By Jon

A few weeks ago we featured an interview with John Kreidler conducted when launched the online cultural modelling tool, Medici’s lever. In this second interview, we asked him what insights the lever had provided, one year on, and talked about the wider implications for cultural policy and arts funding.

How has Medici’s lever fared in the year or so since it was launched?

My fondest hope would be for Medici’s Lever to advance a conversation within the worldwide circle of cultural policy thinkers about the underlying dynamics of arts and culture, and about appropriate interventions that might lead to greater public engagement in active cultural expression. Also, a significant objective is to provide a useful platform for training a new generation of cultural policy thinkers and activists.

So far, the progress toward these objectives has been slight, but that result is neither surprising nor disappointing. When Steve Peterson (systems engineer) and I set out four years ago to produce Medici’s lever, we were inspired to formulate what we hoped would be a ground-breaking logic model of the dynamics of arts and culture, to translate this model into a working simulation, and then to devise user interfaces that would make the simulation understandable to two select audiences: Cultural policy experts and students. Finally, we were determined to make Medici’s Lever available on the Web as a public-domain simulation whose programming was fully transparent and open to further development by anyone wanting to expand upon our work. All of this has now been accomplished except, for technical reasons, we have not yet been able to make the model’s detailed programming available online. For the moment, we have to be content with distributing hard copies of the programming.

Still, some movement has taken place. Quite recently, I have been contacted by a U.S. university that previously used Cultural Initiatives’ 2001 policy simulation, entitled “Great Cities”, for students in its arts and entertainment management program. The university may now move on to Medici’s Lever. Also, few months ago, a Geneva-based agency of the United Nations asked me to make a presentation in the Philippines that would incorporate Mecici’s Lever.

Readers of this blog are invited to try Medici’s Lever at http://forio.com/broadcast/netsim/netsims/Medici/medici-home/index.html and to post comments on this blog, or to me personally at jdkreidler@sbcglobal.net

Those are ambitious objectives – no wonder you invested so many resources in developing in the model. Did you have a strategy in mind for raising awareness of it? And did you anticipate spending as much time and effort as you have after the development phase was finished?

Actually, the resources invested in Medici’s Lever were modest, certainly by the standard of commercial game simulations. The cost was in the vicinity of $60,000, and the two principal workers on this project spent, on average, a few hours per month over the four years that elapsed from project conception to completion.

Early in the project, we had employed an experienced Silicon Valley game designer to create the user interfaces for Medici’s Lever, on the premise that a flashy interface would attract a broader audience, but this approach required the development of original software that was expensive, time-consuming and risky, so after a year it was abandoned. At the project’s conclusion, discussions were held with a California-based public arts planning and funding agency that had an interest in promoting Medici’s Lever to advance its own agenda. The idea was to give Medici’s Lever an organizational home, backed by marketing and staff resources that would continue to support it. Even though these prospects did not materialize, we were still able to place Medici’s Lever on the Web, which provides a vastly more accessible platform for users than the CD-ROM format of our original Great Cities cultural policy simulation, which was produced in 2000-2001.

In the end, I believe that we have created a sophisticated and insightful simulation/logic model that is presented online through a bare-bones, and at times humorous, game interface. As I said previously, the audience for this package is narrowly focused on cultural policy makers, funders and students, so over the past couple of years, I have been promoting Medici’s Lever to my professional contacts who are connected with these groups. Still, I am looking for an organization that would have an interest in serving as home for Medici’s Lever and could promote it broadly.

From your own experience and talking to others who have used it, what are the main insights you think the tool provides?

The best that one can hope to achieve with Medici’s Lever is that users will begin to appreciate that the arts and culture are embedded in complex systems. Once this appreciation materializes, it has significant consequences for those in a position to influence cultural policy. Awareness of the existence of underlying systems requires an effort to understand the complex dynamics of these systems: Does X influence Y, what is the nature and amount of this influence, and does this influence feed back in some way from Y to X? I am afraid that many do not want to expend this effort, because it requires the abandonment of entrenched theories of how culture operates, and often the crucial breakthroughs in understanding can only occur through years of experience and research. A high-ranking official of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts once said to me, “This systems approach to arts policy gives me a headache. All I want is to stay in Washington and give money to artists and arts organizations. All considerations other than quality are irrelevant.” Many of my former colleagues in the domain of pubic and private arts funding share this view. Providing resources to artists and arts organizations can be a rewarding career by affording opportunities for advancing your own tastes in art, and exercising your ability to leverage funds from other sources that choose to follow your inspired decisions. This world view might seem, at worst, harmless, but the discipline of systems thinking teaches that:

Any entity having the ability to intervene in a system is more likely to cause harm than good if this intervention is made without reference to the complex behavior of the system.

Doctors, presumably, understand the dynamics of human physiological systems, auto mechanics understand mechanical systems, and environmental scientists understand natural systems, so why shouldn’t cultural policy makers, including funders, have some basic understanding of cultural systems? The initial step is to appreciate that systems exist, and Medici’s Lever may promote this fundamental awareness. However, I never underestimate the ability of policy makers in all fields to deny the very existence of underlying systems in favor of simplistic expedients. The current debate in the U.S. over global warming is a great example because it shows how senior elected officials can deny the very existence of environmental dynamics that have been the subject of extensive research for more than 30 years.

I would also hope that Medici’s Lever offers some substantive insights gleaned from my own research and experience. These are described in the text accompanying the simulation model. For anyone ambitious enough to wade into the model programming, all of the systems logic is transparent and open to question and debate. So far, I am not aware of anyone who has taken up this challenge.

Given that so many cities, states and authorities in the USA, UK and beyond continue to strip away their funding for the arts, do you think those insights are well understood?

Taken in isolation, decisions to reduce arts funding do not necessarily show any more understanding of cultural dynamics than decisions to increase arts funding. Hypothetically, a decision to decrease arts funding might be found to have overall positive outcomes. Whatever the direction of the funding, up or down, the questions are: Do we understand the systems in which we are intervening (funding is one form of intervention), do we believe that we can affect changes that are likely to yield net positive results, what specific outcomes, both positive and negative, do we expect, and are our interventions reversible so that we can restore the system if the results turn sour? If this line of thinking has been fully implemented, policy makers then have a basis for evaluating whether upward, downward, or unchanged funding or other policies are merited. In the U.S., the Federal Government’s housing policies of the 1950s and 1960s are sometimes cited as an example of actions that were well-intended as a means for decreasing urban poverty, but were not systemically informed, were irreversible, and resulted in a multitude of negative results including higher poverty, crime, illiteracy and dissolution of families. One prominent U.S. arts funder has quietly confessed that its attempts to “stabilize” prominent arts institutions actually resulted in their destabilization through unintended escalation of their fixed costs, though this result was viewed as reversible, and then led to an ambitious and more systemically driven effort to correct the problem.

My knowledge of public funding of the arts in the U.K. is limited, but in the U.S. the defunding of the arts in many jurisdictions is due, in some measure, to the failure of cultural policy makers to demonstrate that funding has yielded a strong net increase in noncommercial cultural goods and services that are broadly desired and consumed by the American public. The quantity of consumption is a much more forceful rationale for public support, in the arena of U.S. politics, than improvements in quality, which tend to be difficult to prove and prone to allegations of elitism. Viewed from this perspective, I believe that public libraries, parks and athletic activities are generally in a better position, as cultural institutions, to make a case that they are serving broad publics, in comparison to performing and visual arts organizations. Here in California, I hear vigorous public expressions of dismay about proposed funding reductions for state parks, municipal libraries and public broadcasting, but almost no protests about performing and visual arts cuts.

Do you think it si possible to make good (or better) quantitative arguments in favour of arts funding? Here in the UK they are sometimes viewed unfavourably because it is believed that the quality (or intrinsic value) of the work is sacrificed in order to appeal to a wider demographic or because of the second order benefits funding the work will bring.

The debate over intrinsic versus instrumental justifications for public funding of the arts in the U.S. has been fairly intense for at least the past half century, but with a few caveats, I am decidedly on the side of the instrumentalists. My personal life is a very different matter. There, intrinsically motivated choices are paramount in my selection of what dance performances to attend, what books to read, and how to craft a piece of sculpture, though instrumental considerations, including convenience and cost, inevitably come into play. The same is true of other realms of culture: What sports to play, what religions to observe and what clothing fashions to acquire. By extension, it seems reasonable to me that private funders, including individuals, foundations and corporations, can make whatever intrinsic cultural judgments they might choose, with or without reference to practical considerations.

Governmental funding is a different matter. For many reasons I am skeptical about intrinsically-based public policy decisions about art, just as I am skeptical about governmental decisions about religion, athletics or fashion. In a democratic society, the central question is whether a given policy, including funding, will yield an appropriate return of public goods, services, or other benefits, which is mostly an instrumental cost/benefit equation. Ultimately, individuals will make their own decisions to partake of these public goods or services based on their own evaluations of intrinsic and instrumental merits, but I find it hard to accept that government should, in effect, make pre-emptive decisions of what is best for the public based solely on evaluations of quality. In the U.S., this approach has tended to result in the anointment of a small cadre of professional artists and organizations who receive a disproportionate amount of the funding and recognition, leaving others on the fringe. In many instances, there is little, if any, consideration given to the public’s interest or attraction to this anointed art, and not surprisingly, this indifference to public demand has been a contributing factor in the stagnation and decline of public arts funding in the U.S. over the past decade.

To be fair, public funding for a select, often elite, core of professional American artists and arts institutions is a similar phenomenon to governmental patronage and protection of many other professions, including medicine, law, teaching and law enforcement. Professions tend to accumulate political power, to protect those within the boundaries of the profession, and to label those practicing outside the profession with a long list of pejoratives including “amateur”, “unqualified” and “low-quality”. In my view, governmental policies that focus intensively on judgments of quality tend to lead almost nowhere except to bolster the various professions within the art world and to satisfy the cravings of a narrow band of the public, mostly defined by high income and educational attainment.

Far more satisfactory would be systemically conscious public policies aimed at enabling the broad public to gain maximum benefit from artistic and other cultural experiences, with quality being an ingredient, but not the sine qua non, of policy formulation. “Medici’s Lever” is one version of how systemically conscious policies might be constructed, and of the mostly quantitative measures that might be used to measure effectiveness. Within “Medici’s Lever”, a healthy cultural environment is defined by three factors, the most important of which are widespread public literacy in the arts, and building on this literacy, extensive public engagement (amateur participation) in various forms of artistic expression, including singing, all forms of dancing, writing poetry, drawing, and much more. The point of literacy and engagement in artistic expression is not that they necessarily lead directly to great works of art, but rather that they have the capacity to bring high levels of meaning, gratification and civility to individuals and communities, all of which can be detected and in some ways measured, and employed more effectively to secure governmental support than quality-based assertions, which are beyond measurement.

The third factor incorporated into the logic model underlying “Medici’s Lever” is the production of publicly available artistic goods and services, mostly supplied by professional artists and institutions. Certainly, these goods and services are significant within a well-balanced artistic domain, but “Medici’s Lever” incorporates the view that this professional sector will be best supported only when a sufficient foundation of public literacy and engagement has been achieved.

While I take the view that quantitative measures of benefits are most appropriate for formulating and evaluating public arts funding and other policies, I also recognize that some purported benefits may be overstated. For several decades, studies of various state and metropolitan areas in the U.S. have tried to show, for example, that public expenditures on the arts produce high multipliers for generating tax revenues, restaurant income and assorted other commercial revenues. These studies are then used to advocate for higher public investments in the arts. Naturally, this same investment multiplier rationale has been used in virtually all other domains of public policy, including education, urban renewal, crime prevention, parks, and health care, and seemingly very few studies use the same methodology. The end result is that many policy makers have become jaded by the claims resulting from these studies.

Nevertheless, as I have said in response to a previous question, rigorous logic models using quantitative data have come to be widely applied in many fields of public policy, most notably in economics, environmental affairs, military planning and health care. Significantly, all of these fields embody both quantitative and qualitative elements. If the arts are to be taken seriously in the public sector, then they need to apply similar rigor. “Medici’s Lever” sets forth a nascent logic model that suggests that the arts can bring widespread meaning, gratification and civility to individuals and communities, while also making a secondary (and hopefully not overstated) contribution to education and the economy. It does not promise world peace and happiness for all

In the previous interview, we touched on the importance of ‘market makers’ and the flows between the levels of the pyramid within Medici’s lever. Earlier this year, Arts Council England has focussed its core annual revenue grants on organisations that ‘directly produce or present work’. This has left intermediary bodies, audience development agencies and those that play particular strategic roles (notably focused on Business) on reduced budgets or reliant on one-off funds. The Arts Council itself will have to reduce its administrative budget by 50% over three years, drastically reducing the development work it can do itself. Do policy shifts of this type seem ‘systematically informed’ to you?

Historically, Arts Council England and its predecessor, the Arts Council of Great Britain, have exercised a more systemic view of the arts than arts councils in the U.S. According to one version of that history, the early beginnings of the Arts Council of Great Britain grew out of a somewhat instrumental imperative: Bolstering morale in the air raid shelters of London by providing concerts during the Blitz. I would venture a guess that public morale was a more important objective than musical quality.

Regarding the specifics of your question about the recent actions of the Council with respect to its core annual revenue grants, I can only answer your question with a two-part, question: Does Arts Council England have a logic model of how the arts function in England, and informed by this model, are the recent funding decisions intended to yield the greatest, most enduring benefits to the broadest public?

Incidentally, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts recently announced a request for proposals for the formulation of a logic model of how the arts operate in this country.

With the NEA’s request in mind, what are you future plans?

With regard to the NEA’s announced plan to formulate a logic model of the arts, I have communicated to their staff the existence of Medici’s Lever, and have offered to aid their process as a volunteer. One of the consulting teams competing for the contract to produce this logic model has requested my permission to use parts of the Medici’s Lever logic model in their application to the NEA. All of Medici’s Lever is in the public domain (no copyright), and anyone is welcome to copy or modify it to suit their own views of the arts universe.

As for my future, I am happily retired and occupy my time with welding steel sculpture, making furniture (a craft I studied in Totnes, England with Christopher Faulkner) and growing grapes. Medici’s Lever probably represents my last concerted effort to build a computer-based logic model of the arts, though I will continue to write and lecture on this subject.

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