Demonstrating the Social Impact of the Arts

“Whether it is health, education, economy, or faith, the arts improve our communities and our lives, and they lend themselves to practical, solution-oriented philosophies to bind us socially and improve the world in which we live.”

When Todd Eric Hawkins was asked by his local radio station to do an interview about the healing power of arts in the community, he thought it would be easy. As executive director for the Department of Arts and Culture in Irving, Texas, as well as head of the Irving Arts Center, he was no doubt an expert, with more than ten years of arts community engagement experience. But he was not deeply versed in the connection between the arts, pain management, and health trauma, and it became clear he needed more knowledge before doing the interview.

So, Hawkins turned to Americans for the Arts’ Arts + Social Impact Explorer, a first-of-its-kind online primer of top-line research, example projects, and national support organizations related to the wide-reaching impact of the arts in 26 different social sectors. The Arts + Social Impact Explorer consolidates and highlights concrete ways in which the arts intersect with and have an impact on other sectors of society.

After paging through five sections on how the arts impact community health, Hawkins—an expert on the community-building power of the arts—discovered new examples. He learned how the arts help people with cancer cope with stress through painting, assist people with Parkinson’s increase their vocal strength through singing, and support patients undergoing treatment or unable to leave their beds with live, in-room performances.

Whether it is health, education, economy, or faith, the arts improve our communities and our lives, and they lend themselves to practical, solution-oriented philosophies to bind us socially and improve the world in which we live.

pinwheel graphic entitled "Arts and Social Impact Explorer"
Polling has shown that the majority of Americans do not immediately consider the arts’ impact in community development and other critical societal areas. Americans for the Arts’ Social Impact Explorer helps decision makers and community members identify and understand 26 areas of positive impact. Courtesy of Americans for the Arts.

Connecting the arts to community transformation
Public opinion polling by the research firm Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Americans for the Arts, compiled for the new report Americans Speak Out about the Arts in 2018, shows promising news and challenges facing public opinion of the arts:

  • Americans remain highly engaged in the arts. Nearly three-quarters of adults (72 percent) attended an arts or cultural event last year, such as a theater, museum, or festival. 
  • There is near universal support for arts education, with 91 percent agreeing the arts are part of a well-rounded education, while 94 percent believe the arts should be taught in grades K–12. 
  • Moreover, 73 percent of respondents agree 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.”

However, the same poll found the arts are challenged by competing priorities in the country—with the research indicating arts and culture are neglected in ways that could have significant impact. For instance, only one out of four Americans donate to the arts.

Americans highly value the arts, but when presented with a list of community issues, respondents cited job security, housing, and public safety as the top three. And when asked whether the arts could be a solution to addressing these concerns, the percentage of people who said yes was low.

In short, the impact of the arts in community development, and its intersection with so many critical issues, is not a natural association to most Americans.

The Arts + Social Impact Explorer is a crucial tool to change that reality. When people connect their core issues to the arts, and when they learn the impact the arts can have, they are more likely to support arts funding, integration, and pro-arts policy. In fact, Americans Speak Out about the Arts in 2018 shows associating arts funding with a pressing non-arts issue can increase support by up to 25%.

performers on stage with an American flag behind a cage of bars
Diavolo’s The Veterans Project: A Long Journey Home, which uses dance and performance to address trauma and help transition service members back into civilian life, is among the “Arts + Military” examples of practice on the Social Impact Explorer. Courtesy of Diavolo.

So how does it work?
The Arts + Social Impact Explorer is designed as a gateway to research, projects, and support organizations. The goal is to enable people to extract key information at a quick glance, helping users visualize how the arts permeate community life while providing leaders what they need to make visible impact.

Perhaps you want to find ways to engage veterans in your community. Visit the Arts + Social Impact Explorer and click on the Military tab. You will get a micro-summary on that intersection, and if you click “Learn More,” you will see more information and a downloadable Fact Sheet to share with a stakeholder, which includes impact points, examples of practice, additional readings, and a list of core organizations working in each sector.

All told, there are more than 1,000 independent data points, examples, and links compiled to fundamentally change attitudes of decision makers around arts and culture.

And why is it important? The arts make more things possible. Through polling research like Americans Speak Out about the Arts in 2018 and tools like the Arts + Social Impact Explorer, we can make that reality visible to community members and decision makers across the country.

Robert L. Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for the Artsa national advocacy organization for the arts.

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