We Should All Value the Artists and Their Vital Role in Our Communities

12/14/2017 10:21 am ET

My business travels take me to one city a week on average. From Des Moines to Miami to Portlands both east and west, the first thing my hosts usually show me is the work of a local artist, whether at the airport or on a stage. When I think back over 2017, I have a clear mental montage of my travels, and it serves as a reminder that art and artists are integrated into everything—from the sights of our cities and communities, to who we are.

Artists are also at the core of what my organization, Americans for the Arts, does. They are deeply integrated into our advocacy and community building efforts. While in recent years actor Kerry Washington testified before Congress on arts funding as a member of the Americans for the Arts’ Artists Committee, as early as the 1960s artists like Harry Belafonte and Ralph Ellison were making a significant difference in the work of Americans for the Arts. Singer-songwriter and arts activist Harry Chapin famously said in a conference keynote address, “Let’s not be the dance band on the Titanic…playing away so everyone can enjoy themselves while the ship is sinking. Let’s upgrade the concept of what a community arts agency means and integrate it into the larger issues that do matter to Congress and the corporate world.” Chapin, jazz legend Billy Taylor, actor Kitty Carlisle Hart, and many others were in their advocacy seats since the beginning of Americans for the Arts in 1960 and the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts five years later.

Just this year, artists such as Ben Folds, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ben Vereen, Josh Groban, and Julie Andrews have advocated and spoken powerfully on behalf of the arts, but support also comes in forms other than advocacy. Both Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein have designed the physical awards we give at our annual galas. Robert Redford co-hosts with me artists, philanthropists, and thought leaders at his Sundance Institute every fall for deep, action-oriented discussions on arts and policy and how we can create a more vibrant role for arts and culture in 21st century American society. And our Board of Directors integrates working artists—Vijay Gupta, Stokes Mitchell, and outgoing chairman Abel Lopez. These are artists who are part of our makeup.

In turn, shining a light on all artists—regardless of how well they are known—reminds the world that artists contribute new creative thinking to issues ranging from worldwide climate change to a community’s issues with crime and blight. Many organizations and groups use artists in their background work, and Americans for the Arts is proud to feature artists in the foreground. One of Redford’s deeply held beliefs is the value that artists bring to society at large, and the vital role that an artist's perspective can play in addressing social, political and environmental issues. He has said, “I’ve long believed we could move toward solving some of our biggest problems if there were an artist at every table.” Artists are making a tremendous difference in our communities, and we want to showcase this work.

Chicago artist Theaster Gates was a keynote speaker at Americans for the Arts’ 2015 Annual Convention. A social practice installation artist, many of Gates’ works evoke African-American identity and the broader struggle for civil rights, from sculptures incorporating fire hoses, to events organized around soul food, and choral performances by the experimental musical ensemble Black Monks of Mississippi, led by Gates himself. He is driven by building community through change, and his non-profit, Rebuild Foundation, manages the many projects in his Chicago hometown, including the Stony Island Arts Bank, Black Cinema House, Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, Archive House, and Listening House. He has transformed these spaces into vibrant social and cultural hubs. Gates is creating change, not just fame.

Artists across the spectrum are invited to perform and speak at our Conventions, Arts Advocacy Day, National Arts Awards, and National Arts Marketing Project Conferences, they are recognized for outstanding public art works in our Public Art Network Year in Review, as well as year-round awards for extraordinary leadership and commitment to the arts. In January 2018, we will award an individual artist the inaugural Americans for the Arts/Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities. The fellowship is supported by the Yankee and Laurel Johnson Trust in recognition of their belief that artists, when given the opportunity, can create real paths for change. The award will not only provide the Fellow time to pursue his/her creative work in communities, but also provide a national opportunity to discuss the role of the artist in transforming our nation’s communities with Americans for the Arts’ constituents and publics through a combination of speaking, writing, and other engagement opportunities.

People often see Americans for the Arts as emphasizing policy, research, and resources for the arts. But for more than 55 years, Americans for the Arts and artists have been accomplishing great things together with our nation’s local arts agencies, building stronger communities and communicating the inherent value of the arts.

As we celebrate the holidays, I encourage you to think of all the ways artists have helped your company, organization, place of worship, community. How have artists bettered your family and your life? Think about the artist behind the public art mural as you pass by while running errands. Take a moment to listen to caroling. Take family and friends to galleries, a live music venue, or small theater production. Let’s all support these artists and community change-makers this holiday season.

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