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Panel: Are Arts Relevant In The 21st Century?

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The crowd attending "First Friday" gallery receptions at Boston's Thayer Street gallery district in September. (Greg Cook)

The crowd attending “First Friday” gallery receptions at Boston’s Thayer Street gallery district in September. (Greg Cook)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “Are Arts Relevant in a 21st Century World?”

That’s the provocative title of a panel at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (Taubman, NYE A, 5th floor, 79 JFK St., Cambridge) at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28.

But, of course, the panelists all believe the arts are relevant. Their concern is really how to demonstrate that financial investment in the arts makes communities more lively.

“Their question is: how do we prove that?” Harvard lecturer and research fellow Jim Bildner (he’s also on WBUR’s board) says of ArtPlace, a Chicago-based collaborative of 11 American foundations (including the Knight Foundation), eight federal agencies and six banks. “What are these cultural indicators? What makes a community vibrant?”

The idea seems to be that if they can measure the results of spending on the arts, they can convince foundations, government and other arts funders to keep spending. And maybe even increase spending.

Bildner will serve as moderator for ArtPlace president Carol Coletta; Dennis Scholl, vice president for the arts at the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which funds arts, journalism and economic development projects; and Lawrence McGill, vice president for research at Foundation Center in New York, which does research and serves as a clearinghouse for information on philanthropy.

“A lot of people are worried that the arts’ role is 21st century is not being appreciated,” Bildner says. They fear that social media and technology are making existing cultural organizations seem irrelevant, and so less deserving of financial support. Which exacerbates the longstanding fact that “federal, state and municipal funding for the arts is nominal,” Bildner says. “…Arts and culture in the United States is treated like a public good but funded like a private good.”

The panel is an outgrowth of “The Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America,” launched 18 months ago by Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.  It aims to examine links between funding of arts institutions, changing urban demographics, and the ways people participate in the arts. The hope is to produce empirical data that will help build “a cohesive, consensus-based funding framework for sustainable arts and cultural institutions in the United States.”