Nathan Thomas
The Needs Study

"O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's . . ."
                        --King Lear. II. 4.

It all started when the official said, "You have to do a needs study."

These few, cheap words began a thinking process that has occupied my mind and time for months.  (Years?) The simplicity of the concept of the needs study masks the insidious nature of the needs study for the artist.

In a very simple sense, no one needs the arts.  From the times of our Paleolithic ancestors, certain parts of the arts have existed in various forms, but probably in a form unrecognizable to us today.   

Ahhhh . . . but then you start considering ritualized mask construction, ritualized movement, ritualized intoning, the endless centuries of stories told about the great fire that warmed the nights – and then you begin to realize that humans will have the arts in their lives.  They will.   

What separates us from our ancestors and their relationship to art is precisely the same thing that separates us from our ancestors' relationship to food.  When I buy food from my suburban mega-mart, I don't think about the actual plants and animals that went into my bag of organic, baked potato chips.  When I plug my iPod into my head, I don't think of art.  Both the chips and the music are commodities that are produced somewhere away from my eyes and my perspective.  If "they" took away my chips and my iPod, I think to myself, "I'll be fine.  People don't need chips.  And I can get music from somewhere else."  So, I'll be fine.

And so it goes.  All things are simply commodities to be manipulated in the great free market. And the god that is the free market will benevolently provide all that we want and all that we need.   

This brings us swiftly back to the "needs study."  In our enlightened age, the way to deal with finite resources is to produce a business plan.  For profit enterprises, they must look to the overall market.  Will they be able to sell the product (called a "good") or service? What will it cost to produce the product or service?  

The non-profit agency (in our case – a school) must do a "needs study." There's a finite number of . . . .say . . . nurses that are needed in a geographic area.  So we need to do a regional needs study to see how many nurses are needed and how many are currently being provided before we can start adding more nurses to the market.  If we find that there are enough nurses, then we can stop producing more nurses.

So, if we find that we have the finite amount of arts that we need in a community of a given size, should we stop making more arts?

This conundrum is posed by the suggestion of a needs study for the arts. One of the underlying assumptions of the "needs study" is a focus on the instrumental benefits of the arts.  But rather than focus on instrumental functions of art, I seek to remind folks of the intrinsic personal and public benefits of education and participation in the Fine and Performing Arts.[i]

Often artists don't emphasize the intrinsic benefits of the Fine and Performing Arts for multiple reasons.  One reason was suggested above.  As a culture we subscribe to the methodology of social science, suggesting that benefits and deficits in human experience are quantifiable.  "Show me the numbers."   

This cultural belief system links with another cultural belief in the ability to use discursive, grammatical language to explain phenomena – particularly in academia.  We believe that we can ably communicate the most abstract of ideas through language. A moment's consideration, however, shows that language may not be useful in all situations.  Try to explain, define or describe the concept of "spiral" without using your hands.  The personal, emotional experience of the arts may defy discursive language.  Once, the pianist and composer Franz Schubert was asked what a piece he had just performed meant.  The only way he could answer the question was to return to the piano and play the whole piece again.  Simply put, the arts speak for us when we cannot.

First, the arts provide a variety of benefits that are primarily personal – such as providing pleasure or relieving anxiety.  Next, even though we don't focus on instrumental benefits, we can't deny that instrumental benefits for individuals and communities can derive from the arts.  Finally, the arts can provide benefits to the public as a whole, even those who do not participate in them.

Individual benefits derived from the Fine and Performing arts have been further obscured in the 20th century by the development of an argument for a level of aesthetics that turned the arts into a kind of cultural spinach or broccoli – an experience that may not "taste" good, but ought to be done for some quasi-indefinable improvement.   

First, as we realize, spinach may not be tantalizing to some youthful tastes, but may be found delicious as an individual's tastes are developed.  Part of the educational mission of any institution is to help student maturation in a variety of areas.  Providing opportunities to experience and participate in the fine and performing arts is a necessary part of that process.

Secondly, it is the task of artists to communicate with their audiences. Any person who has been moved to laugh or cry by a painting or sculpture, by a piece of music, or by a play knows the personal benefit of being moved in such a way.  A school, by its nature, has young artists.  They need to be trained how to communicate through their art with audiences more effectively.  Without appropriate infrastructure in terms of curricular support, proper facilities, and institutional support, this education task can range from challenging to improbable to impossible.

Next, even with a focus on intrinsic benefits, the arts also provide instrumental benefits.  Performances and exhibitions bring the community, parents, and alumni to a campus. Arts performances and exhibitions provide opportunities for convivial social interactions.  Arts performances and exhibitions provide education and maturation in appreciation of diversity and empathetic response.

Third, participation in the Fine and Performing Arts can help build community cohesion.  Certainly the metaphor of a musical group learning to be a team through literal harmony may be sentimentalized.  Nevertheless, a group of actors who must navigate their way through a full-length play with its attendant focus on human relationships and human situations provides as many opportunities for physical and emotional team work as any other on campus. A group of singers or instrumentalists who work together to bring a piece of music to fruition provides an entry point for group understanding that may transcend everyday language.  And in those times when artists and audience join together in sharing outstanding performance, the shared emotional experience is something cherished by those who were there.

Finally, the Fine and Performing Arts open windows of understanding of the wider world in qualitative experiences that differ from instruction in other academic disciplines.  For example, listening to the music of tribal pygmies from Africa can provide a lesson in communal living different from that provided in a sociology class.  Making a mask – or acting in a mask – can help a student to feel the power of indigenous religious practice in a more personal way than reading about it in a comparative religion setting.   

Therefore, the question arises: Does education provide adequate and appropriate instruction, co-curricular opportunities, and facilities and institutional support for education in the Fine and Performing Arts for the students?

Now, even if we admit all of the foregoing is true, we're still left with the question of defending the place of the arts in education.  In our age some people aren't convinced by the admittedly circular argument that we need an education in the arts because we do need it.

What makes the arts so special?


Epistemology is the big word that includes the question of how we know what we know.  One of the challenges of the 21st century will be finding a way to balance the multiple ways in which we experience a variety of "inputs" that allow us to know different things.

One of the great achievements that came out of the Enlightenment was the notion that we could know an orderly universe that obeys its own laws.  By the time of the 20th century our culture relied ever more heavily on knowing things by the quantifiable evidence of experiment.  Quantification found its way into the social sciences. And the "certainty of numbers" provided by "scientific thinking" allowed businesses to borrow the techniques of the social sciences and grow via evidence-based planning.  Given that business had previously reached limits of "build-it-and-we'll-see-if-they-come" planning, the quantification of evidence-based development/marketing/sales suggested that most of what's necessary to know comes out of numbers.

A moment's reflection allows most of us to realize that quantification doesn't encompass all knowing.  We can know different things in different ways.  For example, I know how I feel about beets.  I know that.  I don't need numbers to show me how I feel about beets.  I simply know it.

Or, I know that truth is generally to be preferred to lies.  I know this is true.  I don't really care if a quantifiable study shows this is so. I know it to be so even in the absence of a study.

There are multiple ways of knowing.  

In recent years some folks have made money by reminding other folks that this is so.  Books about "emotional intelligence" or the "E.Q." are part of this trend.   

One of the problems we've had is that generalized great discoveries have provided compelling impetus to apply the great discovery to areas outside the realm of that discovery.  For example, the Enlightenment gave us a Deist god who was a "prime mover" of an orderly, Newtonian universe.  The ideas encompassed in evolution came into the cultural sphere and gave us "social Darwinism."

Probably the best thing we could do as thoughtful people is to remember that there are multiple ways of knowing things.  These multiple ways of knowing are not mutually exclusive nor need they be mutually contradictory.   

And even if we know some things outside the realm of quantification, and we can prove those same things with a study; the ability to quantify that bit of knowledge doesn't invalidate the non-quantifiable way of knowing something that leads us to the same resulting knowledge.  For example, say that I know that, given the chance, some people will cheat on their taxes if they feel they won't be caught.  How do I "know" this?  I know this from my knowledge of humans.  Now I can also make a study and go through a detailed series of behavioral experiments.  At the end of the period of experimentation, I'll find that some people will cheat on their taxes if they feel they won't be caught.  The subsequent quantifiable study doesn't make my primary understanding of human nature any less invalid.

And this realization brings us to our first main point.  There are many ways to know things.   And when it comes to human behavior, we can learn things in ways other than quantifiable studies.  We can learn from the arts.


Which subjects make up the fine and performing arts[ii]?

The fine and performing arts are those in which the artistic product is available to an audience of multiple people simultaneously, and for which the primary purpose is not marketing a product or service.  The visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, etc), music, theatre and dance fit these criteria. 

The makers of the literary arts of prose and poetry primarily meet the audience in a one-on-one relationship – writer to reader.  Elements of graphic design artistically enhance marketing tools like advertisements. These forms and practices are admirable and have a long, worthy history as part of human culture.  But they remain distinct from the fine and performing arts.

What of "spoken word" performance of essays or poetry?  These performances help the writer meet more than one "reader" at one time.  Also, can't a single listener enjoy music or a viewer contemplate an illustration or ceramic piece in solitude? 

These are the circumstances that test the categorization, but don't disprove it.  The poet may read her work aloud, but the emphasis is more on the writing than on the performance – making the spoken word performance distinct from theatre.  And the lone audience member may enjoy music or a visual piece, but that doesn't alter the work's availability to multiple people in a way that reading usually is not.

Nevertheless, the fine and performing arts include the visual arts, dance, music, and theatre.   

Poets of the world, please know that I respect your work. The literary arts are important. And goodness knows there's much to be said for the folks who give their talents to commercial art of all kinds. For purposes of this discussion, I've got to find a line somewhere.  In this instance, I'm concerning myself with the fine and performing arts as defined here.


The fine and performing arts have held a central place in higher education since the times of the ancient Greeks.  In ancient Greek academies music was a part of their limited central curriculum as part of a culture that decorated public spaces with paintings, statues, and durably beautiful architecture and invented a new art form – theatre.   In the Middle Ages music joined with text enabled the faithful to learn and remember scripture.  In England the "University Wits" helped create the professional Elizabethan theatre that gave us Shakespeare.

In our recollection of humanity's past, it is our art that lasts.  We may have no idea of the tribal elders of pre-historic tribes in millennia past, but we know and still admire the paintings of the tribal artists on the caves at Lascaux, France.  Elizabeth's empire is gone, but Shakespeare's plays continue to sell tickets and fascinate audiences.  The political ambitions and policies of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen are long forgotten, but Bach's music plays among the stars – part of humanity's introduction on the Voyager probe.

In looking toward the future the fine and performing arts program plays a vital role in promoting the vision of higher education by incorporating different kinds of learning.

    INTEGRATED LEARNING – Each of the programs that make up the fine and performing arts rely on education through doing.  There is little artistic experience more practical than the student using her own body, mind, heart, and imagination: a) to make a picture or design, b) to bring a melody and/or harmony to life, or c) to embody a character or to realize a stage design in actual materials.  In doing this practical work, the arts student combines traditional liberal arts study (Why did Mozart compose this tune this way?  Why did van Gogh use this painting technique?  Etc.) with the practical.   

    COMMUNITY-BASED LEARNING – Students in the fine and performing arts engage the trans-temporal community as well as the present community of the artist.  The painting student engages van Gogh in working to incorporate his brush style into a canvas.  The singer or keyboard player engages Bach and his world when working to bring his notes to modern ears.  Today's young actor faces the same problems faced by Richard Burbage when playing Romeo.  

    It has been said that the best way to know a culture is to know the songs sung in that culture.  The same could be said of each of the arts.  So, in a very real sense, curricular and co-curricular activities in the arts help our students plunge to the hearts of the times and cultures of the works being studied.  Moreover, in a practical sense each of most performing arts groups engage with community – by providing an arts outlet for local audiences.

    ETHICAL LEARNING – The holistic nature of the fine and performing arts tend to engage the mind, heart, and soul in grappling with the work at hand.  The painter must gain control of her own hand to control brushes to provide imagination and emotional engagement to make tangible her vision.  The singer must engage his body and his total self to bring the song to life.  The actor must understand the text intellectually and grammatically as well as emotionally and culturally to make sense of the words being spoken as well as their unspoken context.  Moreover, the performing arts provide an especially thorough ethics education in the demands placed on each individual to be a part of a larger team.  Each arts participant must make multiple ethically-based decisions in working to create the final product.  It is only through effective ethics and discipline that a group of individuals can come together to create even the simplest of performances.  

We can show that the arts survive when politics fade and money molds to nothing.  We know this, but in our very practical world, how can the arts be practical? How can the arts teacher meet the challenges of expectations?


The arts programs at a typical university serve a unique set of needs and a complex web of constituents – more so than any other unit on a campus.  The arts programs fulfill needs in terms of curriculum, co-curricular and avocation activities, institutional demands, and community services.  Among their many tasks, arts programs are expected to:


  • Provide general education instruction in the appreciation of the various forms of art
  • Provide students with a detailed education in the theory and/or development of each form of art
  • Provide training in the variety of techniques and multiple facets that make up each form of art
  • Provide appropriate opportunities to display successfully student work and/or achievement as training artists.

Co-curricular/Avocational needs:

  • Provide the wider student body with artistic and cultural entries ("cultural" meaning that the art delivered to students by student artists also has content that can educate student audiences in the wider notion of "Western culture" or more specific entries like medieval music or a play that deals with gender issues or ethical questions)
  • Provide student audiences training in empathy
  • Provide students an education in audience etiquette
  • Provide entertainment to the student body
  • Provide arts opportunities for students outside the classroom.

Institutional needs:

  • Provide faculty and staff entertainment/diversion
  • Provide support for official institutional functions (graduations, convocations, etc.)
  • Provide curricular and co-curricular links between arts activities and classroom instruction – not only the arts classroom, but in multiple discipline areas.

Community services:

  • Provide a "public face" for the institution
  • Provide opportunities for institutional development and enrollment management
  • And, in many parts of the country, provide the local community with 'serious' art – for example, a college theatre can afford to present more serious plays than the local community theatre that presents more popular fare.  This is likewise true for the disciplines of dance, music, and the visual arts.

Other academic units provide instruction in their disciplines, but seldom are the majority of their students required to make as obvious a public display of their progress on a regular basis.  Other student affairs or activity units provide entertainment or activities that provide a 'public face' for the institution, but they're not required to also provide detailed instruction in the theory and/or development of those activities.   

OK.  Fine. So what can you get from the arts that you don't get anywhere else?  For a moment, let's go ahead and talk business . . . .


No one needs a quantified study to know that at the moment, the economy for most of the U.S.A. is challenging at best.  The story of someone close to me illustrates what has happened to American business in the past few decades.

Once upon a time there was a manufacturing business named Maytag.  That business was one of the self-named concerns of the late-19th century. Old man Maytag owned and ran his business.  For decades people in and around Newton, IA looked to Maytag as a "cradle-to-grave" employer.  Untold scores of folks worked on the Maytag factory floor, making a living.  Someone close to me worked for Maytag.

There is no more Maytag.  Maytag exists as a name-plate and a marketing strategy.  But Maytag was bought by Whirlpool.  All of those people who had counted on a stable life that reflected the 19th century progressive business ideas of old man Maytag found that the 21st century doesn't allow for that business plan.

And now we find that even Whirlpool has experienced economic troubles with the downturn in new housing starts, etc.

So what do businesses need to survive and thrive? Innovation.  American businesses say they want people who are creative thinkers.  

Frankly, a moment's thought suggests that, as a world, we need more creativity.  And that's something that the arts can teach remarkably well.  Creativity is our business.

Not long ago the Conference Board published a report[iii] that posed the question, "Are American educators and businesses aligned on creative readiness for the workforce?"

The authors identify business creativity as an ability to identify new patterns of behavior or new patterns of action.  Or, put another way, the ability to look at things from a new or different perspective.  Most of the readers of this column might well think, "I have to do that every day," and they'd be right.

Further, the report shows that the way in which most business leaders help encourage creativity in their workers is through individual mentoring and instruction.  That is to say, the boss helps teach the worker to be creative.  This may (probably) range from expert mentoring to a boss growling, "Be creative!" through clenched teeth.

Where can the arts help?  By providing clear training in the processes of creativity.  How can we teach people to see, hear, think, listen, and feel their way through a new perspective of a problem or set of problems? Or to use the now tired phrase, "Think outside the box."


If all of the above is even slightly true, why don't more schools and school systems do more to promote the arts and arts education? The arts provide intrinsic benefits – the arts make our lives better.  The arts connect us to other human beings.  The arts provide instrumental benefits.  So what's up?

One of the greatest challenges for the arts is that there aren't many efficiencies that can help reduce costs.  Beethoven's 5th Symphony takes as many players and as much time as it did in the early 19th century.  Romeo and Juliet's "two hour's traffic" hasn't gotten shorter in the intervening centuries.  As most of our readers know, the arts take money.

The challenge for people in authority is to justify money spent on the arts in lieu of other choices.  And that returns us to where we started.


If you want to argue for the arts in practical terms, you may lose as often as you win.  The problem is that, in a sense, the arts are impractical.  But also remember this truth:

A necessary thing need not also be practical.

We forget that truth at our peril.  If our chief concern is but to feed and to keep the rain from our heads, we should probably give up very much in our lives.  But what makes us human is the need to follow our Creator by being creative ourselves and to reach out to other humans with our thoughts, feelings, hearts, minds, and souls – to give expression to the idea that, "Here is how I see the world, how I hear the world, how the world moves underneath my legs and arms, and the stories that make the world a place for all that is human."

The undiscovered country is the unfathomed and unfathomable totality of the human experience.  It is necessary to boldly explore that terra incognita.  Every day. With every ounce of creative energy.

The job of education is to bring a person into the world, into a culture, into a society.  That's what we do as artists.

They need us.   

[i] Assistance in understanding and framing these issues came from Kevin McCarthy, Elizabeth Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, Rand Corporation, funded by the Wallace Foundation, 2004.

[ii] A few words about "art," since it's such a wide-ranging word.  "Everything is art," some folks say.  No, everything isn't.  Sorry. A hurricane isn't art.  Cancer isn't an art.  It might give impetus to the production of art, but cancer isn't an art. So everything isn't art, and please don't say so.  "Everything can be art."  Well, maybe. I tend to work from a definition of art that I modified from Joyce who modified Aquinas who modified Aristotle. I argue that art is a process of perceiving something that has unity, radiance, and links artist to audience.  I realize that this is short on its own, but just go with me on this one.

[iii]James Lichtenberg, Christopher Woock, and Mary Wright, Ready to Innovate, Conference Board, 2008.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives



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