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The Subversive Tack: Arts + Economy

Tara Aesquivel

Thinking about the economy can be rather depressing. For many people, it can seem like a volatile god: a mysterious force that affects everything and we mere mortals have no control over its whims.

Let’s start with a basic idea of what I mean when I write about “the economy.”

Economic analysis is often an attempt to make the complex world of interconnectedness more comprehensible by quantifying everything, usually through monetization. In other words, the world is complicated so we make charts.

The “economy” is everything that happens. Economics is a (left-brained) method of analyzing everything that happens, and it’s mostly focused on measuring everything in dollars and euros.

This focus on monetization is problematic for the arts because the value of artistic products is not always calculable by how much it cost to make them or by how much people are willing to pay for them. In fact, we often strive for the opposite—to give away the arts for free and know that they are priceless.

The subversive tack accepts economics for the way it is and uses the system to our advantage. In order to do that, we need to know the basic principles and be able to speak the lingo: quantification.

The arts sector is getting much better at quantifying the value and impact of the arts. Here are three great examples:

I took my first economics class in graduate school. I had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, the heart of economics can be summed up in a phrase: “supply and demand.” This is something we already understand in the arts.

If a show isn’t selling, it’s common practice to give away comps. (Low demand + high supply = low price.) If there is a special gala event where only 20 people can have dinner with a famous artist, the tickets will be very expensive. (High demand + low supply = high price.)

The general idea behind arts advocacy, outreach programs, marketing, and my subversive tack is to create higher demand for the arts. (We can’t really control the supply of art.) As I wrote in my first post for this series, we need a new strategy.

Some people think the growing importance of creativity and innovation in the business sector will answer our prayers. I’m as excited about the Creative Class and the knowledge economy as anyone; however, I do not believe that idealistic visions of post-industrialism will automatically instill love and appreciation for the arts in the minds of our fellow Americans.

This seems to be especially true since a lot of “how to be creative” offerings present creativity as a skill you can attain by attending a workshop, reading a book, or following ten easy steps. This instant-gratification mindset will not lead anyone to lifelong participation in the arts.

So what do we do? Well, I don’t exactly know, but I’m willing to explore.

Here are some new ideas that are worth a look:

Social Entrepreneurism: This is a trending practice that represents the need for new ways of doing good. On April 21, Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles (EAL/LA) will hold a Creative Conversation that will explore ideas and lessons from local social entrepreneurs.

Rethinking the 501(c)3: Having a mission doesn’t mean your organization has to be a 501(c)3 nonprofit. For example, environmental groups have been quick to embrace the new B Corp status. EAL/LA member Jennifer Espinoza shared with us why she chose to start her new organization with LLC status. EAL/LA itself operates under fiscal sponsorship with Community Partners.

Whatever new and exciting practices emerge and prove to be effective, the arts deserve a significant place in our culture and lives and vice versa. Every person deserves to enjoy the arts and culture in their life. To love art is to be human.

To wrap up, the arts are everywhere, in everything, for everyone. Our human desire for the arts will not be suppressed, despite whatever obstacles arise. The arts inevitably arise in philosophies about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

It’s been a pleasure to write this series of posts.

Here’s to a bright, deeply artistic future in which we’re all working together—a future where my interests in the arts, education, sustainability, and economics feel less like a split personality and more like a unified front. Thanks for reading.

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