In this talk, I lay out the case for a new measure of the vitality of an arts ecosystem: the cultural import-export balance. More than any typical economic metric—ticket sales, jobs, and so on—I believe the extent to which a community creates and exports culture, rather than imports it from elsewhere, is the surest indicator of health.
For those who might like to take a closer look at some of the visuals I used in my presentation, I’ve created a Pinterest gallery.
The transcript of my talk, for the hearing impaired, follows.
I am here to tell you all the secrets of the amazing, beautiful, complicated peacock.
Now, some of you might remember learning when you were students that the reason for the peacock’s astonishing plumage, with all those colorful eyespots, is to attract mates. The more eyespots, the more color, the more likely a peacock is to pass on the genes for lots of eyespots and color. It’s called sexual selection. It’s part of evolution.
But it’s actually more complex than it might seem… because the same plumage that attracts mates also attracts predators. Those eyespots and that brilliant blue neck make the peacock much easier to see for the creatures that want to kill it and eat it. And that long, awkward tail makes the peacock much easier to catch.
So why hasn’t survival of the fittest led to dull brown feathers and short, simple tails instead?
So… I know right now you’re thinking “This was supposed to be about the arts, not about science!” But I’m getting there, I promise. Just bear with me.
Basically, what scientists now know is that it isn’t the color and the spots that get the peahen excited. The peahen has this intuitive belief that if the peacock can survive having all that beautiful stuff without getting killed, it must be really, really tough. Doesn’t matter whether it IS tough or not; if it’s got the right plumage, she thinks it is. The plumage is really a show of strength.
So this is what I’m thinking: in the same way that beauty demonstrates a peacock’s robustness, a thriving arts ecosystem demonstrates the vitality of a community. The arts are a community’s peacock feathers. The arts are a community’s show of strength. They make is look good. So incredibly good they literally help us survive and expand our communities.
But if we are going to consider a healthy arts ecosystem our peacock feathers, we really need to ask ourselves what a healthy arts ecosystem actually looks like. How do we measure beauty, really, so that we’re not fooling ourselves?
I mean, in a peacock, it’s simple: you can literally count the spots. One hundred and twenty is the minimum to earn a mate, though the more, the merrier. But in a community, what do you count? The number of artists who live there? The number of arts venues? The number of tickets sold to arts events? The total amount of revenue?
Those are all interesting numbers, and we can definitely learn from them, but I think we’ve all been missing the single most accurate indicator of a community’s artistic vitality: its cultural import-export balance. This is the percentage of the arts available in a community that were created in and by that community rather than brought in from elsewhere.
Right now, the import-export balance in the average American community is tilted rather heavily toward “import.” In almost every community in the country, most of the art you can engage with was made by someone who lives somewhere else.
Now, some of that makes good sense, because art from elsewhere gives you a worldly perspective: exposes you to ideas and cultures and people and ways of thinking you don’t normally encounter in a community. But I believe that a community that’s focused on its evolutionary survival and growth will do whatever it can to shift toward the export end of the spectrum.
Think of the three great cultural centers of the United States: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. These are healthy, growing, thriving, robust communities: some would argue the healthiest in the country. I call them peacock communities, because they’re focused on creating their own feathers, by which I mean making new art. And you know what? They look good.
So how can a community tilt that balance? A peacock “invests” significant energy in creating and maintaining its plumage. It takes a lot of peacock food to grow feathers like that. So where should a community invest its “peacock food,” which is (of course) money?
Lots of communities make the mistake of investing most of their resources in arts institutions, especially those that are more robust. It’s a safe decision, and that’s understandable. We look at those institutions and we say “Look, they’re already making art, let’s support them.”
But here’s the thing: many of our largest and most stable arts institutions aren’t making art, they’re acquiring art. They bring in exhibitions and dance performances from other cities; they produce plays written and performed by people who live elsewhere. They aren’t growing peacock feathers, they’re buying them, and the feathers don’t have the same effect when they aren’t still attached to the peacock.
That’s why we need to start supporting artists instead. Specifically, we need to divert as many resources as we can to the people in our communities who make art… with the stipulation that they make art explicitly for their fellow community members.
In other words, instead of giving a theater (for example) $50,000 and letting them “buy” the rights to a play from out of town with $5,000 of that money, we should give $50,000 to a local playwright and tell her she gets to keep $5,000 for the rights to her play and can allocate the rest to whichever local theater wants to produce it.
We also need to build whatever infrastructure we can to support artists; instead of finding the next Picasso, we need to invest in our own potential Picassos.
And if we just can’t change, if we do keep supporting our institutions, we need to make them use that support to create work with local artists. If we do that, we’ll be peacocks in no time. Strong, attractive, evolving, growing, reproducing peacocks, with bright, beautiful plumage. Smart enough to learn a little lesson from Charles Darwin. And destined to grow and be great.