The Arts As Essential Services

Leslie Odom Jr. Photo: Christopher Boudewyns

This was originally posted on my site,

Technology alone won’t save us. You might even argue that technology will be our downfall: As we’ve seen with Facebook, the negative effects can outweigh any benefits we derive from these tools and platforms. We’re excited about thinking and dancing robots, despite having watched the dystopian Black Mirror episode “Metalhead”.

Instead of pinning our hopes on technology, let’s pin them on the arts. Here are three reasons why:

  • The arts put you in touch with your humanity. It’s not just your head that’s engaged, but your heart, eyes, and ears. And because the arts engage the body, it’s an antidote to the hyperfocus that Western culture puts on rationality. The arts connects you to feeling, something that’s still downplayed in American culture, especially if those feelings aren’t indignation, disgust or rage.
  • The arts create community. Shouldn’t we aspire to create and expand communities of people who are energized by what the arts have to offer: Inspiration, connection and, in some cases, transcendence and catharsis? The arts offers that equal opportunity to be moved by the ecstatic as well as the sublime. We need more of that as we start 2021. Where we can’t bridge divides through logic or argument, the arts can shrink those gaps by opening spaces for dialogue and the sharing of different perspectives. The arts, especially great art, can move hearts, change minds and inspire people to act. Most crucially, the arts help people imagine new and different futures.
  • The arts are economic drivers. If you want to bring back cities, the arts needs to be part of that conversation. Even as the pandemic shut down cities like NYC, the arts & culture sector took its public programs online, to the extent possible, to continue to serve communities across the five boroughs. Across New York State, the arts & culture sector contributes over $114 billion to the economy. The cities where you’d want to live all have robust arts & culture offerings that make them desirable for families, businesses and other kinds of innovation.

If the arts are a force for social change, why aren’t we leveraging it more to solve some of the world’s more intractable problems, the seemingly insurmountable divisions? Maybe it’s because the arts are still an afterthought when it comes to public policy. Now, it’d be naive to think that the arts can take the place of essential things like food, shelter, and safety. Without those, there’s no point in talking about arts & culture.

When I first got to Weeksville, I was invited by the president of the tenants association of the public houses that bordered the institution to speak at one of their meetings. I went there all excited to personally welcome folks to check out our programs. But before I could speak, the meeting was consumed by tenants raising their quality of life issues, things that they were waiting for NYCHA management to address — the heat staying on all year ‘round; lack of regular trash pickup; lack of safety patrols in their towers; and on and on. When it was finally my turn to address group, I honestly felt stupid talking about arts & culture. How could I not after hearing that they were struggling to receive services and consideration that I took for granted?

Time To Change The Conversation

“Essential” is defined as “absolutely necessary; extremely important.” That’s what the arts are.

It’s time to move the arts into the same conversation when we’re talking about bringing essential services to communities. What would it look like if future essential services conversations involved food, shelter, medicine, education AND the arts. As Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. recently noted, “My arts education has made me a more empathetic person and has nurtured my natural curiosity about humanity and the human condition.”

There’s a bigger role that the arts should play as we think about revitalizing communities. A truly robust society is concerned about developing better people. Not just smarter ones, not just richer ones, but people who are empathetic to others. And they’re empathetic because they’ve had exposure to the ideas and experiences that the arts convey on a visceral, not just intellectual, level. We have to be in the business of inspiring imagination. If that happens, maybe we’re able to tap into a bigger, deeper collective vision that can propel us towards more sustainable and equitable futures.




Arts Leader | Marketer | Dot Connector | ENFP | My newsletter: #TheBlackFantastic. Subscribe here: Opinions: mine |

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Rob Fields

Rob Fields

Arts Leader | Marketer | Dot Connector | ENFP | My newsletter: #TheBlackFantastic. Subscribe here: Opinions: mine |

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