Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Arts and Civic Health

Low income people and communities deserve and appreciate beauty.

The trouble is beauty can be expensive.

At times beauty follows people and places of “perceived” value. I know that sounds harsh, but let’s face it: our culture and the operative rules of our civic life evaluate people, often arbitrarily, to determine who deserves what and how much.

Yet, art is essential to life regardless of personal net worth or level of formal educational attainment.

As a result, “poor” people create and express themselves artistically continually. But budget issues often curtail the development of sustainable artistic expression and the community institutions that place art at the forefront of community life for all communities and persons.

Recently, I read a published report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entitled The Arts and Civic Engagement. The report establishes the clear connection between participation in the arts and positive individual and civic behaviors.

Even more telling was the difference in behavior and civic engagement between arts participants and non-participants.

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA sums up the study’s findings, “Arts participants, especially readers, engage in positive civic and individual activities—from exercise to charity work, from hiking to amateur sports league attendance—at strikingly higher rates than non-participants. . . .Healthy communities depend on active citizens. The arts play an irreplaceable role in producing both those citizens and communities.”

The details of the study are interesting. Here are the “10 Key Findings”--

1. Literary readers and classical or jazz radio listeners attend arts events at higher rates (over 3 times as often) than non-readers and non-listeners.

2. Literary readers and arts participants engage in sports more readily than non-readers and non-participants (about twice are frequently).

3. By every other measure, arts participants are more physically active (almost twice as likely to take part in exercise and outdoor activities).

4. People who participate in the arts are almost 3 times more likely to be creative themselves, to take part in creative activities.

5. Readers and arts participants are twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.

6. Performing arts attendance by young adults is waning.

7. Young adult literary reading has dropped dramatically—down 16% since 1982.

8. Young adults listen to classical and jazz radio less than they did ten years ago (down 8 and 12% respectively).

9. Young adults are also less involved in sports and are less physically active over the same period.

10. Volunteerism among young adults has declined by 3.5% since 1992.

The study, conducted by the U. S. Census Bureau, interviewed 17,135 adults, ages 18 and over. The response rate was 70%. The research was not correlated to economic status, a factor that no doubt impacts participation and access to the arts.

As I read over the report, it struck me just how important beauty, artistic expression and participation in the arts are to community health. Social capital gathers around and emerges from the enjoyment of the arts.

And, books are incredibly important to human and community development! Possibly the very best thing parents, neighborhood activists, teachers, and other leaders can do to insure the growth of healthier communities is to promote, endorse and make possible the development and deepening of reading skills and a community-wide commitment to reading.

People need books.

Anything we can do to increase the access of books to children, youth and adults will be a victory for our communities.

Art declares that people really matter, that each of us has a story and that locked inside everyone is genuine treasure just waiting to get out or to be touched and stimulated.

Novels, poetry, non-fiction, painting, sculpture, music (all genres), photography, videography, film, dance, drama, sports, performance—these are the building blocks of civic life and authentic community.

The recent public policy trends to de-fund arts programs are shortsighted and down right stupid, if community health and adequate education are even any longer among our goals as a people.

In my view, how we regard the arts says a great deal about how we value and regard one another across our various neighborhoods in cities like Dallas.


RC said...

You amaze me at your ability to both see the big picture and find the research to back up your insights. I think that the recent flap over the "Kramer" outburst might actually be used to bring about some good in the very area of which your write. I was pleased at the call of African-American leaders to encourage artists to stop using the "'n" word. So much of what young people feed their minds is so counter productive. This call to ban one word should only be the beginning. I would love to see these same leaders to expand their concern from a single word to the entire message that seems to saturate the minds of young people across all social and economic backgrounds. My wife is a librarian in a middle class largely minority student body. She complains often of the students almost total lack of desire to read. My fear is that the vacume is being filled with all of the wrong kinds of art, especially music. She is frustrated as she seeks to get middle schoolers interested is something other than rap music which seems to be little more than music which has little or no redeeming value.

Unknown said...

I taught elementary music for DISD my first year out of college. Art and music programs were treated with little respect and were cut or done away with completely at campuses right and left. It was a frustrating experience. At one point, I showed up at my second school to find all my supplies had been removed from the classroom I shared with the gifted and talented teacher and dumped in one huge pile in the middle of the stage in the auditorium. I had a class in 5 minutes. The "stage" was my "classroom" for the rest of the year. (let's just hope the first graders don't fall off the edge during creative movement!) There was no budget for instruments or quality supplies. This was almost 10 years ago, but I suspect the same problem exsists in DISD today.

jocelyn said...


It's so interesting that you posted this today after I've recently had a long conversation about this with one of my colleagues. I'm a theater artist by vocation, but I also feel called into ministry to the marginalized in society. The interesting thing, though, is that I feel like my calling and my vocation are the same: to minister to the poor, the outcast, and the needy through the art of theater, both by teaching people to express themselves creatively and by presenting stimulating productions that inspire deep thought and conversation. Communities are formed by and built around the art that is produced.

To me, providing access to the arts is as imporant as feeding and clothing people; the arts humanize us, separate us from animals, and those who are on the outside need to be respected as humans who are capable of loving and creating beauty. These are my dreams, though it's not so easy to move to a new town and just DO these things.

Thank you for supporting the arts and artists as valuable members of the community and for recognizing the deep need we all have to see, understand, and participate in the arts.

Anonymous said...

I agree, art is important but my son graduated from college 3 years ago with a degree in acting, directing and producing. So far he hasn't had a job and my patience is running thin.

Anonymous said...

Dallas County Community College District has a wonderful program to promote reading-The African American Read-In. It's February 4, at the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. It also sponsors read-ins at schools, churches and in families. AARI also puts books in the hands of thousands of Dallas children. For more info go to: http://www.readin.dcccd.edu/ They can always use sponsors and volunteers.

Anonymous said...

Correction on my earlier posting. The Read-In is on February 3. It does not conflict with the Super Bowl!!

Larry James said...

Anonymous, thanks for the tip about the Read-In! Great effort!

IBreakCellPhones said...

Would I be a neanderthal if I said that most of the modern jazz I hear grates on my nerves? To me, it sounds more like cacophony rather than music.

Larry James said...

Ibreakcellphones, the only line from high school Latin that I recall is this, "about taste their should be no argument."