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National Arts Forums Take Aim At Issues

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In a tacit admission that the nation's arts organizations face a daunting yet similar set of challenges, Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts advocacy group, and the MetLife Foundation have announced a series of 20 national arts forums to take place from coast to coast during the remainder of 2005. The goal of the MetLife Foundation National Arts Forum series is to identify as many major shared issues as possible and, more important, the strategies being developed to tackle them.

"What we really hope will come out of this is a real picture of the arts landscape we're grappling with," said Gary Steuer, vice president and executive director of the Arts & Business Council of Americans for the Arts. "It's an industry with dramatic changes taking place, such as a generational change in which philanthropists—people traditionally 'for' the arts—are retiring and dying. We have to ask what we're doing to educate, inspire, and build support from the next generation of philanthropists. It's a situation in which major and minor foundations are shifting focus away from the arts and, due to corporate mergers, where there's been a reduction in access to, and in the diversity of, corporate arts support. There's a lot to discuss."

The purpose of the forums—in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, Hartford, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Providence, St. Louis, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—is not so much to discuss locality-specific issues as to explore how shared concerns might yield solutions that cross geographical boundaries.

"While the dialogues will obviously be somewhat different in different communities, what we're really aiming for is to identify overarching issues," Steuer said, adding that the hope is "to bring all the themes together into one published piece that will really make this a national dialogue." For now, summaries of the forums will appear on the website of Americans for the Arts, www.americansforthearts.org, along with an interactive section encouraging more dialogue within the greater community.

The forums represent the MetLife Foundation's largest collaboration to date with Americans for the Arts. According to Steuer, when the Arts & Business Council and Americans for the Arts merged in February, the MetLife Foundation saw great potential for the program, nearly a decade old, to be significantly expanded and enriched.

With each forum produced by an affiliate member of the Arts & Business Council, Americans for the Arts, or both, the process is far from cumbersome, said Steuer: "Each one has to submit its topic or topics for approval before we go ahead, since we prefer avoiding these forums as vehicles so local in nature that it isn't relevant to anyone else. But, however, we do look forward to dialogue with different local spins."

As an example, Steuer cited an upcoming forum in San Francisco, which, he says, will likely revolve around a recent and controversial study issued by the RAND Corporation. Called "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," the report questions whether the traditional arguments employed by arts advocates to advance their causes are still effective.

"It's a great jumping-off point because we really have to ask how best the arts can make its case," said Steuer. "We have to ask what kind of language to use, and whether the argument is that there's an intrinsic value to the arts or if there's an 'arts are instrumental' angle. We have to talk about whether we've gone too far in pushing 'cultural tourism' or touting the economic benefits of the arts, rather than saying the arts are good because the arts are good for people."

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