Marianne Lepa: The Art of Cultural Leadership
How the Arts Can Make a Difference
In the early part of the 20th century, the American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey wrote, "The function of art, the highest form of communication, is to fix those standards of enjoyment and appreciation with which other things are compared."
In his writings, Dewey sees a back-and-forth relationship between the arts and society where the standard of living and the artistic contribution is continually enhanced. In his treatise of aesthetic philosophy, Art as Experience, he argues that our interaction with art forms the very basis on which societies are built, because "art is the realm of communication in which completed acts are expressed." He believed that without art or an understanding of the significance of art, social relationships and society itself could not function.
Dewey believed that people are unconsciously stimulated into certain ways of thinking - and therefore behaving - by the presence of art; and that, in this way, people of a single community find a common ground on which to set their standard of living. He went on to say that by refining our knowledge of art, we refine our "taste" and become more sensitive to the needs of community members and the community's potential, and to the further appreciation of art, which in turn creates a greater sensitivity to social needs.
Ever since the publication of the Massey Report in 1951, a document recommending government patronage of the arts, our native arts have slowly gained in stature with Canadians. Government funding and policy-making has helped to support a growing cultural industry in this country. And now, in the early years of the 21st century, research in psychology, education and economics is bringing fuller meaning to Dewey's work: the arts play a significant, if not central, role in our identity and the well-being of our society.
Children exposed to the arts from birth are more likely to be high achievers in school, be more confident, and interact better with their peers. A report by the Arts Education Partnership in the US indicates that with an arts-integrated education program, students show improved problem-solving and understanding of complex issues and emotions; greater self-confidence, motivation and ability to focus; and improved nonverbal reasoning, verbal skills and writing skills, as well as reasoning about scientific images. Additionally, children with early arts exposure continue to value and patronize the arts throughout their lifetime.
The arts as an economic engine is also well documented with many sources pointing to the arts as the basis for a healthy business community in cities and small towns. Municipal governments now encourage centres of artistic life as added value to attracting business and professional workers, and many cities now turn to the arts to help solve social problems such as violence and substance abuse.
Public art resulting from this activity puts a soul into the concrete and asphalt of a community. Public art transforms space designed for functionality and traffic flow into a more welcoming environment. A study done by the Arts Council England found that most citizens did not distinguish between public art and its location. For the people who lived and worked there, the art was what created the impression of, and the feelings for, the area. Though people were not always able to fully articulate their connection with the art, the study also found they generally felt safer and more in touch with their community when their surroundings included art.
Cultural leadership facilitates and helps define the relationship between arts and society and the connection between the artist and the audience. A cultural leader interprets and translates the experience of art. A cultural leader integrates the meaning of art with discussion to create a conversation among people about their values, and in doing so, fosters the ongoing development of social standards and quality of life. A philanthropist donating money to develop a new work, a teacher helping students understand a piece of art, a writer explaining the symbolic meaning of a painting, play or symphonic work - these are all examples of cultural leadership.
Cultural leaders also work to advocate on behalf of the artist by shaping and developing policy to provide fertile ground for artistic endeavour. They do this by stressing the value the arts bring to the community at large, and they work to increase opportunities for everyone to vividly experience those arts. But most importantly, cultural leadership creates a meaningful conversation between the artist and society on the value of the arts experience.
Marianne Lepa is a freelance writer, editor, arts administrator and, most importantly, the founder of Arts News Canada. Marianne lives in Toronto.