Summer is a time when many Americans make an effort to ease into a slower pace and reset their focus on personal passions that make them feel most alive--like the arts. Their chosen profession may have everything to do with the arts, or very little, but with a bit more leisure time they may find themselves pulling out a paint set, playing the guitar, or writing poetry. These amateur--from the Latin root meaning "to love"--artists do what they do for the sheer enjoyment of it. For me, that love is music.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was launching an ambitious slate of progressive reforms to create a "Great Society" for all Americans, which would eventually include the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the same time, my high school rock band was emerging out of my alma mater Boston College High School. We called ourselves the Rising Suns. We were four somewhat driven young guys just out to tap into the moment of the '60s and perhaps create good music--for the love of it.
The Rising Suns reunited a few weeks ago at Americans for the Arts' annual convention in Boston, performing for the first time publicly in fifty years. Our group was smaller due to one band member's passing, and arguably a little rougher around the edges than in 1964. But one thing is for sure: while we had gone our separate ways, it was the love for music that held us together--no different in 1964 than in 2016.
My bandmates and I are just a few practitioners of an art form among a vast number of Americans who are similarly engaged in making art for fun, and not as professionals. Many are self-taught and not from the art sectors we usually acknowledge: for-profit, not-for-profit, professional individual artist. They love making their art nonetheless and often become great audience members and patrons for those who pursue the arts formally as a career. A new study by Americans for the Arts on perceptions and attitudes towards the arts found that of the 3,020 individuals surveyed, 50 percent are personally involved in artistic activities, themselves creating something. These amateur artists reported that they engage in the arts because it makes them feel creative and boosts personal well-being.
This was clear during a late-night jam session at the Boston convention, where keynote speakers and other guests brought their instruments and joined me and my bandmates on stage. Along with National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Jane Chu, an avid musician, and NEA Senior Innovation Advisor Bill O'Brien on the guitar, another person--Vijay Gupta, first violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic--is someone who also takes his love for music a step further and then passes it on to others.
Despite an undergraduate degree in biology and his parents' repeated urgings to study medicine, Vijay couldn't escape the pull of music that he'd felt since the age of four. After pursuing a Master's degree in violin performance, he landed his dream job as first violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But he didn't stop there. Driven by the need to bring beautiful music to marginalized communities and instill the love of music in others, Vijay co-founded Street Symphony, a nonprofit that brings music to Skid Row and into homeless shelters, mental health centers, and county jails. With great music comes a deeply genuine, profound human connection, and the power to heal.
Vijay learned that music can speak where words fail. Street Symphony musicians are known to share the stage with audience members so they can tell their stories--they often feel compelled to give back songs and music and performance from their lives, to share their own creativity and to say thanks. Vijay says that the people who are most changed are the professional musicians themselves.
Perhaps that is why such a world-renowned musician as Vijay is now comfortable sitting in on jam sessions at our convenings and policy gatherings. He makes us sound really good.
Whether you're a trained musician like Vijay sharing your love of music, or more like scores of American citizens who are untrained artists--writers who continue to write, painters who continue to paint, or high-school bands that keep on playing through their later years--the powerful effects of the arts on our well-being is undeniable. We do it because we enjoy the act of creation, even if it's just for ourselves. But mostly, it's for the love of it. Savvy arts organizations are paying attention and tapping in to this amateur energy not only through programs that encourage this broad interest, but as a way to build audience for many other offerings.
I hope that this summer, you are able to make time to tap into the arts and to stir creativity within yourself.