry was “saved”, congress required major changes.  They expected the way of life to change so that they could continue to live.  While I haven’t work in the car sector, I can say in museums real change would require changing the nature and payment of work.

  • Museums are woefully underfunded in just the places that they taut as signfiers of their importance: education and engagement.
  • Senior staff often make choices based on research that confirms their existing beliefs, rather than unbiased research.
  • Museum balance the books on the backs of the least paid and closest to visitors: front of house staff.
  • Museums need to actually put visitors first. That means listening when visitors speak. For example, if the labels are too hard to read, they need to make them bigger.

The museum sector is larger than coal mining, by far. Museums cut across every part of this nation, being accessible to those in red and blue states, both physically and digitally.  If coal can reinvent itself as clean coal, can’t museums find a way to be the people’s museums?

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