Transforming communities through the arts

Transforming communities through the arts

// By Jacqueline Brennan

Americans for the Arts, a sponsor of Upswell, is a nonprofit whose primary focus is to advance the arts and art education in the United States. They work every day to ensure that people have the tools they need to transform their communities through the arts. Their mission is to build recognition and support for the extraordinary and dynamic value of the arts and to lead, serve, and advance the diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate the arts in America.

We asked Robert L. Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts and Independent Sector Board member, about their efforts to ensure that the arts always play an important role at the decision-making table through research, advocacy, connection, and leadership.

Q: What about Upswell are you looking forward to most?

RL: Upswell brings together leaders from across sectors to look at how they can address the most pressing issues in communities. I am looking forward to engaging with my peers around how the arts can be a part of the solution. Through our Arts Partnership, we are bringing in artists like Vijay Gupta who uses his music to address homelessness in Los Angeles through the Street Symphony, and Tanya Aguiñiga who shines a spotlight on issues of immigration and other social issues and uses her art to create dialogue and build community. All of the artists participating in the conference demonstrate the important role the arts can play in transforming America’s communities.

Q: How does Americans for the Arts help build stronger and more equitable communities?

RL: As our communities continue to evolve, all of us must recognize inequities and continuously work to find ways to achieve greater access to a full, vibrant cultural life. The arts and artists have long played a critical and prominent role in confronting inequities and encouraging alternatives. They have empowered communities from within and built bridges among different ones. We lift up the artists and arts organizations that have long been involved in this work, and provide resources to the arts organizations that are working to build and fund more equitable communities.

Q: What is the role of your organization’s Arts Mobilization Center?

RL: One of the recent changes we’ve made to our advocacy at Americans for the Arts was to increase the speed at which we mobilize our grassroots advocates. With the arrival of the new federal administration in 2017, we found that our advocates demanded faster information in order to understand many of the policy proposals being made at the White House – and how Congress might respond to them. So we added an “Arts Mobilization Center” section to our website that collects news, statements, and fresh research in response to new policy and advocacy challenges that enabled us to explain, for example, that the White House and Office of Management and Budget proposal to terminate the National Endowment for the Arts was only a first step proposal, and that Congress would have the final word on that proposal, and many others that impact our arts and arts education sector. Our advocates were not satisfied with reading our response and plans in the traditional monthly newsletter; they wanted to know what was happening in real-time, and how they could be put to work in response.

Q: What is the Arts + Social Impact Explorer, and how does it help expand the dialogue about the arts?

RL: We realized that, while we fully believe that the arts have great intrinsic value and are essential to improve the perceived public value of the arts, we must connect into the places where people find value. The Arts + Social Impact Explorer is designed as an entry point to the research, projects, and support organizations that exist at the intersection of the arts and various parts of our community such as health and wellness, or diversity, equity, and inclusion. It creates an experience that can scale from casual surfing to deep exploration of a topic—you can glean a starting set of information in five minutes or can follow the embedded hyperlinks (up to 20 per subject area) to visit the websites of all the example projects, access the research referenced, and engage directly with the other partners doing this work around the country. With the Explorer, we aim to make it easier to see the ways that the arts can—and do—permeate community life, and we hope that this provides advocates and leaders with the information and research they need to make that impact visible and encourage deep investment in the arts through pro-arts policy and pro-arts funding.

Q: What does the recent public opinion poll reveal about trends in engagement with the arts?

RL: In September 2018, Americans for the Arts published Americans Speak Out About the Arts in 2018, one of the largest national public opinion surveys on the arts ever conducted. The study shows that Americans remain highly engaged in the arts, with nearly three-quarters of the adult population (72 percent) attending an arts or cultural event last year, such as the theater, museum, zoo, or a musical performance. There is near universal support for arts education with 91 percent agreeing that the arts are part of a well-rounded K-12 education, and 94 percent believing that the arts should be taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Perhaps the most powerful findings relevant to the current social and political divisiveness is that 73 percent agree that the arts “helps me understand other cultures better,” and 72 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity.”

Q: You recently released the results of a survey with The Conference Board. What do the results reveal for future support for the arts?

RL: Businesses are continuing to look at how their work impacts their bottom line. Businesses are also getting more strategic about looking at the social impact of their partnerships. Arts organizations will continue to need to drive home the message about the role they can play in addressing key business and community goals. The arts have a unique ability to address creativity in the workforce and this remains an important business objective. In our joint study, Business Contributions to the Arts: 2018 Edition, more than half of respondents overall (53 percent) reported that arts support contributes to stimulating creative thinking and problem solving. This aligns with data from the recent public opinion poll where 55 percent of employed adults say their job requires them to “be creative and come up with ideas that are new and unique.” An even greater proportion (60 percent) say that the more creative and innovative they are at their job, the more successful they are in the workplace. The joint study results show that business support for the arts now and in the future is critical to encouraging more partnerships between the business community and arts organizations, which can improve community quality of life and help attract and retain a skilled workforce.

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