Arts Action Heroes to the Rescue!

06/23/2015 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

During my 30 years at Americans for the Arts, I have had the great privilege to visit and learn about a different community nearly every week. While they differ vastly from one another, there is one common strength I have observed: the arts have made a profound impact on the health of each community.

Across America, in communities of all sizes, a rising population of arts action heroes -- both individuals and organizations -- are stepping up, armed with the tools of their craft and a vision of how their work in the arts contributes to the well-being of a community.

Vijay Gupta, first violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a passionate advocate for the presence of music in marginalized and underserved communities. He founded Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing live music to people living in homeless shelters and incarcerated in LA County jails. Bringing music to these groups has a powerful humanizing effect, helping some of those who are most vulnerable feel safe.

The arts give a voice to a segment of the population that doesn't feel heard. Karen Altree-Piemme, director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in San Jose, California, leads one of the eight Arts-in-Corrections programs funded by the California Arts Council and uses theater to help inmates develop positive life skills and reconnect with creativity. These programs not only reduce violence inside prisons, but the skills they offer are beneficial to inmates once they are out of prison, looking to find a job and rebuilding their lives.

Participating in the arts can also bring back a level of autonomy to one's life. Many of us know all too well the emotional stress that comes with cancer treatment. Art therapist Tracy Councill built the Tracy's Kids program in 1991 to help young cancer patients and their families cope with the emotional upheaval of cancer treatment. Located in several DC-area hospitals and in Texas, the program uses art therapy to bring together young patients and their families to express their feelings and reflect on their treatment experiences. It gives young patients a voice in an often bewildering medical setting.

Veterans and service members are finding their voices through the arts, too. Melissa Walker runs the Healing Arts Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed, and uses art, creative writing and music as a means of therapy and expression for service members with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions. The February 2015 issue of National Geographic profiled Ms. Walker's mask project wherein active duty troops created powerful representations of strong themes including physical pain and patriotism. For many, it was their first foray into exploring the arts and possibly themselves -- the arts help them tell their stories, break down mental barriers and reconnect them to their lives and families.

Something as simple as providing an open, public art space as a creative outlet for youth can bring new life to a community. In the midst of a suicide epidemic, the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, developed a two-acre park—on land provided by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe—and curriculum for a competitive graffiti art internship program. This ingenious program will allow youth to be trained in the methods behind the modern art form and be able to harness the space to its fullest potential. The finale of the first internship program and the official introduction of this space to the community will be in the form of a large-scale graffiti art festival, called RedCan, this July.

There are many stories to tell -- stories of art healing, art educating, art teaching us about each other and art drawing together communities. These arts action heroes help heal the sick (over 50 percent of U.S. hospitals incorporate arts programs), empower the disempowered and drive the economy. Through their actions, they are helping to improve the overall well-being of our communities, engaging with people on emotional and intellectual levels as well as aesthetic.

Many of these stories were communicated recently through a series of prominent speakers -- such as the chairs of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, a former ballet dancer and passionate arts and community advocate -- at Americans for the Arts' Annual Convention in Chicago, and will continue through the work of our New Community Visions Initiative. This year and through 2016, leaders from inside and outside the arts field will come together for discussions about how our communities will change over time, and what role artists, arts organizations and arts agencies can play in contributing to the health of their communities.

Our newly released book, Arts & America: Arts, Culture, and the Future of America's Communities, looks at the ways the arts can positively impact other parts of the community, including education, the environment, health and wellness, prisons, transportation, tourism and more. The book will provide a background from which the discussions will be based.

As I continue to visit communities around America, I look forward to meeting more arts action heroes and sharing their stories. If you or someone you know is an arts action hero, I want to hear from you. It is vital that we communicate the role that the arts can play in creating beauty, hope and inspiration where there appears to be none.

The arts empower. The arts give a voice to the voiceless. The arts help transform American communities and, as I often say, the result can be a better child, a better town, a better nation and certainly a better world. Let's champion our arts action heroes, emulate them and make our communities everything we want them to be.