About a decade ago, as a fresh-faced summer intern halfway through my MBA program at the Yale School of Management, I found myself given the extraordinary task of helping one of the largest foundations in the United States map out the first-ever logic model for its $20 million a year performing arts program. My colleagues on the program team had come up with a set of well-articulated impacts that spoke to the foundation’s goals for its performing arts grants. But we had not tried to connect these impacts to the foundation’s overarching mission statement emphasizing human welfare. Shouldn’t we close that gap, I wondered? When I brought it up, I was gently told that wasn’t part of the plan, and being the fresh-faced intern that I was, the matter quickly dropped.
That summer internship was one of the highlights of my career. Every day I was in an environment that crackled with intellectual curiosity and constantly reminded me how much I still had to learn about the world. The logic model was finished, and ultimately helped guide the distribution of hundreds of grants over several years. And yet that conversation about tying program-level impacts to organization-level objectives somehow felt unresolved to me, even years later. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, but I was sure there was a way to treat investments in the arts as part of an integrated strategy to make the world a better place, without casting aside what makes the arts unique.
Over the past half-century, a few theories have sprung up to describe how and why we support the arts through philanthropy and government subsidy. These theories generally argue that participation in arts and culture generates certain benefits to individuals and societies, and that philanthropic support is necessary to activate or maximize those benefits. Scholars have further divided these benefits into two categories: intrinsic—the notion of “art for art’s sake” or the idea that support for the arts is self-justifying—and instrumental—the idea that arts activities have non-arts-related outcomes that are valuable in their own right.
One problem with the intrinsic vs. instrumental distinction is that it’s something of a false dichotomy: Interrogate a dedicated arts supporter about why she believes funding is important, and you’ll eventually uncover reasons that are not specific to the arts. The arts teach us how to see and understand the world? So do history books. The arts provide a space for exercising creative potential? So does electrical engineering. One could reasonably argue that all the benefits of the arts are instrumental at some level, in service of some larger goal. But what is that goal, exactly? When we try to maximize the good in the world, what does that actually mean in practice?
A loose community of scholars has been trying to answer precisely that question for the past 70 years or so. Drawing from fields as diverse as economics, public health, psychology, and philosophy, and variously using the terms “wellbeing, “quality of life” and other variants, this area of inquiry developed in large part as an effort to provide holistic alternatives for conceptualizing and measuring human progress and vitality, in contrast to narrow, siloed metrics such as gross domestic product (GDP). For a field so young and diffuse, it has nevertheless had some notable impacts on social policy. The nation of Bhutan was one of the first government entities to explicitly reject GDP, adopting the novel concept of gross national happiness in its wake. Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen created the United Nations Human Development Index in accordance with his theory of human capabilities—the notion that what makes life worth living is the freedom to be the person you want to be. Other attempts to construct integrated measures of social progress include the Sustainable Development Goals, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the OECD Better Life Index, and the quality-adjusted life year indicator. The UK government has gone especially far in adopting “subjective wellbeing,” which is basically equivalent to self-reported happiness, in its own policy apparatus. Meanwhile, the burgeoning effective altruism movement has made efforts to institutionalize the practice of “cause prioritization” based on clear-headed analysis of how to do the most good.
Even though the various examples above represent a lot of variation, they are variations on a singular theme: What is most important in this world? They all attempt to answer that question from a holistic perspective, and share a willingness to make a connection between measurable, real-world outcomes and philosophical ideals.
Which brings us back to our logic model for the performing arts. If we think of wellbeing as a holistic measure of what is good in the world, then we can justify philanthropic support for the arts ever so simply by: 1) the arts’ contribution to wellbeing; and 2) philanthropy’s enabling of that contribution. Seen this way, the false distinction between intrinsic and instrumental benefits falls away, and instead we can think of them as direct and indirect contributions to wellbeing.
Like the dialogue about defining specific wellbeing and quality-of-life metrics, the research literature establishing the arts’ contribution to wellbeing is very much in active development. But already, we know for example that participatory arts activities provide myriad benefits to older adults, improving subjective wellbeing along with more concrete capabilities such as motor skills, cognition, and reduced dementia risk. As other benefits become well-established through better research, the role that the arts have to play in enabling a better world will become clearer to all.
My suggestion as fresh-faced intern to integrate arts outcomes into the foundation’s overarching strategy might have come 10 years too early. Today, however, there is evidence that others—including the Ford, Kresge, and Irvine Foundations—are starting to think beyond silos for their arts funding. As a society, we had good intuitive instincts when we deemed the arts worthy of philanthropic attention. Yet we didn’t engage in the analytical process of understanding exactly why. Now, we collectively have an opportunity to do just that, and make our support of the arts more targeted and impactful as a result. The entire world will benefit if we do so.