Arts' power for good explored at Conn College
New London — It was a question that hardly needed to be asked, especially at a gathering of some of the region's most noteworthy artists and creative minds.
But "Do the Arts Matter?" — the subject of an hourlong conversation Thursday sponsored by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut at Connecticut College's Blaustein Humanities Center — generated a sometimes enlightening, sometimes perplexing series of comments. The meeting was the first in a series of Thriving Communities conversations being sponsored this year by the foundation.
The conversation, held in the jam-packed Ernst Common Room with well over 100 people in attendance and moderated by NPR personality John Dankosky, covered a broad range of topics, from corporate support of the arts to whether music and dance have to prove they can provide a good return on investment.
"We often get pitted against the social services, and that's not what we want to see," said Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition.
Kristina Newman-Scott, Connecticut's director of culture, said studies have shown for every dollar spent on the arts, the state gets back about $7 in economic activity.
"We're throwing money away when we don't invest in the arts," she said.
But others wondered whether it made sense for an arts organization to fight the return-on-investment wars, saying it is difficult to prove the arts promote a better economic climate.
Migdalia Salas, founder of the MS17 Art Project in downtown New London, said the creative community would be better served by pointing out how the arts bring people together. "It's what makes us human," she said. "It's what gets us up every day."
Kathy Greene, founder of the nonprofit Lighthouse Center based in Groton, pointed out the importance of the arts among the special-needs community that she serves. She said the arts' ability to improve mental health should be emphasized more often.
Carol Glynn, a theater artist who works with several local school systems, said the arts help children on the periphery get more involved and engaged in school.
"Troublemakers are now the leads in the play," she said.
Glynn said she is working on a play, "The Hyperbole Show," that is actually getting children in the second grade interested in grammar. One kid, who some doubted could take on a big role, knew all his lines in two days, she said.
Speaking about the arts, Glynn said, "It is integral to absolutely everything you do. I connect it to everything," including electricity, machines, even compost.
David Fryburg, who runs an East Lyme-based enterprise called Envision Kindness, suggested tying the arts to tangible products, helping people understand that everything is a kind of art.
"It's actually around every person you know every day, but you don't think of it that way," agreed Bury of the cultural coalition.
Preston Whiteway, executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, had one final thought: that the arts actually are key to the nation's security.
A frequent visitor to Russia, Whiteway said his conversations there often revolve around the latest cultural offerings from America, whether it is Beyonce's latest album or another Star Wars sequel.
The arts project American power around the world, Whiteway suggested.
"What actually changes hearts and minds ... that is culture," he said.