Stop Pretending The Arts Don’t Matter
“Is anyone here an artist?” It’s a question I ask when I’m giving talks or presentations to groups around our community. Usually, only a few hands (if any) half-heartedly creep into the air and then disappear before anyone else around them can notice.
“OK,” I’ll say. “How many like to photograph your children, your vacation, a beautiful sunset?” Hands shoot proudly into the air. “And how many like to get creative in the kitchen preparing a special meal or enjoy fashioning a beautiful garden?” More hands. “Anyone here write a blog or are into DIY projects?” Even more hands. “Folks,” I say, like a doctor delivering bad news, “Sorry I have to tell you this. You’re artists.”
Why is it that we love expressing ourselves creatively but resist being called an artist? Many of us play tennis or like to golf, and when asked will readily admit to being a tennis player or golfer even though we’re not on par with Serena Williams or Tiger Woods. But mention the ‘a’ word when friends show you their remarkable garden or a beautiful piece of furniture they’ve created, and you usually get an answer like; “Me? Oh, no! Not me; I’m not an artist,” as if the thought is unthinkable?
It’s the same with arts organizations. People want and enjoy arts experiences; surveys routinely show that a majority of Americans engage in arts and culture and other creative activities on a regular basis. Yet despite this high engagement, arts and culture continue to be seen as “a nicety rather than a necessity.”
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment at home. Ask someone you know: “Do you enjoy the arts?” If they say they don’t really like artsy stuff, ask them what they do enjoy. Do they enjoy listening to music? When they “go out,” what types of events do they like to attend? When they go on vacation, what types of places do they visit? Their favorite shows? You’ll find they enjoy arts and culture, but don’t think to call it that.
In the national study “Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists,” conducted by the Urban Institute in 2003, 96 percent of those surveyed said they were greatly inspired and moved by various kinds of art. But only 27 percent of respondents said that arts providers contribute a lot to the good of society. We want the experiences; we just don’t think to acknowledge or support the providers of those experiences.
Many people believe that we can get along fine without art; it’s not a priority in light of so many other pressing needs in our society. When schools face budget shortfalls, anything labeled as art is usually first on the chopping block. This is in spite of fact that study after study shows that students, especially underserved and at-risk students, who have arts-rich experiences in school have better attendance and do better across the board academically. In an analysis of the Department of Education’s database of 25,000 students, those students with high levels of arts participation outperform “arts-poor” students by virtually every measure, and this is especially true for students from high-poverty schools. Learning in and through the arts can help level the playing field for students from disadvantaged circumstances. It’s the most effective equalizer, and yet it’s usually the first item to go when budget issues arise.
How about in the community? Other than making our community a nicer place to live, how important are the arts? According to municipalities facing the prospect of tax increases, not as important as other services. And yet, in a recent study by the Knight Foundation, opportunities to engage with arts and culture was among the top reasons people chose where to relocate and whether they stayed in that community. The arts are also an important economic driver of the local economy. Over the past year, the Cultural Alliance of York County funded 49 different organizations/artists in our community. Those 49 organizations generated $12,746,251 in economic impact and supported 418 jobs.
All across the country, the conversation is changing from what the arts need to what they can provide. In cities and towns just like York, the arts are being recognized as a way to address community issues creatively. This is due in large part to national funders like Artplace America, which has invested $56.8 million in projects that engage artists to shape the future of communities of all sizes across the U.S. As Jamie Bennett, executive director of Artplace America, states, “Not every city has a great waterfront. Not every downtown has big anchor stores. Not every town has a sports complex. But every community has artists.”
York, you have art. And you have artists. The work of artists inspires, celebrates, mourns, commemorates and causes us to question aspects of contemporary life and the human condition. It reflects the diversity, aspirations, hopes, fears and contradictions of our society. October is National Arts and Humanities Month. I hope you reflect on the impact that art has made on your life, on who you are as a person. I hope you agree that the arts do matter, to all of us. If you do, show it. I challenge you to show your support for the arts on social media. Post a photo of something you’ve created, enjoy or find inspiring using the hashtag #ShowYourArt.
Lastly, I hope you will join me at our annual meeting at the Agricultural and Industrial Museum on Oct. 25 from 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. to hear from our keynote speaker Jamie Bennett from Artplace America about the vital role that the arts can play in York’s economic and cultural transformation. And I hope to see your hand proudly raised in the air when I ask, “Is anyone here an artist?”
Mary Anne Winkelman is president of the Cultural Alliance of York County.