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Art Changes Everything

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” — Donella Meadows

Last week, at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Statewide Assembly, my fellow members of the Reading Cultural Council and I were tickled to be recognized for our advocacy “on behalf of arts and culture across the Commonwealth.” We received the honor for making this brief video to highlight the community impact of projects we had funded.

The event had me thinking about “support for the arts” as a leverage point for change. When I consider where Donella Meadows might have ranked it in her famous list of twelve progressively effective Places to Intervene in a System, my guess is…she’d have put it right at the top.

Why? Because art and culture allow us to continually reexamine the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions…or deepest set of beliefs” that constitute what Meadows called our society’s paradigm. The arts help us stand outside that paradigm from time to time and see it for what it is—temporary, relational, evolving. That’s a powerful leverage point!

But the most powerful leverage points share an interesting characteristic: They are often counterintuitive and therefore, easy to dismiss or overlook. Support for the arts is no exception. How might we convince public policy makers that by increasing our investment in humble community arts projects we are catalyzing big changes in everything?

At the Assembly, we sat with hundreds of other local arts advocates in the Great Hall of the State House listening as a panel of community leaders discussed the current state of the creative economy. While enthusiasm was high (and we are lucky to live in a State that has just completed multi-million dollar additions to two of its flagship arts institutions) the subtext of the conversation was clear: Promoting public policy that recognizes the aggregate impact of community arts requires constant vigilance.

Despite data showing strong returns on investment for every public dollar expended on arts and culture, most legislators are content to let arts-related spending languish at bare minimum levels. Except among the most dedicated artists and art lovers, support for the arts is deemed a luxury, not a priority.

You’ll have an easier time finding a policy maker eager to invest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the vaunted antidote to America’s declining stature as the world’s economic and innovation leader. But as WGBH president Jonathan Abbott noted during the panel discussion, to leave the arts out of that picture is folly. He endorsed the idea that STEM education be expanded to STEAM, to include the Arts, so vital to stimulating the imagination that leads to scientific breakthrough.

Largely obscured in this discussion is a more fundamental and potent leverage point: The power of the arts to engender solutions to expensive and disabling social woes. Yes, the arts generate exponential economic activity. Yes, the arts stimulate scientific breakthrough. But most important, with projects like the MCC’s 2012 Gold Star winners, the arts help us shed our prejudices, connect across cultural barriers, turn toward aspiration and away from fear. Live together. Grow together. Create together. Come to understand ourselves.

I’ll invest in that. How about you?

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  1. Steve byers
    February 14, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Wow, Vicky, thank you for this incredibly insightful essay. I am forwarding it to my entire network today. This perspective is powerful and so inclusive. Truly a community perspective.

  2. February 14, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks, Steve. We had a lot of fun putting the video together. And our state level cultural council friends work very hard to keep this conversation alive with legislators. Here’s to little projects with big impact!

  3. February 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Wonderful video and deserving of the honor received! Thank you to you and the council for all of your hard work – I wasn’t aware of the reach you had across the community and in the schools.

  4. February 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Love what you say, Vicky, about how the arts are a leverage point — easy to miss, and counterintuitive, but nonetheless…

    The arts speak to our soul. What could be more important than that?

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