Ben Cameron and the Arts

1/31/2014

In a time of hard economic choices, with so many worthy causes competing not only for attention but for public subsidies, why should we care about the arts? It’s a fair question and one that arts advocates have been struggling to answer for decades. With the advent of new systems for gathering data, the arts community is increasingly articulate about our real economic power.

A recent report from Philadelphia - a city characterized by a robust community of government, individual and foundation art supporters and one slightly larger than Phoenix in population - reveals that the arts community there now accounts for $3.3 billion in local economic activity, supports 44,000 full-time jobs (roughly 80 percent of which lie outside the arts proper - jobs like accountants, construction workers, caterers and more) and stimulates an average of $30 of expenditures per person per event above and beyond the price of a ticket, the vast majority spent outside the arts venue. Twenty-nine percent of patrons come from outside the region, and 44 percent of tourists to the Philadelphia area list the arts as their No. 1 reason to visit, ranking it above vacationing, visiting friends and engaging in business. As the National Endowment for the Arts has said in its punning way: “Art Works” - and arts advocates can prove it.

Moreover, studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Stanford have long linked the arts to improving educational performance in students - promoting complexity of thinking, verbal acuity, reductions in absenteeism, greater tolerance of ambiguity, greater self-esteem. Arts-inclined students are more likely to run for class office, more likely to participate in math and science fairs, and far more likely to graduate from high school than students not involved in the arts.

No one today would challenge the importance of math and science as core academic disciplines, but sole emphasis on these disciplines fails to promote the integrated left/right brain thinking that the future increasingly demands - an integration that has led Mike Huckabee to compare a math and science curriculum without the arts to a database without a server.

For good reasons, arts advocates today can stand proudly and say, “If you care about local economies, you must care about the educational achievement of your children, you must care about the arts.” Indeed, in an age of numbing homogenization, a time of interchangeable fast-food franchises, hotel chains, retail superstores and cineplexes, the arts confer unique distinctions on communities. While Golden Arches span highways coast to coast, only in Greater Phoenix can we experience Childsplay or the Musical Instrument Museum, see the work of students through Young Arts Arizona or experience the vibrant range of arts in every discipline, embracing every community.

So, what’s the struggle? Frankly, while these benefits are enormous, few of us say, “Gee, honey, if we go to the local theater tonight, it will generate up to $30 in income for local businesses, attract tourists and drive SAT scores up by more than 100 points.” We participate in the arts - whether as consumers or as practitioners ourselves through singing in choirs or writing poetry or painting pictures - because of a basic human need for inspiration, delight, joy. The arts allow us to relax, to escape, to be moved and to form social bonds with others with whom this experience is shared.

Indeed, after decades of measuring the extrinsic benefits of the arts, those benefits that come to us through the presence of the arts in our communities, we are at the outset of measuring the intrinsic power of the arts, the way they nourish and alter our psychic and emotional landscapes. It is time to combine these extrinsic and intrinsic arguments, to let go of an arts agenda and seize a new civic agenda instead.

Peter Coleman’s “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts” examines moments in which societies get stuck, whether situations like the Middle East or debates about abortion rights and the role of religion in secular society. He argues that such situations are fed by oversimplification of issues, by a competitive win-lose dynamic, and by a dependence on self-reinforcing feedback loops that entrench beliefs and disqualify alternative perspectives - dynamics that surely resonate for observers of our legislative branch in Washington, D.C.

The arts offer an antidote to the intractable, offering nuance in the face of simplification, cooperation in the face of competition. And in the face of reinforcing feedback loops, the arts encourage us to come together with people whose beliefs and lives may be different from our own, to listen deeply, and to celebrate the things that bind us together instead of retreating behind the things that drive us apart.

Yes, as advocates, we must continue to argue for the economic and educational impact of the arts. But if we wish civic decisions to advance community health and not be judged solely on market viability, we must seize our roles of community building, healing and listening as we operate most powerfully, not solely in a market economy, but in an economy of meaning. The power of the arts to promote meaning and to create social bonds is undeniable, whether we make art together or consume it. Think of how singing “We Shall Overcome” instantly bound us together in the march for racial equality, or how singing the national anthem at political rallies and sporting events solidifies our common identity. In a time when we are encouraged to view others with hostility and fear and suspicion, the arts gather audiences to regard their fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity.

Supporting the arts defines the kind of community in which we wish to live, raise our children, offer to others to visit or make their homes - a community in which arts and medical care, arts and food shelves, arts and homeless shelters are part of a common agenda to civic health. Especially in a time of international conflict and an increasingly fractious civic discourse, we cannot forget that, whatever else we as an arts community do, we honor the past, commemorate the present, and shape and change the future in a way that does honor to all and violence to none. Our country has never needed this power more.

‘THOUGHT LEADER IN RESIDENCE’ The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust this week is launching a new initiative, “Thought Leader in Residence,” that brings internationally recognized thought leaders to the community. Piper Trust Thought Leaders share expertise on significant issues and help generate ideas that strengthen the quality of life in Maricopa County. Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, is the Piper Trust’s inaugural Thought Leader in Residence. His residency is about how arts and culture matter for communities.

This article appeared in the Arizona Republic, March 9, 2013. Reprinted here with permission.


 
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