Friday, August 3, 2012

Art Versus Sports

Robert Boyd

I went to the Houston Arts Resource Fair last weekend, and it had many interesting speakers offering lots of practical advice (although if I were to offer one major criticism, I'd say it concentrated way too much on the non-profit art world and particularly on "grants"--for most artists, whatever their medium, grants are not their primary source of income). But the most interesting speaker had no particular advice, just some semi-digested poll data. This speaker was maestro of all polls about Houston, Stephen Klineberg. He is the Rice sociologist who does a big annual poll, the Houston Area Survey, to see where Houston is heading. He showed up at HARF to discuss his newest polling project, the Houston Area Survey on Health, Education and the Arts. The results of this research won't be officially unveiled until September 25, but we got some provocative sneak peeks.

Klineberg started by noting one of his favorite facts--Houston is becoming a hispanic city. (Saying this basically gets him called a communist by the 65-year-old white guys who write comments to articles in the Houston Chronicle.) As Klineberg puts it, we could shut the borders today and this would still be true because Hispanics are a majority of Houstonians under the age of 17.  His message to arts organizations was that if you want to have a future, you need to address this shifting demographic.

This was the slide that shocked the audience. In fact, when I mentioned it later to a friend of mine, she flat out disbelieved it. The question asked in the poll was, "If Houston had to choose betwen having either excellent music and theater or great sports teams and stadiums, which would you most want to preserve? In other words, which would you miss most--music and theater, or sports teams and stadiums-if one or the other were to disappear from Houston?" The poll showed 56% wanted to save music and theater. Not what you expect, no? (Maybe if they had asked this right after all the Linsanity began, the results would have been different.)

I think there are a several caveats that have to be made here. What did poll respondents think when they heard the word "music"? After all, they might have been thinking of commercial pop music--for example, Kiss and Motley Crüe at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tonight. In short, this is not necessarily a contest between elite art-lovers and working class sports nuts. And second, I think people responding to polls often want to sound a little less redneck than they really are. So they pick "music and theater" becaue it sounds smarter. And finally, this is a science fiction question. By that I mean the question is about a hypothetical situation that could never actually exist. And I think when a question is so unmoored from actual possibilities, people's answers may be similarly unmoored.

That said, it is a pretty amazing and encouraging result.


This slide was also encouraging, expecially in the face of the sustained onslaught on public education by the political powers that be that we have been suffering under in Texas for many years. When budgets get cut, arts education is often the first thing to go. This should be a top issue for all arts organizations. If we want future generations to like the arts, we need to start educating them early. At least, I feel it made a difference in my own life. I strongly remember being a third grader at Frostwood Elementary and going to art appreciation in the library. There a librarian would show us pictures of well-known paintings and sculptures and tell us a little bit about them. I remember vividly being enthralled by Marc Chagall's I and the Village. (Apparently it's still a popular image for teaching children art appreciation--for the home-school set. But how much art appreciation do public school students get these days?)

I think the second and the fourth bullet are the most important takeaways. The fact that education is among the strongest predictors of being involved in the arts is old news--Pierre Bourdieu's research in the 60s showed that the strongest correlation to museum attendance in several European countries was education level, and many subsequent studies have confirmed this. There's not much we can do to increase the number of PhDs in society, except to in general support politicians and institutions that are pro-education. But supporting increased art education, while no easy task, might be a little easier. Certainly arts organizations can do more outreach to schools and families. For example, I am on the board of FrentiCore, and among the programs we offer, one is FrentiKids, a free after-school program dance and theater program for kids in the East End (where Frenetic Theater is located). But do our visual arts non-profits do anything like this? I don't see any child-oriented activities on the Lawndale website or the Diverseworks website. (The Art League is a different story.) Involvement of children in the visual arts might be the best strategy for long-term survival that a non-profit art institution can undertake.



  1. One piece of feedback about the fair before I speak to your larger point: I think we could have done a better job communicating the options, because during the session on grants, there was actually a session (that I led) on funding for individual artists that specifically steered people towards more productive funding sources for unincorporated artists. In that sense, we did think about how funding applies to both sectors differently. I'm only sorry that the differences in the sessions weren't better understood.

    That said, you touch on a subject close to my heart: arts education. The correlation between arts education and later participation is so fundamental that most don't realize it is the fly in the ointment when considering how art is funded. I can appreciate the suggestion by many that art not be funded by public sources-- that the private sector should take up the mantle to support the creation and production of art. However, if our children are receiving less and less exposure to the arts, there won't be a large enough community to privately support our artistic enterprises some day. I think many would gladly trade their HAA, TCA, and NEA grants for a greater commitment to arts education on a state and nationwide level. Until that day... I actually blogged about this a while back:

    However, I'd caution nonprofit groups from veering off mission to create Education and Outreach programs (E&O being the trendy moniker) for children. When so many nonprofits are working beyond capacity, I think it's important to maintain focus. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for the MFAH to heavily invest in E&O due to their expansive resources and their popular appeal (for accessibility reasons).

    Having worked for one of the larger downtown nonprofits, I can also say that there is sometimes a habit to follow the money to children's programming. Institutional funding has moved towards K-12 education and so, many arts nonprofits have developed programming to fit under that umbrella-- teaching science through dance, math through music, etc. I admire many of these programs when they are well designed and responsive to the expressed needs of the school community, but frequently this is not the case. It's a fine line to get right... but your point still stands that it is important.

    To really address the issue, it is also important to take the art TO the children... not expect children to come to the arts org. If a child has access to easy transportation and the money to take after-school classes, they are probably not the group most in need. In essence, the parents are already among the converted. This must happen in school, in daycare programs, in community centers.

    Lastly, I'd love to make you aware of a local group which is dedicated to arts education in area schools: Arts Partners: Their role is to work within the confines of the various ISDs to identify needs, desires, restrictions, scheduling, and funding and then, coordinate outreach programs from a large menu of arts organizations. I've heard nothing but positive feedback about the organization from both affiliated arts orgs, as well as from school administrators. I'd encourage any smaller nonprofit to collaborate with Arts Partners in order to take some of the administrative burden off their shoulders, as well as to afford greater access to the school community.

  2. Thanks for the information. And yes, while I wish there was more children-oriented programs, the issue of mission creep is worth considering. Nonetheless, I think it's an investment that will pay dividends--10, 15, 20 years from now.

  3. What an interesting post. This gives me faith!

    It's probably not exactly what you mean by "visual arts", but Aurora does a kids filmmaking summer camp which looks pretty cool.

  4. I'll accept Aurora Picture Show as visual art. And this is definitely the kind of thing I mean to encourage with this post.