Lynch: Arts are an absolute necessity for the nation


Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, gives Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Robert Lynch’s career began with a lie.

It was January 1975. He’d had his hand in the creation of the New England Artist Festival and Showcase, today called the New England Arts Biennial.

The team of founders — including Lynch — marketed it as “New England’s largest gathering of artists, craftspeople, performers, poets and other creators.”

The lie: It had never happened before this; there was a chance no one would even show up.

That wasn’t the case.

The event, held in May, attracted 20,000 people. And as this was Lynch’s first adventure into marketing, a variety of mishaps ensued.

Tickets cost 99 cents, but the event organizers hadn’t expected patrons to want the penny change; they had to come up with 20,000 pennies

The volunteers providing security showed up dressed in riot gear and carrying billy clubs, despite the festival’s family-friendly image.

A symbolic release of white doves was actually a flock of pigeons, and they stuck around once released — and with them came their droppings.

Finally, when the North Hampton mayor boarded a hot air balloon there, it lifted 10 feet off the ground before blowing sideways 100 yards, plowing over two interns in the process.

“I was completely booked,” Lynch said. “The excitement, the energy, the arts.”

He said once all the problems had been solved, people were free to enjoy the music and the artwork. It was then that Lynch understood: Art can bring communities together. There was a sense of understanding among the patrons.

Lynch, the final speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” said art is so instrumental he questions why communities have yet to take it seriously.

Lynch is the president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, an organization that promotes art and art education. His speech, titled “America at a Cultural Crossroads,” explored the history and benefits of the arts on communities and education.

Benefitting from the arts

When Lynch was growing up, his parents had a very different view of how his life would go: His mother wanted him to a dentist, while his father wanted him to be a lawyer.

“I chose creative writing, specializing in poetry — where the big bucks are,” Lynch said sarcastically. “So I got out, and I discovered all the poet jobs were taken.”

Though he joked about this, he said the arts actually contribute to the economy quite well — $166 billion a year, to be specific. They generate 1.7 million jobs and $30 billion in taxes.

Furthermore, arts can result in creativity, self-actualization and self-discovery. Lynch said most people already know this, thanks to religious services, communities, environments and personal lives.

When asked in a survey what inspires innovation, superintendents said the No. 1 factor is arts education in schools. Similarly, a group of American businessmen said arts education is the No. 2 factor.

Arts have had a place in America’s history since the very beginning, he said.

It’s mentioned in the Constitution, reading that Congress should have the right “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Even today, interest in the arts is thriving, despite reports from the National Endowment for the Arts saying otherwise. The NEA reached that conclusion because of fewer ticket sales — but Lynch said the organization failed to take online and television views into account.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he said, is responding to this demand by inviting amateur musicians 25 years of age or older to play with its members. Although the orchestra expected only a few responses, 400 people took the opportunity.

“It’s out there,” Lynch said. “The hunger (for the arts) is there.”

It’s these facts, he said, that policy makers need to hear about if supporters of the arts hope to make change.

The issue behind it all

Despite all these positive trends, Lynch said, the arts are getting very minimal government funding.

Sixty percent of funding comes from revenue earned by individual art organizations, and foundation and corporate funding provides about 4 percent each. Individual donors make up about 20 percent, with the remaining 12 percent coming from the government.

The NEA, he said, provides less than 1 percent of total funding for the arts, even though it’s one of the most known supporters of the arts.

Lynch said the main goal behind it all should be to find a way to make people understand the necessity behind the arts. Arts education is one way to solve this.

Presidents have enjoyed the arts; militaries have utilized the arts; communities depend on the arts. Yet, Lynch said, governments officials don’t recognize their impact.

“We’ve enjoyed the fruits,” Lynch said, “but we need to spread the word, making the value of arts — in a very practical nation — better understood as a critical need right now.”

Q: As we begin, I’m thinking of the opening lecture of the week, Rocco Landesman, and the three people that are standing there (representing the ratio of National Endowment for the Arts funding to the gross amount of arts funding). He made an interesting statement, which I wonder if you find is a contradiction. One of the things he talked about was a misallocation of supply and demand. He quoted the number of people actually attending arts productions and then turned and quoted the number of nonprofit organizations that have grown in that same period of decline of membership. He was saying that there’s something wrong with this picture; we have a glut of participant organizations and an increasingly smaller attendance population. He thought we just had too many of these organizations; we need to cut them back. What’s your reaction to that?

A: Great. Actually, how many people heard Rocco’s speech? What a character, don’t you think? I love Rocco. I actually talked to him personally about that question when he first came out with those statements, because I have a very different point of view. He said, ‘I’m just trying to get the conversation going,’ and so I thought that was terrific. So here are my thoughts on it. The first thing is that you have to understand and look carefully at what studies say, and then what they mean for the larger context. So, for example, there are many studies that say that attendance in various arts activities is down, meaning people sitting in seats, listening to opera, watching dance or theater. So the NEA has interpreted that as demand for the arts is down. I do not. Because when you look at other kinds of demands — online demands, for example — different kinds of ways that, whether they are electronic or through new kinds of arts activities — hybrid arts activities — people are engaging in the arts. Demand for the arts is actually quite strong. Demand for a particular kind of art form in a particular kind of venue is not as strong. What that means to me is that we in the arts world have to do some serious thinking about our marketing approach, about the products that we have and the places through which we deliver those products. That’s not good if all you are interested in is people sitting in seats seeing you; you’ve got a tough time. If we can, as the Metropolitan Opera and other entities have done, expand the way of looking, we have more audiences to deal with. So that’s one thing. The second thing is we have a very different system in America than anywhere else in the world. We have a market system for arts organizations coming into being. Nobody is supporting those 109,000 non-profit arts organizations with enough money to be able to make a difference about them coming or going. Meaning, they survive on a mix of public, private and earned money. And so what that means is that when there is no longer a demand or an audience, they’ll go out of business. But for us to say that there’s too many of them, and that they should be put out of business, is not the way we’ve done arts growth in America, and I, first of all, don’t think it can be done. I think what you’re going to see are more arts organizations changing and some merging and even many new kinds of organizations coming into being. I think you’ll see growth.

Q: This person declares that he’s a dentist with a piano in his waiting room — I thought it said he’s also an amateur surgeon, but it actually says an amateur singer — so he agrees with the arts being valuable and all but then goes into a long piece about how governments can misuse the arts. He quotes Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s use of artists and basically asks at the end, therefore, isn’t it better if the arts remain in the hands — that is, their support — remains in the hands of private individual?

A: Well, two things. In America. the arts are in the hands of private individuals; you just have to look at the numbers I gave you: 60 percent earned income, that’s you voting with your pocketbook; and 30 percent private individuals, business; 10 percent, even less than that, government. So government is not in control; that’s the first thing. Secondly, the value of government is not to say what art gets delivered to you or not. The value of government is to help stimulate more of it for everyone; at least, that’s what I feel. That’s why the great leveraging power of those three bodies up there (the three people in the audience who represent the government portion of arts funding) — and you see how cutbacks are happening; there’s two of them sitting there right now — becomes, I think, really critical to understand that it’s about the leveraging, it’s not about any kind of control. The third thing I’ll say is that we must not confuse government — which every nation has — with Hitler or Stalin. Those were bad people, bad governments. Everything can be abused. Our job is to have good government and not abuse the things that we want to have for our people, like the arts, and the arts should be one of them, as far as I think.

Q: How many members of Congress have some background and education in the arts? How can Congress in general be more encouraged to participate more in the arts?

A: You know it’s interesting, how many people here sing in a chorus? Would you raise your hands? How many people here — leave those hands up — play an instrument for yourselves at home? How many people here write poetry? So now we’ve got almost every hand in the room up. Congress comes from the people, just like you; you are a good example of what Congress comes from. Almost every congressperson has something that is related to the arts in their background; that’s what I find. Every March, we have something called National Arts Advocacy Day. About 600 people come in from around the country, many others from online, and we visit almost every congressional office. If you go to every congressional office, you’ll see pictures of music-making or of visual art or something that connects to the arts. About 20 or 30 of them have some sort of professional connection to the arts. The others enjoy the arts even if they vote against the arts, all the time. Many years ago, I got to meet with Jesse Helms and he said, ‘Bob, I love the arts,’ but he always voted against the arts. So that interest is there. Making it understood as a public sector priority, as a policy priority, that’s another question. Those congresspeople might participate, and we want them to more of that. But getting them to understand why it’s a public good — why it does help with some of the things their constituents want done — that is what gets them to vote for the arts. I’ll just say this: Sadly, in some ways, the No. 1 reason that we have seen growth of federal money for the arts — according to the surveys that we’ve done — is the economic impact of the arts argument, as opposed to the inherent value argument. So we need to do both more, but it’s important for us to know what they respond to.

Q: Every speaker at the Hall of Philosophy this week at 2 p.m. mentioned that he or she had one or two mentors, most of them accidental. Could, or does, Americans for the Arts encourage or sponsor formal mentoring programs at the local level?

A: You know, that’s a great idea. We do not have a formal mentor program. We do have a number of programs, conferences and leadership forums, where we bring speakers and bring local leaders to be there and meet with other people and form their own mentorship opportunities. The woman who was my mentor — a woman named Lee Howard, here from Huntington, N.Y. — I met in that way, some 35 years ago at a conference for this organization. I came to the conference, and here was this person going on about fighting the fight at the local level, and we bonded and she helped me. So I think that’s a great idea to make that even more formal. So I’m going to take that back, and maybe you’ll see one next year.

Q: Pretend you’re meeting face-to-face with an inner-city elementary school principal, and you want them to purchase a well-respected series of dance classes. What two or three points do you make to convince them the arts are critical to the students?

A: In a study done with the Department of Justice and the city of Atlanta, the city of Portland, Ore., and the city of San Antonio, it was clearly done that with the involvement of dance and music and theater in classrooms for inner-city kids, particularly at-risk kids, recidivism rates went down, juvenile delinquency reportage went down, the ability to communicate went up, the ability for kids to graduate went up and the track record of kids going on and getting jobs and being contributors to the community was much higher than without the arts.

—Transcribed by Sarah Gelfand