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

“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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqHFNtVeGQI&w=560&h=315]

About Stanford Thompson

Stanford Thompson has written 2 posts in this blog.

Stanford Thompson is a musician and educator who is passionate about using music for social innovation and serves as the Executive Director for the El Sistema-inspired program, Play On, Philly! As a trumpeter, Mr. Thompson has performed and soloed with major orchestras around the world while actively performing chamber music and jazz. As a conductor and educator, Stanford has served as clinician for the Music In Charter Schools annual festival and Philadelphia All-City Brass Symposium. He has served on faculty for the Atlanta Academy of Music and Symphony in C Summer Music Camp. For El Sistema-inspired programs he has designed and consulted, Stanford has secured over $2 million in funding which has lead to the impact of thousands of children around the world. He serves on the board of the American Composers Forum Philadelphia Chapter and recognized as one of Philadelphia’s top 76 Creative Connectors. Stanford holds a degree from The Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory's Abreu Fellows Program. Website - www.stanfordthompson.com Facebook - www.facebook.com/stanfordleon Twitter - www.twitter.com/stanfordleon Blog - www.stanfordleon.wordpress.com


  1. “What if we demanded that our art be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings?”

    That was always the assumption until about 1985, when post-modern theory began to re-define art as a system of enculturation that supports elite power structures. There was some truth to the idea, but it became so faddish and doctrinaire that a lot of harm was done to arts education. We now see the result of faddish, short-sighted academic orthodoxy.

    Are there perhaps other factors at work as well? Are there social forces in society that do not want “better human beings?” Would better humans not want to sit in front of a TV four hours day, and instead go to the theater, ballet, or jazz club? (In a 65-year life that means 9 years glued to the tube.) Would it mean that those better humans might look for deeper art forms than the three minute pop song leading to a commercial? Would better humans exposed to the thought of art begin to speak truth to power? Are there significant social forces in our society that do not want better humans, and thus do not want the arts to have a central position? Better humans might create social revolution. Is that what we’re seeing in Venezuela?

  2. Thomas Lloyd says

    Well said, Stanford – you are doing amazing new things for music and young people in Philly with your “Play On!” program. Regarding the overwhelming waste of human and financial resources since the 1980’s in our prison system, the civil rights leader and legal scholar Michelle Alexander has been opening eyes as to how that came about and needs to be changed in her recent thoroughly researched book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Jim_Crow

    More of us need to follow your example, and lead others by showing how music and music making can be a positive and dynamic part of building the whole person and rebuilding communities without any sacrifice of artistic standards or imagination, as El Sistema has proven.

  3. This is an excellent post in a truly terrific conversation — one which should be required reading for all cultural boards and leaders. “If no one noticed if we were not there, what value do we provide by being there” is a dramatic and vivid way of highlighting how leaders need to focus on creating value, not just the abstract notion of excellence. This value should be commensurate with the resources they are asking their communities to provide, particularly in tough economic times. There are a great many leaders who are wrestling with this issue now, and this conversation adds a great deal of insight to their challenges.

    Comment Tags: value
  4. Stanford–excellent post. Two thoughts.
    1) Some years ago when I was in Scotland, their cultural and political establishment were debating a national cultural entitlement plan–an official statement of what the citizens of the country could expect and demand of their country in terms of education and access to the arts and culture. Might that be a next step for a city like Philadelphia that is investing in its identity as a cultural destination? Or for other cities where we can provoke a conversation to achieve such a result? Stanford, with your excellent work creating Play On, Philly, an El Sistema inspired after school intensive orchestral program, you and your partner organizations are making a distinctive contribution to raising the aspirations and demands the usually-overlooked economically struggling sector can demand of their government.

    2) To answer your initial question. Scientists argue they can answer it. If a tree falls in the forest with no human around to hear it, it does NOT make a sound. It does send out an energy vibration, but it requires an ear that can receive that vibration and work its translational marvel in order for it to become something we might call a sound. Let’s hope humans can hear the struggling of the arts and arts education sectors and translate that into responsive action.

  5. Interesting take, Stan – I’ve been working on a complementary perspective for a few days now: