NASAA Notes: April 2007


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Jonathan Katz

April issue
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April 23, 2007

Executive Director's Column

I find that using a few key terms as points of departure for discussion about the role of the public sector in any aspect of American life, including the arts, helps to keep the focus on a number of critical questions. It’s interesting to note how the meaning of “public” in each term is different and leads to consideration of different issues. Here are four key terms:

A Public Good

A public good is an economic term for a quality or commodity (“good” as in “goods and services,” not as in “good or bad”) defined by two characteristics. One is that it can be used by one person or group without diminishing its availability to another—it is “non-rival.” The other is that it can not be divided up for use by one person or group—it is “non-excludable.” Think “clean air,” or “national defense,” or “highway safety.”

The salient point about qualities or commodities with these characteristics is that they are difficult or impossible to make available and sustain through regular market operations. Public goods tend to be so basic and pervasive that there is general consensus along a broad political spectrum on a strong governmental role in their provision, though what form that role should take may be subject to debate.

Questions for discussion: To what extent are “the arts,” “arts education,” and “artistic experience” public goods? To what extent does the status of the arts as a “public good” argue for or against its support by the public sector?

A Public Benefit

A public benefit is a positive outcome realized by society from some characteristic of a commodity, activity or policy. Though public benefits can be provided by private sector transactions, public benefits are often considered as justification for public sector investment. One reason RAND’s Gifts of the Muse was so pleasing to arts advocates was its claim that the transforming individual benefits resulting from artistic experience directly transfer to attitudes and behaviors that improve society—and are therefore public benefits. How many people (some, most or all) make a benefit a public benefit is subject to debate. Close inspection may also reveal that an activity producing a public benefit for some produces a negative impact on others.

Questions for discussion: How can the public benefits of arts learning and arts participation most usefully be classified, evaluated, documented and communicated? In what ways and to what extent should a public arts agency encourage private sector provision of public benefits through the arts? What aspects of cultural planning and the cultivation of which partnerships can most effectively (a) broaden the understanding and (b) increase the reach throughout society of the public benefits of the arts?

A Public Purpose

A public purpose is a compelling reason that government should play a role in providing a public benefit. Typically, a public purpose derives from the needs for universal access to a benefit, equity in that access, and/or fairness in the process of providing that benefit. These needs are most likely to be broadly acknowledged as public purposes if they are unlikely to be met by a freely operating market place. A public purpose in ensuring a right, regulating a market, operating a program or providing a service often implies complementary roles for the not-for-profit sector and for the private sector.

The people of the United States are distinguished among nations by their expectation that even social functions broadly acknowledged to have a basic public purpose—from collecting taxes to regulating the provision of goods and services to providing health care and conducting national defense—are expected to be provided best by collaborations of—or via a market place among—all three sectors.

Questions for discussion: What is the public purpose in the provision of learning in the arts and access to artistic experience? What aspects of the public purpose in providing learning in the arts and access to artistic experience, if any, require the activity of a state arts agency?

The Public Value

The public value of any enterprise may be seen through lenses that focus on its intended benefit, the impacts it has, and the perceptions it produces. Harvard professor Mark Moore suggests that, from a management perspective, it is useful to consider that decisions to invest in public sector activities are the product of complex relationships among an agency’s or program’s purpose (task environment), its ability to have an impact (operational environment), and its perception in the eyes of those who make decisions affecting its support (authorizing environment). While one observes instances where public value is determined for the moment by the beliefs and attitudes of decision makers independent of factual bases, one also observes that creating public value and sustaining public value over time usually require systematic development of a delivery system for a benefit and for the documentation and communication of its impact.

Question for discussion: What state arts agency’s placement in state government, organizational structure, planning processes, policy development, programs, partnerships, communications, research and evaluation can be adjusted to increase the (a) essence and (b) perception of its public value?

Please let me know how any application of this think piece or any variation of it is useful to you. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome. Just click on the [POST A COMMENT] link in the column next to this article.

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