If you work in the arts, you will be faced with this question at some point in time.
“After all, if [insert current catastrophe on people’s minds and lips] is happening, shouldn’t we devote our time and resources to solving that? Wouldn’t that make more of a difference?”
When Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen’s keynote speech at a philanthropy conference was interrupted with this question his a few years ago, I remember his answer being something akin to: “We believe in making the arts general, and we make large investments in this work because we believe it makes a huge difference in the overall success of cities. The best cities of the world are engaged, empathetic, and connected. It’s no coincidence that those thriving cities all share an active, high-quality, richly diverse cultural and artistic life.”
Of course…there are many, many worthy causes that deserve our time, attention, and funding. However, before, during, and after most catastrophes, you can usually find art being created.
Why is that?
Creating art a definitive expression of freedom. It is an innately empowering act. The remnant of this creative act – the work itself – remains imprinted with the countless choices made by its creator. To create is to choose, and this is the most important aspect of the construct of modern life: the ability to choose. It is also the essence of the American dream: to forge one’s own pathway.
Placing the tools and opportunity for expression – artistic choicemaking – in an individual’s hands can be transformational for them, and for their community or nation. Art can catalyze, uplift, amuse, provoke, disturb, disrupt. When we experience a crisis or catastrophe, we typically reach for ways we can make sense of what happened, to process our experience and our emotions.
Songs have long been tools for protest, but traditional arts organizations have typically avoided taking a stance on controversial subjects (for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to risk alienating donors). That changed in 2015, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director Marin Alsop in the wake of the protests there after the death of Freddie Gray. The BSO performed a “concert for peace” near where the riots were taking place. The New York Times also recently highlighted efforts by classical music organizations that were involved in responding artistically to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Eun Lee, a classical musician, created the Dream Unfinished project to raise funds for the movement. Most recently, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater released “Freedom,” a “protest dance” created in response to Artistic Director Robert Battle’s self-proclaimed “physical protest” set to Beyoncé’s track highlighting Kendrick Lamar.
We turn to art when we want to make meaning, understand, when we want to connect. We do this alone. We create poetry, visual art, film, theatre, dance. We do this together. We gather. We join hands. We sing. We dance. We have been doing this for centuries. And it matters.