Are the Arts and Humanities Worth Your Investment? Making the Case for Our Shared Health and Wealth

Our shared belief in the benefits of the Arts and Humanities can be found in the practices of our institutions of higher learning, in our communities, our businesses, and our next generation of young people.
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A few weeks ago, I opened The Atlantic to read an article about Al Gore's venture called The Generation Investment Management firm. What I liked about this company's mission was the extent to which it promoted a long term and socially responsible investment approach that could also lead to increased profits in dollars and cents. Instead of disconnecting "doing the right thing" from "making money," they believed that a company's portfolio could include both health and wealth.

Inspired by Generation's approach to include measurements other investors traditionally leave out, those of us who believe in the value of the Arts and Humanities--whether we are educators, business professionals, politicians, or community members--may feel inspired to also adopt an advocacy strategy that can extol both the health and the wealth of our shared interests and goals.

Our shared belief in the benefits of the Arts and Humanities can be found in the practices of our institutions of higher learning, in our communities, our businesses, and our next generation of young people, because, now more than ever, we all participate in a larger ecosystem of interconnecting parts that shift and change and are remixed through the participation of many individuals, in different spaces, through different media and cultural perspectives.

For instance, current trends in higher education address the needs of a world that has become more complex, mobile, plural and fluid. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, in their recent report on "Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches," found that 67% of institutions are placing more emphasis on the integration of knowledge, skills, and applications; 61% are placing more on applied learning experiences; 51% on cross-cutting skill development; and 32% of institutions are emphasizing broad knowledge acquisition.

When we look at the practices of our diverse communities, we also find that the Arts and Humanities are flourishing as they flow in and out of different spaces. As Steven Tepper and Bill Ivey highlights in their book Engaging Arts: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life, while art attendance in the traditional sense may be down, they have found that "art participation among the young is increasing in ballet, musical theatre, pottery and ceramics" (365). In addition, research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust found that "some 57% of online teens create, share, and remix new works" (366). They provide evidence that when we look at less traditional spaces, we also find that, for instance, "70-75% of all church congregations include choir singing, drama or skits" and art festivals (366). And the Arts and Humanities are flourishing in immigrant communities, where "they are used as a means of passing heritage, negotiating identity, and reaching out to mainline audiences" (366).

On a national scale, explains Michael Dale, a recent report published by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, covering figures from 1998 to 2013, spotlight "the fast-growing arts industries, export trends, employment figures, consumer data and more, concluding that arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the United States economy, a 32.5 percent increase since 1998."

This wealth of contributions and involvements is not the main narrative circulating about the state of the Arts and Humanities today. This suggests that we are standing before a unique opportunity: to speak up, adopt a proactive and positive approach, and, together, provide evidence of the exciting possibilities afforded by our shared investment in the Arts and Humanities. To do so, we must engage our diverse communities and build mutually beneficial and perhaps unusual partnerships that highlight the connections between personal engagements, educational learning, professional gain, and social contributions.

To share in the wealth of our Arts and Humanities means expanding everyone's understanding of what is worth the investment of their time and their pocketbooks, with the added benefit that the semantic range of the word "wealth" itself, as my friend and colleague Dr. Alan Liu, co-director of explained, also has a much wider historic semantic range that relates to the word "weal" and the notion of generalized health and "well-being." Hence the notion of a "commonweal" or "commonwealth" which is a societal notion of what the classical writers called the "good life" and not just the life of (bought and sold) goods.

When we depart from the power and potential of our shared and spreading interests and cultures--and not just the spreadsheets of those cultures, as Dr. Liu so eloquently remarked--we can demonstrate that the Arts and Humanities are much more exhilarating and promising than traditional investment managers might suggest.

Through a shared framework that speaks to both the health and wealth of our diverse personal and communities' needs and aspirations, we can demonstrate that today's Arts and Humanities may take the next generation as high as Ed Sheeran's Instaconcert on top of Germany's Zugspitze, live streamed in December of 2014 to reach up to 140,000 spectators on any screen, and shared with thousands more through social media channels, all gathered in an interactive music video.

When we harness partnerships between businesses, publics, and spaces, the Arts and Humanities can attract and immerse sold out audiences to the marvels of large-scale high-tech installations such as the Rain Room, created by the UK-based group Random International and commissioned by the upscale home furnishing store Restoration Hardware. The Rain Room provides an artificial rain shower through which we can walk without a drop of rain touching our skin, thus challenging us to think about the connection between movement, technology and space as well as the business benefits of supporting a strong arts community.

When we depart from the core values of our distinct communities and seek out new relationships, the Arts and Humanities can preserve our cultural heritage by immersing ourselves in play. For instance, the video game called "Never Alone," came about through an uncommon partnership of nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members who worked side by side with game developers to share, celebrate and extend [...] the traditional lore of the Innupiat people." It is meant to be the first, they say, in "an exciting new genre of 'World Games', which can be bought on Amazon, I checked, for $14.99.

When we dig deep into our souls, the Arts and Humanities can literally fit to us like a glove as we determine how we wish to live and how we wish to die, as artist Jae Rhim Lee explores through her mushroom burial suit. Her exploration of the environmental impact of death on our quality of life was brought to market by the members of Coeio, a company led by "a broad base of world-leading experts in art, design, finance, fashion and the funeral industry." Definitely an unlikely team that will most likely show long-term, sustainable, and profitable results for the world at large.

And when even television show host Ellen DeGeneres is encouraging others to pull out their boards in her Design Challenge, it is very possible that our kids will see the worth of the Arts and Humanities take shape right before their eyes. They will also quickly understand that skill in making and welding alone may not be enough. Those with the educational benefits of backgrounds in both engineering and history, psychology and culture--will have the competitive edge needed to win those Reality-TV-driven prizes and surf into successful careers.

So, I ask: Are we really the loss or the minus in our nation's investment portfolios? Or is it time to take control of our communities' health and wealth by proactively building on the exhilarating currents and currencies of our shared investment in the Arts and Humanities?

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