Empty Forest. Tree Falls. Was It Heard Or Felt?

Blog Post for ArtsJournal.com’s “Lead or Follow” Discussion

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

How would the City of ______ be damaged if the ______ Symphony Orchestra / Opera Company / Ballet Company / Theater Troop / Art Museum were to disappear tomorrow?

How would the City of ______ be damaged if the all arts education programs were to disappear tomorrow?

Recent data from the Americans for the Arts Economic Impact reports that there are $63.1 billion in total expenditures from arts and culture organizations in the United States; creating 2.6 million jobs, providing $57.3 billion in taxable household income, producing $2.8 billion of local government and $3.5 billion in state government revenue, and collecting $6.9 billion in federal tax revenue.

The National Endowment for the Arts released recent data about what the decline of arts education means for arts participation and the picture they paint isn’t pretty. The NEA research revealed that there was steady growth in access to music education from the 1930s to the 1970s which helped to create, nurture and sustain the audiences who would shape the cultural landscape of America. Something happened in the late 70s and a sharp decline followed. By 1982, over half of Americans had a meaningful relationship with arts education… do you think the other half of Americans were aware that their neighbor, brother, or friend had a meaningful relationship with the arts?

We’ve measured economic impact and participatory impact… but what about social impact? Since 1982, what has happened to these children that have been denied an arts education? This is not a question to the benefit of putting butts in seats. This is not a question of how many billions that are not being spent by arts and cultural organizations because we don’t have the money. This question is about what happened to a generation and a half of American youth who did not have access to arts education? What has society paid because a kid in the inner city held a gun instead of a trombone? What has society paid because a fortune 500 executive’s son held a joint instead of one of Shakespeare’s monologues?

According to the Pew Public Safety Performance report, the prison population in America increased 700% from 1970-2005. In 2005, we had approximately 1.5 million people in prisons and it was projected to add another 192,000 inmates through 2011. Those 192,000 inmates were projected to cost society $27.5 billion: potentially a cumulative $15 billion in new operating costs and $12.5 billion in new construction costs by 2011. The projections were wrong. We went from a 1.5 million prison population in 2005 to a 2.4 million prison population by 2010. Do the math. Almost three times that amount of people are under correctional supervision and that costs some serious cash as well. The prison system highlights one social-ill in America. Sadly, the number of americans who receive government subsidies are far greater than those we put in prison. The most vulnerable are poor African-American, Latinos, and Native Indians (people of color).

Travel + Leisure Magazine has recently crowned Philadelphia the #1 city in America for Culture despite our difficult economic crisis. We’ve also discovered through the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Cultural Engagement Index that 1) cultural engagement is highest for Philadelphians 18-34 2) parents are active with engaging their families in arts and cultural activities with the majority of activity in education 3) engagement levels of people of color increased more and continue to be consistently higher than those for Whites 4) personal practice activities continue to increase in importance. Do you see the connections yet?

Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of the social development program of Venezuela (El Sistema) made that connection thirty-seven years ago. He argued that music education could serve as vehicle for social change and was not interested in cultural funding. He made it clear that he wasn’t running a music program and focused on gaining support. The program currently serves over 400,000 children, mostly who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The impact has been so promising that the Venezuelan government has demanded that they serve 1,000,000 children annually while providing the funding to do so. This funding pays for community music schools they call nucleos, community orchestras, regional orchestras, professional orchestras, administrators, teachers, conservatories, and international touring. Everything. As society saves money, more gets invested in replicating the success.

What if we demanded that our art be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings? What if our focus was 100% on developing responsible citizens and contributing members of society? Doesn’t the research prove those claims are possible? Aren’t the communities that could use it the most waiting to be engaged? What would the “side effects” to this mission be if we were able to tap into a reliable source of funding and put teaching artists at the service of our most vulnerable communities? How would Venezuela be damaged if El Sistema were to disappear tomorrow? Not only would Venezuelans hear the tree fall, they would feel it too.

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