There was an article in the New York Times on April 14th titled “Is It Art, or Is It Just Real Estate?” But the URL for the article reveals a slightly different view of the content: after the NYT’s domain name, and the relevant date and section folders, comes “the-importance-of-art-in-high-end-condo-developments.html”. That seems a more accurate summary.
Let us not make too much of the possible conflict between reporters, headline writers, and web coders, interesting though that is. Instead, I think it is important for those of us working in the arts (and especially in arts communications) to be aware of the implicit messages this article and others like it may convey to different audiences, and how we can learn from it.
So art is being used to sell very expensive condominium apartments. Who cares? There is nothing surprising about this: art has been used as a symbol of wealth and status for hundreds of years. Real estate developers can afford and surely crave being seen as “elite,” and art can be one component of that. The danger is when that message starts to carry over to perceptions of arts organizations–to how people view non-profit institutions dedicated to serving the public by presenting art.
Which leads to one simple, fundamental question: Is it ok for an arts organization to be seen as “elite”? Maybe.
If an organization can own the use of “elite” and apply it to the arts, to convey that what it has to offer is of the highest quality, that’s great. If the label “elite” evokes for people that the experience they will have at an institution is a great one, that’s terrific too. Quality surely matters to audiences, which is why (despite other institutional considerations and concerns) blockbuster exhibitions of famous art and artists tend to do well, even with admission fees attached. People want to see great art and they understand when this is what is being offered.
On the other hand, if that sense of elitism makes people perceive that an institution is really only catering to the interests of the wealthy, that’s bad. (Isn’t that self-evident?) And if people draw a connection between an institution being “elite” and and limitations on accessibility–essentially, that one must be wealthy to have access to an institution’s art experiences–that is worse.
Few institutions can afford (literally and figuratively) to carry the wrong badge of elitism, and this is an area of constant tension. Certainly an organization should celebrate those whose support, financial and otherwise, helps ensure its ability to operate. Philanthropy has been fundamental to the success and health of America’s arts institutions; if that philanthropy comes from those who sell real estate, or art, or both, that’s fine. Celebrate the right kind of elitism, the kind that encourages participation, and marry that to a commitment to accessibility, and your audiences will know and should respond in kind.