Understanding the benefits of the arts is central to the discussion and design of policies affecting the arts. This study addresses the widely perceived need to articulate the private and public benefits of involvement in the arts. The findings are intended to engage the arts community and the public in a new dialogue about the value of the arts, to stimulate further research, and to help public and private policymakers reach informed decisions.

Current arguments for private and public investment in the arts emphasize the potential of the arts for serving broad social and economic goals. This emphasis is a fairly recent phenomenon. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, the value of the arts was still a given for the American public. By the early 1990s, however, the social and political pressures that culminated in what became known as the “culture wars” put pressure on arts advocates to articulate the public value of the arts. Their response was to emphasize the instrumental benefits of the arts: They said the arts promote important, measurable benefits, such as economic growth and student learning, and thus are of value to all Americans, not just those involved in the arts.

Such benefits are instrumental in that the arts are viewed as a means of achieving broad social and economic goals that have nothing to do with art per se. Policy advocates acknowledge that these are not the sole benefits stemming from the arts, that the arts also “enrich people’s lives.” But the main argument downplays these other, intrinsic benefits in aligning itself with an increasingly output-oriented, quantitative approach to public sector management. And underlying the argument is the belief that there is a clear distinction between private benefits, which accrue to individuals, and public benefits, which accrue to society as a whole.

Some arts advocates and researchers have expressed skepticism about the validity of arguments for the arts’ instrumental benefits, and there is a general awareness that these arguments ignore the intrinsic benefits the arts provide to individuals and the public. So far, however, little analysis has been conducted that would help inform public discourse about these issues.

Study Purpose and Approach

The goal of the study described here was to improve the current understanding of the arts’ full range of effects in order to inform public debate and policy. The study entailed reviewing all benefits associated with the arts, analyzing how they may be created, and examining how they accrue to individuals and the public through different forms of arts participation.

The study arrives at its conclusion based on a new approach to understanding the public value of the arts. The report challenges the view that the intrinsic benefits of the arts — including wonder, captivation and meaning — are of purely individual or private value. Instead, the study argues that such experiences lay the foundation for other benefits and can lead to the development of individual qualities such as understanding and empathy that have public value because they are desirable in citizens of a pluralistic society.

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