All Over Creation: Who's on First?
Are we looking at the wrong statistics for measuring a win in the arts?
That's the question I've been pondering since I saw Moneyball a few weeks back. If you're unfamiliar with the film or the Michael Lewis book from which it came, here's the SportsCenter highlight reel: Oakland's general manager turns the lackluster 2002 Athletics into a division leader by drafting players based on statistics not traditionally factored into winning games. Turns out, claims the movie, getting on base plays a bigger role in winning than getting some wood on the ball. Pack the dugout with players whose on-base percentages are high, and it doesn't make much difference if their batting averages are low. What matters is that they're consistently getting in scoring position and more frequently crossing home plate.
Now, you can take issue with how much that strategy actually had to do with the amazing season the A's had that year – and plenty of the game's followers have – but there's still a compelling case there that we sometimes focus on certain data that we believe is momentous to the exclusion of data that could be more meaningful. In the arts, for instance, we place a high premium on recognition in the form of awards, press, funding. And those are not insignificant; indeed, they validate the work we do, artistic work that the larger culture doesn't devote much attention to nowadays, and the higher up the food chain we receive that recognition – The New York Times, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tony Awards – the bigger the validation. That said, is a wall plastered with Austin Critics Table certificates, a long string of grants from the city's cultural contracts program, or a slew of rave notices in these pages the best measure of an artist's success? It's surely a measure of success, and no less valuable a one than slugging percentage or number of strikeouts, but the best? Or more to the point, the one that's most key to winning?
I know that "winning" is an awkward term to use when the subject is art. It isn't as if pianist Anton Nel and conductor Peter Bay battle for supremacy when the former solos with the Austin Symphony or some ref declares either Joe Sears or Jaston Williams the victor after each performance of A Tuna Christmas. Aside from competition for prizes and grants, winning doesn't figure into the cultural world, which is about creative self-expression and our response to it, things by their nature so individual and personal that they make it impossible empirically to consign any work of art to a "win" or "loss" column. Still, when the CreateAustin Cultural Master Plan was being developed with the aim of defining where our city's creative life would be in 10 years, participants envisioned an Austin in which every citizen would be able to engage in some form of artistic activity.
During a recent Leadership Austin panel on the arts, Zach Theatre Managing Director Elisbeth Challener talked about the importance of participation: how getting actively involved in a cultural pursuit stimulates creative thinking, promotes collaboration and teamwork, develops empathy and self-expression and how studies confirm these positive effects on students in the classroom and workers in the office. When art makes a difference in the lives of people and the life of this community, that's a win. So maybe one key metric we should really be paying attention to, the arts' version of the on-base percentage, is participation in creative activities. How many folks do we have making art? That isn't always easy to measure, but crunch some of the numbers from the East Austin Studio Tour: Launched in 2003 with 28 studios, the tour this year includes 145, with an additional 64 events and exhibits – more than 300 artists, estimating conservatively. That's just one event covering one segment of the creative sector, but that sort of explosive growth is evident all across the city in arts education programs, training classes, and those ubiquitous festivals. More Austin artists are being noticed nationally, working with major institutions, and earning major commissions, which is outstanding. But check out the people on base. Who's on first? Nearly everyone.