Take the Arts Out of the Box

I once said to a gubernatorial candidate, “I want you to take the arts out of the box you’ve put them in and think about it differently.” The state senator who had set up the meeting looked at me like I was crazy. I knew I was in risky territory. This was an elected official who wasn’t an “arts” guy. You wouldn’t find him at the symphony, opera, museum or theatre, at least not willingly. I knew I had to approach asking for his support in a different way. We went on to discuss the place of artists in rural communities, the economic impact of small arts businesses in closed schools and abandoned store fronts, access to arts education for at-risk children in poverty and the inspiration the arts can be to keep kids in school. We talked about how government funding can mandate access. He talked about his daughter who was a visual artist.

Long story short, it was a successful conversation and laid the groundwork for eight years of his support after he was elected governor. But it began with my realization that this individual had a very narrow view about the arts that I represented and believed artists impacted a very small percentage of people in his state. He wasn’t thinking about neighborhood or community festivals, music on the football field, the organist in his church, the children performing plays at school, the graphic design for his business logo or the interior designer who remodeled the historic home where we were meeting. None of that came to mind when I mentioned, “the arts.”

This was about 20 years ago and today, in my role as executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts, I see funders, artists and arts organizations working “outside the box” in increasing numbers with growing support. We are talking about the power of the arts to teach, inform, celebrate and inspire.  There isn’t a segment of our society (environmental, medicine, history, architecture, human services, military, education, commerce and more) that isn’t reliant and/or supported by artists in some way. Whole industries and associations have grown up around artists working in “other places.”

This year, at Grantmakers in the Arts, we will dig deeper into the role of artists in healthcare and aging by participating in a Health, Aging and the Arts Strategic Session with Grantmakers in Health and Grantmakers in Aging. We will host a preconference on the same subject at our annual conference in Miami. Organizations like the National Center for Creative Aging and the Society of for Arts and Healthcare are the wealth of information on successful programs using artists in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes to help those in need but also in healthy aging in retirement communities. This is just one segment of society where artists are making a difference.

When we think and talk about the arts, it is helpful to take them “out of the box” that most Americans have put them in and talk about arts in our own lives, in the lives of all Americans, in our churches, our schools, our neighborhood festivals, and as a “safety net” for peoples whose art has lifted them out of poverty and despair and into hope. It all forms the eco-system in which we operate, whether you’re in the box or out of it.