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Arts-Based Solutions for a Stronger America

A word cloud generated by the discussion at the National Arts Policy Roundtable.

On September 22-24, over 40 top-level private and public sector leaders along with renowned as well as emerging artists, converged at the Sundance Resort and Preserve for the sixth annual Americans for the Arts National Arts Policy Roundtable, “Innovating for Impact: Arts-Based Solutions for a Stronger America.” The Roundtable is convened in partnership with the Sundance Institute.

The questions put forth were as big as the brilliant blue sky above the reddening autumn leaves dotting the Wasatch Mountain range—“how do the arts bring innovation to social problem-solving?” and “how, as leaders from foundations, business, government and the social sector, can we encourage and support the arts as agents of change?”

Presentations by participants informed the discussion. Artists were at the core both demonstrating and explaining how their work is leading to change on the ground.

Poignant stories told through film, theater, and visual art highlighted the value the arts have in leading to change. Arts projects magnified through the lens of television and social networking revealed how the artistic process and products can be transformed into larger movements and calls to action.

The issues the arts addressed ranged from alleviating poverty to overcoming intolerance, and trying to understand the emotional complexities and personal devastation buried underneath the economic downturn.

Presenters agreed while the search for new measurements was important, the arts’ narrative is a compelling one—and all of us share a responsibility to make sure these stories are told.

Participants worked together to come up with some tangible ideas for collective action, (a report on the proceedings will be issued by Americans for the Arts early next year).

All acknowledged an overarching and inescapable challenge that is part of our current environment. Our nation—its systems, institutions, and its people—are undergoing nothing less than the painful process of the “re-crafting of the ‘next’ America.”

Participants felt that the processes of the arts—that break down complexity and lead to new insights—are what society needs most. No one felt the solution is as simple as to say “if you are just creative all will be well.” And all agreed that it is not sufficient to reduce the role of the arts to merely functional or instrumental conversations. Rather, the real opportunity for the arts is to fully engage in the rethinking our role in the reshaping of America.

Last week, Americans for the Arts hosted several sessions at the annual Grantmakers in the Arts conference in San Francisco that, with its social change theme, was a perfect forum to explore and debate some of the ideas that emerged from the Roundtable further.

The reactions from arts funders to the conclusions reached by the foundation presidents, corporate CEOs, and business association leaders for whom the arts are but one item on a larger menu of ways in which we can improve society, is something I’ll be reporting on in another post next week.

Through these recent experiences, it is becoming clear to me that a momentum is building that is being felt by all: a compelling sense that our problems will not be solved by any one entity; that collective action is the best strategy; and that the arts are not merely “bit players” in finding the solutions—but ultimately, they are key to achieving success.

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