Art is Everything

The economic and social impact of creative ventures

What do you think is comprised within the phrase “arts and culture”? Performance, written word, visual, physical space, sure. And so much more. Perhaps that’s why so many communities are exploring the need – and the tools – for investing in arts and culture. It’s precisely why, on March 8th in Philadelphia, ImpactPHL chose to convene a curated group of players across sectors, functions, and disciplines to discuss impact investing in this space. And what an incredibly vibrant conversation it was!

Many have sparked this dialogue in various ways: from the genesis of the ImpactPHL conversation (the Moving Minds & Money report it issued last year with the support of The William Penn Foundation & SMU Meadows School of Arts) to Upstart CoLab’s inclusive creative economy strategy, to the U.S. federal government’s 2022 Executive Order on Promoting the Arts, the Humanities, and Museum and Library Services, the impact of the arts on people, place, and planet is top of mind for artists and community builders alike, and thankfully is beginning to hit the radar screens of all kinds of investors and philanthropists as well.

Yeshiyah Israel in colorful dress in front of mural

Image Courtesy of The Guardians of Baltimore.

So why was this convening so unique (beyond the fact that fully 98% of those who rsvp’d actually attended)? The need for these conversations is clear, as the speakers and the audience expressed with palpable emotion and zeal. We need to convene more often, across disciplines and roles, with artists – diverse artists – at the table. And we need to compensate the artists for their presence and contributions. But, as one of the attendees in Philadelphia stated, convening and conversation isn’t change. “Act, empower, and then cede the space,” said one participant.

We need to address the power dynamics that our existing funding pathways and tools reflect. To some, art is seen as inaccessible, elitist, extra. To others it is unappreciated, underfunded, and artists are a class of workers we accept as (or are resigned to being) “starving.” We need leadership that recognizes, and rewards, the value of arts and culture in contributing to vibrant, thriving communities. In Philadelphia alone, the arts and culture sector generates more than $3.6B in economic activity, which is greater than all five of its major sports teams combined.

We need to educate people – individuals, neighborhoods, all types of organizations, philanthropists, politicians, legislators – on the capacity and opportunity that the arts provide, on the influence the arts have on the world around us. The arts can be used to support many of the development and equity challenges we face today. A report published in 2021, “WE-Making: How Arts & Culture Unite People to Work Toward Community Well-Being”, shows that place-based arts and cultural practices help grow social cohesion to encourage community well-being. Americans for the Arts compiled a fact sheet on the social impact of creative placemaking, with hard data that corroborates WE-Making’s research.

The tools for investing in the arts? They require innovation. Let me share a dream with you. Whitney Frazier is a Baltimore-based interdisciplinary artist, public artist, and educator whom I’m proud to call a friend. Recognizing that art has the power to transform lives and strengthen communities, several years ago she co-created along with cinematographer and street photographer Kirby Griffin a photo documentary and storytelling project she called The Guardians of Baltimore. Now numbering 25, the Guardians are (only some of) the Black women protectors of their neighborhoods, doing the work that is absolutely essential – advocating, mentoring, caretaking, creating safe spaces, feeding via food and spirit – and yet rarely recognized, rewarded, or supported. Their portraits have now been shown on the facades of City Hall, the Peale Museum, and along Harford Road, and the Guardians cohort that Whitney continues to steward provides support, counsel, and community for each other as well. My dream is to raise an investment fund for the Guardians that the Guardians themselves decide how to deploy in their neighborhoods – like RSF Social Finance’s Shared Gifting Circles, which give full decision-making authority of grant funds to community leaders, ceding power and capacity to those who are closest to the challenges we need to solve.

Group of women in front of photograph at museum.

The Guardians Reveal Party. Image Courtesy of The Guardians of Baltimore

Whither the funding? Perhaps it’s time for a new Work Progress Administration (WPA) for the arts. You may not realize that during the Great Depression one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs involved a package of funding for the arts that, combined, employed over 10,000 artists and paid out almost $40M.

Group photo of the Guardians of Baltimore

Image Courtesy of the Guardians of Baltimore

As the Interim Report on one of the four programs, the Treasury Relief Art Project, stated, “The results of this work will be a permanent and important addition to the wealth of this country. A wealth that will increase in value as time goes on and as its worth is more justly appreciated.” FDR himself noted the fundamental value of the arts: “The WPA artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the WPA artist exemplifies with great force the essential place the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.”

Art is culture. Art is mental health. Art is environment. Art is equity. Art is education. Art is economics. Art is activism, freedom, democracy. Art is everything.

Karyn Polak, an Impact Entrepreneur correspondent, works at the intersection of values-aligned impact and financial services, having worked within large law firms and financial institutions and currently as Founder and Chief Activator of Shift the Prism Advisory. Shift the Prism acts to mobilize capital and talent for broader social and ... Read more
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