Arts provide great enrichment for a small investment
On a rainy Sunday, with great effort, I dragged myself out to see a show at a local theater. Why not just stay home? Why confront the cold, the rain, the drive?
The answer became clear just a few minutes after the curtain rose, transporting me to another time and space. The mystique and joy stimulated my mind, my senses and emotions, and I knew why the drive in the rain was inconsequential, and why the arts matter.
Every few years, when the National Endowment for the Arts is put on the chopping block, we ask, do the arts matter? In the metrics-driven society we live in today, how do we measure their value and economic impact? In 2016, the NEA budget, at $148 million, was less than 0.012 percent of federal discretionary spending. What does that investment deliver?
Over the years, education advocates have examined whether the arts help students develop critical thinking, problem-solving and better and more diverse communication skills, and whether exposure to the arts heightens empathy towards social and cultural differences. The Presidents Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2011 released a landmark study that concluded that arts education positively influences learning and development. Students’ lives are enriched, skills are developed and perspectives are broadened through the sound and touch of a musical instrument, the freedom to dance and sing, and the chance to step into another person’s skin by acting and by reading and reciting poetry.
The arts reveal who we are by reflecting our culture, values and challenges. We understand the conditions of the earliest humans by studying cave drawings. We relate to the great civilizations by witnessing the art and architecture they left behind. When I think of a world deprived of art, I think of a prison — no color, no song, no soul, no imagination and no hope.
Our democracy — indeed all democracies — are built on the notion that human expressions as presented in the arts and humanities are the lynchpins of our communities. Free societies support the arts because they understand they are a window into the human soul. They nurture creativity and give us hope. The freedom to express one’s thoughts and emotions is surely a basic tenet of strong, civil communities and should not be conditioned on the size of one’s wallet.
The arts remind us of our daily struggles, document our legacy and chart imaginative possibilities for the future. The arts lift our spirits. They reach across culture, class and language and give us access to perspectives that are different from our own. They enable diversity and stimulate thinking and discourse. And at times of crisis and discord, they offer healing and restoration.
We are so fortunate to have amazing arts venues across eastern Connecticut where we can enjoy great performances — from the Bradley Playhouse in Putnam, the beautiful new Proscenium Theatre at Eastern Connecticut State University and the Chestnut Street Playhouse in Norwich, to the Garde Arts Center and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center on the shoreline.
Recently, the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition hosted a showcase of the performing arts organizations that enrich our lives in this very small part of the state and, there, I was reminded of the empowering role the arts play in young people’s lives. Last year, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut supported a collaboration between Writer’s Block Inc. and Safe Futures to raise awareness of the impact of domestic violence in our communities. How do we measure the impact of such programs? By talking to those whose lives are touched by them.
The Community Foundation has supported the arts since its earliest days. We believe the arts are a public good and an indicator of a thriving community. We have seen the empowerment of youth who have been mentored and given opportunities to participate in the arts. Let us walk away from the false dichotomy that says “a hungry man does not need the arts.” Let us instead embrace the opportunities the arts present.
Maryam Elahi is the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. The foundation will host a community conversation on “Do the Arts Matter?” at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Blaustein building at Connecticut College, New London.