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Stop Measuring The Arts In Merely Financial Terms, Says MassArt President

Five centuries after Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes were inaugurated at the Sistine Chapel, at least 10,000 people visit the site each day. (Pier Paolo Cito/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Five centuries after Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes were inaugurated at the Sistine Chapel, at least 10,000 people visit the site each day. (Pier Paolo Cito/AP)

Measuring the health of the economy merely in financial terms is a sure way to undermine the public good. It is typical these days to speak of the value of education primarily in terms of yielding certain jobs with certain pay.

MassArt President David Nelson. (Courtesy Kelly Davidson/MassArt)
MassArt President David Nelson. (Courtesy Kelly Davidson/MassArt)

As the president of an art and design college, it isn’t uncommon for me to be asked about the number of our graduates employed within a year of completing their degrees and about the earnings of our alumni five years after graduation. While that’s one account of education (and one account by which MassArt alums perform quite well), the financial bottom line is not — and should not be — the bottom line.

Reams of data demonstrate the arts are an economic driver, but as MassArt looks to prepare students to meet the challenges of a 21st century economy, I don’t primarily have money in mind. Instead of a goods economy, I’m thinking about a good economy.

The term “economy” comes from an ancient Greek word “oikonomia,” which is essentially a way of organizing a household. “Oikonomia” is about stewarding all available resources in order to maximize not only profits or productivity, but to maximize good.

A goods economy is measured in dollars and cents, in products and profits. But a good economy is measured, as Bobby Kennedy once reminded us, in health, quality, joy, beauty, strength, intelligence, integrity, wit, courage, wisdom, learning and compassion.

The arts tap into the kinds of human ingenuity and creativity that can never be reduced to a production/consumption model.

The arts tap into the kinds of human ingenuity and creativity that can never be reduced to a production/consumption model. The music of Billie Holliday doesn’t move our balance sheet — it moves our spirits. We don’t stand before Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride” because it is worth a lot of money, but because it is worth our attention. The architecture of Edward Larrabee Barnes at Haystack isn’t the easiest way to maximize profits — it’s the way to maximize human experience within that place.

Not everything worth doing is about maximizing dollars. Massachusetts doesn’t invest in arts education because it is the least expensive kind of education. It costs money. So does science education, and so does something like athletics. We don’t educate our children because it’s inexpensive to do so. We educate our children because it is good to do so. We don’t educate our children primarily for financial outcomes. We all want our children to make a good living, but we also want them to live a good life.

You can’t put a dollar value on teaching a student to draw, when by that education, she learns not only to draw but to see the world. That “output” isn’t measured by career earnings five years after graduation. It’s more aptly measured by quality of life. It’s more aptly measured in the way she relates to people and the good she may accomplish because at some age, a teacher taught her how to look at the world, to see the world, and to interact with the world around her. The value of our third graders learning how to play the violin or to design their way to solutions will never be fully captured in monetary metrics.

Many of us don’t need “more goods,” but we could all use some more good.

When we reduce everything to the financial, we devalue the things that matter most. Goods are ephemeral. If we make the goods economy the final measure of things, we ask too little of ourselves. To shift our focus toward a good economy is to invest our resources in those things that are not ephemeral but enduring. Many of us don’t need “more goods,” but we could all use some more good.

That’s why we continue to educate students — because we could all use some more good. The “starving artists” aren’t the ones who are waiting tables or working in the medical field in order to keep creating their art. The starving artists are the ones who forsake the opportunity to enact their imagination, or have that opportunity taken from them, because they are told it’s beneath them to order their household in a way that doesn’t maximize dollars. When artists do not do their work, they aren’t the only ones who are impoverished. So are we. We are deprived of the good that comes from seeing something we may never otherwise see, experiencing something we may never otherwise experience, imagining something we may never otherwise imagine.

When artists do not do their work, they aren’t the only ones who are impoverished. So are we.

The final measure isn’t dollars. It’s the rich dividends of better lives and a better world.

In higher education, as in government and business, we measure our work in various metrics, in data and dollars. I have no opposition to metrics, I have no opposition to data, and I certainly have no opposition to dollars. Yet, if we make data and dollars the final measure of things, we will inevitably undervalue the most important things.

To be clear, I’m not saying education and the arts need no funding. I am saying that to measure the return on arts and education investment merely in financial terms is to demean its value. In that case we aim merely to trade money for more money, rather than trading money for more good. I believe we know better than that. I believe we are better than that.


Dr. David P. Nelson is the 12th president of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He joined the college in June 2016, bringing his perspective as a first-generation college graduate and more than 15 years of experience in higher education in administrative and academic roles, most recently as provost and chief academic officer at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

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