A classic response on first viewing a painting or hearing a symphony is to ask, “But is it art?”
In a September 20 forum hosted by American University's Arts Management Program, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) went a step further, introducing a way to measure how people interact with art and how it works as a system.
How Art Works is a new report and five-year research program that will help the NEA complete its main mission of promoting knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts. The NEA wants to demonstrate the value of art in a “theory-driven and proactive” way, Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the agency, explained in the preface to the report.
Undergirding the map is the assumption that art contributes to the quality of life in a “virtuous cycle” from the artist through society and back. The agency’s research will delve into two broad categories, Iyengar said, looking at both art’s value and its impact.
In their effort to share the report with an international audience, and foster substantial discussion about its implications, the NEA turned to American University and its world-class Arts Management Program.
“All of us at the NEA are thrilled to be once again partnering with AU. We have a long history of collaboration together,” noted NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, who has also been a longtime Broadway producer. The leader of the forum, Arts Management faculty member Andrew Taylor, said hosting the event was a huge recognition of AU’s place in the arts community.
“My colleagues and I in the Arts Management Program were honored at the opportunity to host this forum with the NEA,” Taylor said. “The connections it offered between theory, research, policy, and practice are at the heart of what we teach, and at the core of what arts leaders need to make an impact.”
Landesman described how soon after he arrived at the NEA he introduced a new motto to replace the deathly “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art” slogan he inherited. The new slogan, “Art Works,” referenced the works of art themselves, but “it also reminds us how art works on audiences—to delight and elate us, to challenge and confront us . . . It is a strong reminder that artists and art workers, people who create art, have real jobs and are a vital component of our country's economy.”
All of which led to the research task of figuring out how art works. The result, after consulting with researchers, policymakers, and experts in such fields as the arts, economics, education, and health, was the system map presented at the AU forum.
“Like any system map, this one is both too complex and too simple,” Landesman said, adding that “it serves as a cartography of the resource, and we have used it as a lens through which we look at the NEA’s own research.”
In welcoming the NEA forum attendees, Peter Starr, dean of AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, recalled an event in the same building a week earlier, when more than 150 people attending the College’s fall fund raiser learned about Beethoven’s genius, discussed the art of curating a museum, and practiced stage combat, among other activities.
“In our thinking about the arts, we tend to overstate a divide between performers and audience,” Starr said. “This event allowed us to engage in the practice of the arts with our students, faculty, and friends from the community in a very important, holistic, humanistic way.”
Among those attending the forum were arts professionals and artists from across the country, academics from many disciplines, leadership and staff from the NEA, and a range of arts supporters, enthusiasts, and practitioners. The event was also broadcast live online, where it was a trending discussion topic on Twitter, and is available as an archived video.