Why Philanthropy Should Steam Ahead and Support the Creative Economy

When I was a college student in the 60s we thought ourselves intellectual, political and even somewhat evolved. A widely acknowledged putdown of college athletes oft heard was that their course load included Basket Weaving 101. That statement was not only insensitive to athletes; it also inadvertently reflected an additional put down of the arts. And that attitude remains and is reflected in how the arts are viewed today. "In the public schools, arts are all too often the first programs to be cut and the last to be reinstated," says James Grace, executive director of the Arts and Business Council of Greater Boston.

Today we need to update that thinking. If we are to actively enrich our communities, arts should not be a stepchild of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). In New England alone, over 53,000 people are employed in the "creative economy" and that sector, if it were considered in the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), which it is not, would rank just below the data and information sector and just ahead of the truck transportation sector, according to 2009 statistics compiled by the New England Foundation for the Arts. The 18,026 New England arts organizations supply the economy with nearly $3.7 billion--so why does STEM, an acronym that excludes the arts, seem to be on the tip of everyone's tongue? Yes, there are major reasons why the U.S. needs to be focused on producing adults with skills in these areas, but why not include the arts and go from STEM to STEAM?

Philanthropies are more and more focused on impact, grantee accountability, metrics and getting results. Sound good? Not so fast. While these evaluation measures have importance, danger could be lurking. For the metric-merry this can have the potential of giving stepchild status to the arts as the less easily measured are most vulnerable to being cut from the roster. Some argue that the increased frenzy with metrics may indeed play a role in stifling innovation.

"And arts curricula in schools," says Grace, "have broad proven benefits that might not appear to be related to academics but are." He says that "building the muscles of creativity enhances students' engagement and development in all aspects of their education. The discipline and process of moving from an idea to a creative result is a skill that is translated whether your life's work is about computers, architecture, nursing or music. What company doesn't want engaged creative and innovative thinkers and disciplined workers? How many will survive the global environment without them?" Grace also contends that when arts programs were cut out of the curriculum in schools, it contributed to a lost generation of arts patrons and that has economic impact that is still being felt across sectors.

In addition, arts can have a magnetism that engages even the most recalcitrant students, some of whom might fear or be turned off by science, technology and math. Yet if their brains have been exercised in the arts, these same students might avoid getting turned off to education writ large. If we don't lose these students along the way, they may get through school, mature and return to those other areas later in their educational or professional careers because they haven't opted out, because they have a means of expression.

Imagine a society where the arts are a core component, not considered peripheral to the educational equation. Art is open to all - the working poor, women, persons with disabilities - so it is a social justice strategy and something where diversity has always been valued. Arts reflect culture and provide important lifelong tools.

And proof that philanthropies and individual donors may be ignoring the grass roots and important educational benefits within community organizations and schools, is that the majority of philanthropic dollars that are directed to the arts are going to the largest arts organizations - symphonies, museums, and theaters - leaving a smaller pool for funding schools and community organizations who employ the arts in neighborhood development strategies. Philanthropy can and should view the arts as a way to accomplish its wider mission. Broadening and expanding the vision about how we categorize the arts and putting them front and center on the necessary and core list, not the optional list, is an important first step.

Philanthropic dollars directed to the arts can leverage economic and neighborhood development. Some in the private sector have already come to this conclusion and reaped great return on that investment. Arts revitalize communities and strengthens the economy, improves safety, and creates vibrant neighborhoods.

And if trends in philanthropy, akin to trends in politics, are influenced by public opinion, a survey conducted by the Boston Foundation revealed that 78% of respondents said they wanted to live in communities in which corporations and local businesses actively support arts and cultural organizations.*

So, let's think of the little engine that could--and get on the STEAM engine.

*Culture is Our Common Wealth, An Action Agenda to Enhance Revenues and Resources for Massachusetts Cultural Organizations, The Boston Foundation, c.2014