Unmasking the Hidden Attraction of the Arts

Bill O’Brien

Over the past few decades, arts advocates have toiled diligently to support and sustain the arts in a climate that has not always felt very welcoming. Culture wars, economic recessions, technological disruptions, accusations of elitism, and (most frightening, perhaps) the perceived menace of societal indifference have at times all conspired to create an impression for many of an arts ecology under perpetual threat.

Champions of the arts have rallied to counter these challenges by campaigning vigorously to increase public appreciation and support for the arts. Driven by a deep belief in the integral role that the arts should play within larger societal contexts, congressional email campaigns, annual fund drives, numerous foundation initiatives, and organized public and private efforts have rallied to defend the arts in the face of these perceived threats.

Defenders of the arts have played a crucial part in safeguarding the role that the arts and artists play in fostering our nation’s culture. They have fought for the right for free expression and for expanded opportunities for participation in the arts, effectively embedding these as core principles that have helped guide the arts sectors down a more well-defined and principled path. They have accomplished much, and their efforts should be applauded. Nonetheless, it can be dispiriting for some to consider that after all this hard work and effort, evidence of significant increased public engagement, support, and interest in the arts can often seem so hard to feel or find.

Could it be that these well-worn arguments have occupied so much of our attention and focus that they may have distracted us from noticing a groundswell of interest in the arts emanating out of new and unexpected places?

Are We More Attractive Than We Thought We Were?

Our natural tendency has been to look inward in our attempts to gauge the national appetite for the arts. When we notice declining attendance at the arts events we have been working so hard to support, it can be easy to assume that this is an indicator of decreased appreciation for the arts as a whole. This, in turn, can leave us somewhat exasperated in regard to how we should respond. As the late Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come down to the ball park, how are you going to stop ’em?”

There is no question that we should continue to do everything we can to help build and sustain the well-being of our arts sectors, but nonetheless, when we point our antennae in the other direction, away from the concerns about our own health and vitality, the narrative around the attractiveness of the arts across the broader society can take on a surprisingly more positive tone. This can be particularly true when we look for evidence of outside interest in how the arts can partner with other sectors to help solve some of the most complex problems of our day. While we would all feel better if more people were engaging in the local arts offerings we strive hard to support, a person’s lack of participation in these programs does not necessarily mean they are not interested in the arts. And if we come to a deeper understanding of the personal value that these people actually do feel for the arts, we may find ways to connect better with more people in ways that matter more to them.

For example, during the past decade or so there has been a tremendous amount of energy swirling around the need to boost our national capacity in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM). A consensus has developed that we should be concerned about our ability to keep pace in these areas so we can compete better with the rest of the world as we navigate our way through the disruptive transition toward more technological, digital, and information-based economies. These issues resonate in ways that cut across multiple domains of government, industry, and education. They also reverberate on very personal levels for many. All parents want their children to be equipped to succeed in these emerging workplaces. It can be a challenge to understand the skills they will need to thrive in jobs that have not yet been invented, but the ability to imagine solutions to problems as they emerge is becoming more and more recognized as a key skill set for the future. And the role that the arts can play in helping to foster these skills is becoming more broadly appreciated.

The STEM to STEAM movement is attempting to coalesce these swirling energies by inserting the “A for Arts” into STEM as a means to promote a more creative, imaginative, and problem-solving workforce. Researchers and practitioners from across the arts, humanities, sciences, and technologies are increasingly interested in crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries to draw upon multiple domains of knowledge and technical expertise to unleash greater potential to advance the nation’s health, productivity, and quality of life.

In 2011 Resolution 319 (112th Congress) was introduced “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that adding art and design into Federal programs that target the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields encourages innovation and economic growth in the United States.” In 2013, the Congressional STEAM Caucus was formed to advocate for policy changes that will encourage educators to integrate arts with traditional STEM curriculum. These aims just received a significant boost in December 2015, when No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. At the behest of the STEAM Caucus, the new act includes an integration of arts in STEM programs among its new priorities, which will almost certainly prove to be a significant boon to broader inclusion of arts in education.

There are core issues and concerns at the heart of both the arts and sciences that suggest they could be very effective and highly aligned teammates in these areas. One side (STEM) has the need to encourage broad participation of diverse populations in these new economies deeply embedded in its DNA. The other (the arts) is naturally inclined and uniquely equipped to leverage cultural engagement across diverse communities and to close performance gaps for high-needs groups. Both sides want to enable diverse populations to be active participants in achieving their own American Dream. If we fail, disparity, inequity, and social upheaval will surely follow to create new “wicked problems” that will affect practically everyone. But if we can align these goals in a shared mission, the impacts and gains could be felt broadly across the entire population.

These concerns transcend ideological and political boundaries. The narrative shifts from an argument about whether we are proposing subsidies or wealth redistribution to focusing instead on broadening participation in vibrant economies. There is mounting excitement around how these platforms can create opportunities for everyone from across various ideological divides to cheer for the same thing, and increasing anticipation for what could be accomplished if these Wonder Twin powers could more effectively activate!

Intellectual Clarity from Emotional Chaos

The role that the arts can play in improving health care is also garnering significant new attention. But the roots of these emerging strategies may reach all the way back to one of the world’s most prolific and ancient transdisciplinarians. While artists may be most familiar with his work as one of the most influential drama critics that ever lived, Aristotle began his studies in medicine, and his work in biology and other sciences had a profound influence on the development of the scientific method. He probably did not consider art and psychological health as separate and unrelated concerns when he considered the outcome of catharsis as “bringing intellectual clarity from emotional chaos.”

More recently, the military has embraced these attributes of the arts as a key contributor in helping to confront one of the most urgent current health issues facing service members returning from combat. In the past, the Military Health System has accelerated numerous health innovations as it struggled to respond to various specific issues threatening the health of our men and women in uniform. The namesake of the National Military Medical Center, Walter Reed, helped enable the military to complete the Panama Canal when he discovered that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes. Recent advances in areas like prosthetics, tourniquets, and trauma care have improved combat survival rates and post-combat functionality in ways that are already translating into improved care in civilian health care settings.

The signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, have created enormous health challenges for our current standing military. The spiritual and existential nature of these “invisible wounds” presents unique challenges for traditional treatments and medicines, which has led to robust investigations across the Military Health System into how complementary medicines such as acupuncture, yoga, and canine therapy can be woven into new integrative, patient-centered approaches.

In 2011 the US Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts entered into a Healing Arts Partnership to investigate the role that Creative Arts Therapies could play in these efforts, and the results have been encouraging. These benefits are being felt not just in the art rooms but across the entire integrative care system in the improvement of communication and understanding among the patients and caregivers across the entire medical spectrum.

In November these sentiments were echoed at a “Show of Strength” ceremony at the Pentagon celebrating efforts by service members utilizing arts in their healing efforts. The event was hosted by Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Woodson, who serves as the secretary of defense’s primary advisor on health. Dr. Woodson applauded the expansion of the Healing Arts Partnership as an example of “the finest institutions in America coming together to aid in the healing of wounded warriors.” Deputy Assistant Secretary James Rodriguez added, “It is safe to say we are all just beginning to understand how engagement in the arts can change lives of military members affected by traumatic brain injury to post-traumatic stress syndrome and other conditions. We know [the arts] can be an extremely powerful tool in assisting with recovery.”

As I write this, Congress and the Obama administration have just demonstrated that they agree by supporting an increase of 1.9 million dollars to help support the programs of the NEA, particularly as it expands its work with military service members and the arts.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In his keynote address at the 2014 GIA national conference in Houston, Steven Tepper laid out a convincing narrative of how the focus of the nonprofit arts sector has shifted over the past fifty years. He proposed that the sector’s initial primary focus was on “excellence,” then “access,” and suggested we are now at a point where we should emphasize “impact.” This is a particularly compelling argument to consider as we seek to measure the value of the arts as it becomes more engaged with other sectors in confronting issues of high societal priority. In the past few months, we have seen numerous high-profile efforts aimed at advancing these goals.

The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) staged a convening in November to investigate ways of “Improving and Supporting Practice in the Third Space.” Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, attendees from higher education, government, industry, and elsewhere investigated ways to collaboratively drive arts-integrated transdisciplinary initiatives. In the words of Laurie Baefsky, executive director of a2ru, “we have an imperative as educators to provide a creative and imaginative environment for students and faculty to cross-pollinate beyond their chosen fields in order to cultivate the skills and solutions needed to tackle 21st century challenges.”

In November in Irvine, California, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative convened “Art and Science, Engineering, and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization.” The conference brought together a diverse group of participants to explore how arts, design, sciences, engineering, and medicine can stimulate “a renaissance of innovation that solves real-world problems.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a workshop in December titled “Integrating Education in the Arts and Humanities with Education in Science, Engineering, Technology and Medicine.” This workshop, also supported by Mellon, gathered faculty from higher education with health professionals, scientists, business leaders, federal agency officials, congressional staff, artists, and humanists to explore the benefits of more integrated educational experiences across STEM, arts, and humanities in education and workforce development.

Artists Learn (and Teach) by Doing

In June 2015, Janet Brown from Grantmakers in the Arts and I were invited to attend a convening supported by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the Nevada Museum of Art under the title “Perspectives: Examining Complex Ecological Dynamics through Arts, Humanities and Science Integration.” The attendees sought to expand interdisciplinary efforts that could advance our understanding of how the arts and humanities could contribute not only to outreach and education efforts but to solving grand challenges facing ecological and social-ecological ecosystems “with greater power and insight than each discipline can offer in isolation.”

One of the artist teams who attended, Helen and Newton Harrison, have been working closely with scientists and ecologists for decades and have developed a strong working knowledge across these domains. They have suggested that a core focus of this discourse has to do with identifying and clarifying “content.” In their view, advances in understanding and knowledge have to do with seeing, “in the sense of a new envisioning that evokes a question of originality about something not previously spoken.” They argued that these insights can lead to powerful new content that is the result of asking, then setting out to answer a question that turns out to be of great consequence, and that this is true of both the arts and sciences.

One of the biggest questions posed by the growing interest and potential at these intersections has to do with what these advances might look like on the ground. In other words, how do we execute all of this in our classrooms, clinics, art venues, and labs? Supporting and elevating these examples can help us comprehend (or “see”) these new impacts and provide beacons to guide other engaged parties along a path that can help bring them to scale.

This fall, NEA Chairman Jane Chu launched a new funding opportunity as part of the NEA’s Creativity Connects initiative to support and elevate the best of these new crosscutting approaches. With an application deadline of March 3, 2016, the new initiative will support projects that focus on partnerships between arts organizations and organizations from non-arts sectors that can include business, education, environment, faith, finance, food, health, law, science, and technology. There is potential for all of us to learn a great deal about the role that the arts can play in solving problems and capturing opportunities across these sectors when these projects launch in 2017.

As all these transdisciplinary energies continue to swirl and build, we may also learn how to form more proactive and compelling narratives about the role that the arts can play in larger society. This is not to suggest that we diminish our support and appreciation for the role that free expression should continue to play in advancing the cultural character of the nation. Most artists may not be drawn to redirect their focus in a way that winds up being more transdisciplinary in nature, and they should not feel compelled to do so. However, some of them are naturally pursuing crosscutting efforts out of their own sense of purpose and inspiration, and when they do, the list of eager collaborators from other sectors wanting to throw in with them on these shared efforts seems to be growing. And ultimately, when we join forces with others to help solve issues of common concern, we resonate with more people on issues they care deeply about and create a new narrative around why everyone should be supportive of the arts. Support for the arts in these contexts can be seen as an investment, rather than a gift. Perhaps this could lead to healthier conversations, more robust engagement, and increased interest (and by extension, health) for our arts and creative sectors as we continue to make advances on our collective ability to confront the world’s most wicked challenges.

Best of all, when we approach a challenge in common concert with partners from other domains with tools in hand, ready to contribute, we don’t come to the table asking for help. We bring it!