The Arts as a Public Good

Topos strategic paradigm shift for the arts focuses on how to shift people’s thinking about the arts from a private good to a public good.

Our research finds that according to the Cultural Common Sense “the arts” is an elite pursuit, a luxury, that should be paid for through ticket prices (as a market good) or by donations from wealthy individuals (charity). In this way of thinking, the arts is not a public good, and therefore should not be paid for by taxpayer dollars. This insight means that advocates who seek public funding for the arts will fail unless they address the Cultural Common sense – if the arts are an elite commodity, it is wrong for them to be funded by a sales tax paid by working class people, for example.

One Topos strategy that advocates are using to great success is the arts ripple effect: The effects of the arts ripple throughout a community – making places more vibrant, more attractive, and more economically and socially vigorous. This in mind, average people see why the arts are an important common good and a shared responsibility.

This Topos strategy is widely used throughout the arts advocacy community, and the insights have even been translated into the first “game sourced” film, Radius. In addition, this strategy, developed for the Fine Arts Fund of Cincinnati, led to a rebranding of the organization as ArtsWave. With a brand and language that better conveys its contemporary work and role, the organization has achieve both stronger public communications and more effective fundraising with large and small donors.

A second strategy is also being deployed to frame the arts as a public good. Linking the arts to health benefits makes it easier to understand the topic as something everyone should have access to. Doctors are taking seriously the concrete and surprising physical health benefits, so much so that they are prescribing arts experiences. This approach reinforces the idea that lack of funding for the arts in a community amounts to neglect, which can lead to negative health outcomes.

Not only has this strategy transformed advocate communications in normal times, it is flexible enough and engrained enough in the community, that it is even being deployed in response to COVID, as illustrated in the following commentary:

A growing body of research nationwide tells us that the creative sector — the people and businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services — is particularly critical to economic growth in rural states like ours.

… Arts and culture build the infrastructure for healthy, vibrant communities where people want to live, work, and raise their families.

And perhaps just as important as the economic impact: the arts will help us to heal…Artists are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to COVID-19, devising creative responses to the pandemic. Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months.

“Art in a Time of COVID-19,”, by Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, and Jody Fried, chair of the Vermont Creative Network and executive director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.





Research Video:


Radius is the world’s first game-sourced movie, created by Possible Worldwide, a WPP Digital company. The filmmakers were inspired by the Topos Partnership’s ground-breaking work in The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research-Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts.