Should Arts Organizations Reconsider How They Communicate Their Benefit to Society?

How can arts organizations most effectively prove their worth? It's an increasingly perplexing question and the answer may dictate the fate of countless organizations in an increasingly competitive philanthropic landscape.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a handful of evergreen metrics would go a long way to prove an arts organization's value to its visitors, donors, and foundations. An increase in attendance. Greater engagement with a specific demographic group. A broadening donor base.

But these metrics can also be viewed through a more critical lens. A cynic—or a results-driven donor—could simply say, "So you boosted attendance by 20 percent over the last six months. But did these new visitors have an enjoyable experience?" Or to take this logic to the extreme, "If the visitor never stepped through your doors in the first place, would it really be the worst thing in the world?"

Again, this is extreme logic, especially considering most art-friendly donors inherently know that arts education is important. But whether we like it not, a more rigorous, quantifiable approach to articulating the value of the arts is now in play. This dynamic is further compounded by the rise of "effective altruism," which essentially argues that money used to build a new museum wing could be better spent by, say, preventing AIDS in Africa.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is at the forefront in this metrics-centered approach. Channeling the data-driven mentality of its namesake, it's been measuring progress at recipient grants organizations, but even these metrics—percentage of organizations that reach new audiences through "marketing campaigns and social media," for example—still come across as somewhat flimsy. They don't speak to the depth and transformative potential of the arts experience. They don't show—and we're paraphrasing Russell Simmons, co-founder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation—how the arts actually saves lives.

Fortunately, more and more arts proponents are embracing a quantitative approach toward communicating these benefits. Take this study, which was published Education Week in December 2014. The researchers ran controlled experiments and came away with evidence that students who are exposed to art forms such as theater are more likely to have increased "cultural capital," which will make them more successful in the future. Exposure to the arts also influences levels of tolerance and empathy, boosts critical thinking, and improves one's ability to observe the world.

Researchers compared the outcomes for two groups—one which had an art experience, such as a visit to a museum, and another which did not. Groups were closely related in terms of their backgrounds and prior interests. They found that those exposed to the arts have positively affected values, making them "more tolerant and empathetic." Art experiences also boosted critical thinking, "teaching students to take the time to be more careful and thorough in how they observe the world."

The study homes in on a contentious challenge facing educators, administrators, and arts organizations—how to best measure the effectiveness of arts education. This evidence obviously points toward more cultured, tolerant, and enriched citizens. It also suggests we're too caught up in viewing arts as a means to fill in some spreadsheet and ignore other, equally powerful benefits. To that end, the study's authors noted, "We didn't look at math and reading test scores because we have no reason to expect that arts experiences would have an impact on them."

Yet others disagree. An Americans for the Arts study, for example, found that arts students—specifically those with years of study in art and music—outperformed non-arts students on their SATs. And other arts organizations, including Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, have successfully argued that exposure to the arts can boost test scores.

At the end of the day, we're confident that researchers can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, we can accumulate data on the positive impact of arts education on test scores and its ability to cultivate more empathetic and successful individuals. What's important is accumulating a compelling body of data, especially if that data comes from groups that aren't full-throated supporters of arts education. Data will never convincingly prove that a kid going to a museum is "better" than giving money to eradicate malaria, but we also shouldn't let naysayers trivialize the tangible and intangible benefits of arts education.

And with that, we'll elegantly segue to a parting thought from the Education Week study's authors: "If the arts and culture are to remain a vibrant part of children's education, arts patrons will need to step forward to help pay for the kind of quality research that shows not only what those benefits are, but just how significant they can be."