Increasing the number of people who participate in the arts is not good enough. What's pivotal is heightening the relevance of the arts experience.
National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Chu's message resonated with local arts leaders during a talk at the Asia Society Texas Center this week. In Houston to participate in the Grantmakers in the Arts conference, Chu agreed to stay in town a tad longer to address an attentive crowd of 200 arts leaders to share her vision about the future of creative fields as well as the NEA's role in supporting them.
"That's really the challenge and opportunity that all of us here have today as we make our way through the 21st century," Chu says. "How can we make sure that the arts continue to inspire and thrive?"
The answer, she suggests, is to help the public at large understand the value of the arts in general, how the arts foster innovation, how the arts instill beauty, how they offer a way of communicating when the use of everyday words isn't enough, how the arts contribute to economic development, how they heal invisible wounds, how the arts are associated with scholastic achievement and how they revive communities.
"Increasing our numbers is good, but increasing our relevance is critical."
What can artists and arts organizations do holistically, as a cultural community, to ingrain these concepts in the public's zeitgeist?
"This is a group effort," Chu says. "The more we remain relevant and responsive to a changing world, the better we will be positioned to show that the arts are an essential component of our lives — and that's my main goal as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts."
Out with the old
Chu warns about the dangers of art providers clinging solely to the traditional ways of operating. The hope that the old mindset of doing things is somehow immune to the social and market changes isn't only misguided and unhelpful. It's detrimental to the efforts of others to meet audiences where they are — logistically and psychologically.
"We need to expand the approaches that we take to connect people to the arts," she adds. "Increasing our numbers is good, but increasing our relevance is critical. What can we do to open our doors wider so people have easier access to the arts?"
Chu urges art makers to develop innovative strategies and share them so everyone in the trade can benefit, which is particularly important as the creative industry adapts to a cultural landscape that's changing daily.
Some of these changes that Chu cites have been triggered by the swell of technology as a medium of art consumption. Three quarters of American adults — 167 million people — now use electronic media to share, view and listen to art. One in three adults use a handheld or mobile device to watch or listen to music. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have used electronic devices to create and perform music.
"The arts are the heartbeat of the nation. The more we work together, the more we support each other, the stronger this heartbeat is going to be."
The demographics of those who participate in the arts are expanding, non-Caucasians being among those who are showing increased attendance rates.
Chu has seen a rise in artistic genres, particularly in the form of folk festivals, social dancing and video art.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture sector comprises 3.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product or $504 billion — more than travel and tourism contribute economically.
Chu says that there are more working artists in the U.S. than there are members of the military.
Houston as a progressive arts hub
More often than not, the value of the arts cannot be measured by quantifying standards. As Houston-based examples, Chu turns to Project Row Houses and Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife and Traditional Arts program.
"Project Row Houses has transformed the Third Ward neighborhood by transforming shotgun houses in to artist studios, affordable living spaces, supported housing for single mothers," Chu says. "There's no dollar value that can measure the energy of an empowered community and the re-emergence of beauty and hope."
Chu says that the Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife and Traditional Arts program is a model for how the arts foster authentic connections across diverse communities.
"The Folklife and Traditional Arts program reminds people where they come from and, at the same time, it opens our eyes to different cultures and customs," she says. "The program gives us a far greater understanding of our neighbors and, in turn, it builds a stronger, more connected city."
The key to the future of the arts Chu argues is to champion these stories to show to everyone that the arts are creating value and meaning today. Being passive is dangerous.
"The arts are the heartbeat of the nation," she concludes. "The more we work together, the more we support each other, the stronger this heartbeat is going to be."