The Case for the Arts

Most of the client work that I do for Alexander Haas is with cultural organizations. Recently, several board members of very well-established cultural organizations have made comments in board meetings that are, unfortunately, not uncommon:

“But we aren’t feeding people.”  “We aren’t working on the cure for cancer.”  “How can we ask people to make leadership gifts to the arts, when there are so many basic needs out there?” “How can we measure the return on investment?”

So just what is the case for the arts?

I have been dealing with this issue my entire professional career. And for me, it’s so crystal clear, it’s hard to believe that others don’t understand as well. The problem is, I just cannot explain it.

Here is some of what I mean:

I am a very visual person. Words are one way to communicate, touch is another, but when I hear a great piece of music, or see a masterwork, sometimes, I just can’t speak for a while. I feel that the insides of me are repositioning and my soul is growing in a different way.

When I was in college, I went to New York with a study group and went to see Peter Shaffer’s play, “Equus.” It forced me to face so many fears and joys in my life, I could not speak for about an hour after the play was over. My soul was feeling new things and my heart was connecting to others in a little bit of a different way.

I remember after 9/11, I went to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which was a client at the time, and spent some time in their Islamic galleries. What could the art tell me from a culture I didn’t know much about? How could I connect with people unless I could sense who they were? I didn’t know what to do, except ask the art.

When we support the arts, we are not feeding the hungry, finding a cure for a cancer, or building a homeless shelter. But what we are doing is every bit as critical to our life together as people. We express the meaning of life, the joy of being alive, the pain of suffering…

All can be better understood through art.

Sure, we know the facts around it – the arts are good economic development, and teach creativity and critical thinking, etc.  But I think that misses the point.

Karl Paulnack, pianist and Dean of the School of Music at Ithaca College, has said he thinks that the ancient Greeks understood music as a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls, and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. He asks his students to not only master music, but to save the planet:

If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.”

Now, that is a case I can support!