Study: Arts Policy Should Focus on Individual Benefits Rather Than Social Good

Classic Arts News   Study: Arts Policy Should Focus on Individual Benefits Rather Than Social Good
A new study of art's social and individual benefits points out the weaknesses in arts advocates' focus on social good and encourages building individual appreciation for the arts.

The study, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation and carried out by the Rand Corporation, weighs the virtues of art's public, or instrumental, benefits (such as economic growth and higher test scores for students) and intrinsic, or private, benefits (such as cognitive growth, social bonds, and—a word not usually found in such studies—pleasure).

In reviewing the evidence frequently trotted out by arts advocates, the study found that the empirical methods were based on "weak methodological and analytical techniques," which link the arts with certain desirable effects (such as economic growth) but do not necessarily demonstrate that the one caused the other.

In addition, the study found what it calls "failure to consider opportunity costs," that is, that claims for such benefits generally do not take into account whether the benefits can be achieved more efficiently by other means, such as improving test scores through better classes and teachers. The problem with such an argument, the study says, is that it makes the arts vulnerable to discredit when a more effective means of instrumental benefit is found.

What cannot be discredited is an individual's experience with the arts, so the study recommends a focus on access—on introducing Americans to the arts when they are young, and on retooling local, state, and federal policy to reflect this concern.

Kevin McCarthy, a senior social scientist at Rand and the report's lead author, said in a statement, "We hope that future policies focus on cultivating the demand for the arts, rather than the supply. A demand-side approach would build a market for the arts by helping people personally experiene its benefits and understand how arts can improve their quality of life."

Although it promotes the intrinsic benefits of the arts, the study does not dismiss possible instrumental benefits, but says that they are only likely to be created through an individual's "sustained involvement" in the arts.

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