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Response to Daily Texan Article: Economics and Impact

In November, the Daily Texan published an article entitled “The questionable value of arts programs.” This is my response… albeit four months after the fact.

The article garnered a strong reaction among students, and my intention had been to slot extra time for a thoughtful response. I am an art student… it made sense. In spite of intentions to be punctual, I found myself  incredibly busy. I was working two art jobs, organizing an art program with twenty friends, and attending a full time Master’s of Arts Education program. Under these conditions, finding an adequate amount of time to meaningfully reflect on the economic irrelevance of art programming was not possible until now.

<end sarcasm>


I about jumped out of bed (for joy) this morning, after reading an article on the Trash Project at SXSW. Choreographer Alison Orr and Austin Solid Waste Department collaborated on performance piece that created a buzz at SouthX this year.

While watching a teaser I couldn’t help wonder: These are guys who go to work when we are sleeping. Who willfully expose themselves to the dirtiest parts of human culture for a living. We rely heavily on their service, yet rarely pay notice to them. When we do think of them, it’s as a beeping truck slams a dumpster outside the bedroom window at 4 am (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.) In grade school classes, children rarely draw artwork about being a “Solid Waste Department” worker when they grow up. Yet something about choreographed rolling garbage cans, colored spotlights, and violins, turn these nearly invisible workers of our city into celebrities. People see them with new eyes.

Admiring audiences aren’t just for bands on West 6th anymore.

You should check this out…


Trash Project
Trash Project


Explore UT

Explore UT

A good friend and colleague  planned and organized the Blanton Art Museum’s Explore UT event two weekends ago. In support of her work (and also in support of a museum I adore and worked at last year) I donned a volunteer shirt and parked myself on Martin Luther King Blvd to do Plein Air drawing with visitors.

Would it be okay if I drew as well? I asked my friend.

Um, YEAH. That’s what you’re here for.

I perched a creamy-white, paper-covered drawing board on my knee. As I looked down North Congress and sketched the frame of the Capitol Building, I became aware of whispers and finger points. Curious smiles and tentative glances began to emerge in my periphery. The smiles led to questions… which led to conversations… which led to clusters… then small crowds of people.

I will be honest now and tell you I loved it.

Some people wanted to talk:

A woman chatted about her aunt from Spain who made amazing art…

A five year old explained the implications of his robot drawing…

A seventh grader shared dreams of being an animator one day.

Some wanted me to talk:

“Could you show me how you drew that shape?

Do you go to UT?

How long have you been drawing?”

One woman approached and asked directly:

“What are you going to do with that drawing?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

“I would pay you for it,” she said.


I politely told her I didn’t think I was allowed to sell things at a Blanton event.


child's expression of Bastrop fire

As the afternoon bore on, I found myself wishing for more time. More time with a ten year old feverishly sketching last summer’s Bastrop fires. More time to chat with the high school girl accepted to UT’s music school. More time to pep talk a frustrated eight year old drawing wildly expressive horses from memory.

Yet somehow my thesis proposal has discovered a way to call my name from its laptop home. Reluctantly, I packed up. An afternoon of love and sunshine made me realize I had to find a good home for this drawing. Where was that lady?

I worked my way through dozens of goodbyes, and began walking towards Speedway. And there she was… eating at a cafe table. As if the universe had put her near the bike rack on purpose. I walked over to her.

“Do you want this?

…not for money,” I added.

Her eyes glistened.  I was unsure if it was happiness or tears (both?) Clearly I was not done being amazed for the day.

“Oh yes,” she said softly. “Will you sign it?”


I could quote research and link to articles that support the economic value of art programming. I might write about how the MFA is rapidly becoming the new MBA– that it’s ten times harder to get into UCLA’s MFA program, than getting into Harvard’s MBA program.

I could write about GM actively recruiting art majors, and how a laundry list of Fortune 500 companies (um, Halliburton) are doing corporate trainings with “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

I could quote Psychology Today:

“A striking finding was that early hands on experience with arts and crafts was critical to continuing participation in arts and crafts. And continuing participation in arts and crafts across a lifetime was one of the strongest correlates to generating patents and new companies.”

Why does any of this matter anyway? Anyone can quote statistics– politicians do it all the time– and so do grad students.


The truth is often right at our front door. Right in the heart of a huge live music festival. Four thousand people did not wake up, and head outside in their bathrobes to watch garbage men in their driveways. What would the point be? Yet four thousand people did drive across town in crazy festival traffic, stood in the rain for hours, and watched garbage perform at an old airport tarmac. A woman did not take a picture of the Capitol Building with her digital camera. She offered me money for my drawing of it. People instinctually pass over a free object, and then pay out significant portions of money and time to access the human sensitivity, and soul that is behind the object.

Human sensitivity and soul is what makes the world (and economy) a better place. When a community watches garbage men perform elaborate synchronized movements to emotive live music, that community’s perception is forever altered. When my stinking pencil drawing makes a woman misty-eyed… when a child sits for four hours in front of oil pastel box drawing page after page of picture-stories about their family, life, and school… Why then is the conversation (in the Daily Texan) only about how many job opportunities there are for say, camera crews at SXSW, or art teacher is public school classrooms?

Economics matter… but perhaps we are we missing a whole chunk of the point here?


“We make art because we believe it makes better human beings. We make art because we believe it makes being human better. So why do we spend so much energy quantifying the economics of what we do and so little quantifying the impact? — Counting New Beans

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March 29, 2012 | | Comments are closed for this post
photo of Rebecca