I actually read that riveting question in the marginal notes of a proposal for funding an orchestra. The notes were penned by a trustee of a grant-making foundation during a meeting to review the proposal. Another trustee of the foundation, the one who presented the proposal on behalf of the orchestra, later showed them to me and asked what I could do help counter his colleague’s questioning remark.
Arts and cultural institutions are often forced into such defensive postures. They’re accused of only benefiting the elite. The needs of the hungry, the homeless, the physically, mentally and emotionally challenged are cited as so great that something as frivolous as the arts should not be drawing from the pool of available support for non-profit organizations. Those of us who work with and passionately support the arts are asked how we can justify "diverting" funds to the arts when such need exists.
The arts community rightfully provides data showing its economic impact and benefit to the community—statistics tabulating the number of people employed by arts and cultural organizations, tourists attracted to the area, money spent on purchases from vendors, etc. Those facts deliver a true story, but they are not always compelling. Then there is the "quality-of-life" argument, but, it too does not always convince. We’re told it is too subjective, too broad, too general.
I believe the answer is to stop defending the arts. That what we need to do is step out of the defensive posture our critics would force us into. We need to start asserting the value of the arts with some questions of our own.
Would the community be a place that draws the successful people able to support other needs, if there were not an orchestra, art museum, ballet, opera, theater, etc.? Without the quality-of-life amenities that arts and cultural organizations provide, would private companies, corporations, and firms be able to retain and attract key employees—the very people who keep business thriving and civic endeavors moving forward?
Without the draw of arts and culture organizations, how many individuals of affluence would there be in the community? Would as many new enterprises choose to make the community their home? Without the retention of "old money" and the creation of new wealth, where would the philanthropy to support all those "more worthy" institutions come from? What would happen to the hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies?
To me, the gist of the argument to make when the value of the arts is questioned is simple. Without the arts, without cultural institutions, the people who make up the strong backbone of support for civic and social needs would be far fewer in number. It would be as if the community were trying to stand upright with vertebrae missing from that backbone of support. That leads to one last question.
How many vertebrae would have to go missing before that backbone collapsed under the weight of the load it was being asked to carry?