The Importance of the Arts in our Communities: Robert L. Lynch and Laura Zabel
October means something very important to the arts world and to communities throughout the United States -- National Arts and Humanities Month, now in its 30th year. Citizens of Minnesota have celebrated through numerous events that proudly showcase the state as an eclectic and dynamic artistic community, rich in cultural heritage.
It is fitting, then, that our capital city be the starting point for a nationwide dialogue exploring the future of local arts in America and the ways that community members can shape that future.
This month, the national nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts kicked off its New Community Visions Initiative here in St. Paul, the first of 12 regional meetings across the country that start a national conversation on the critical importance of the arts in our communities and how to harness the transformative power of the arts locally.
The focus of the meeting was inter-community connection and the role that the arts could play in positively impacting the evolving community over the years. This topic couldn't be more timely. A quick glance at the headlines of any newspaper illustrates how the United States is at a historical crossroads of social change. As a community we can choose to learn and move forward together, or we can tumble backward.
The country's future depends on inter-community connections -- the promise of increased understanding between people who maybe have little in common on the surface.
The arts have a long history of bringing people together across boundaries -- increasing understandings across disparate and historically unequal groups, and supporting the agency of underrepresented communities to create, maintain and share their own stories.
Artists and arts organizations are an important resource in our path to building stronger connections. Opportunities for more even-footed conversation among groups lead to insight and a shared sense of community, and in turn lay the groundwork for exploration about how to maintain vital cultural and community traditions while inviting much-needed neighborhood investment.
One of our favorite examples of the power of the arts in St. Paul occurred several years ago during construction of the Green Line. Springboard for the Arts engaged more than 600 artists to create 150 small projects in their own neighborhoods in response to the major disruption. These projects effectively created a new media narrative about the neighborhoods, sparking more than 50 million positive media impressions of neighborhoods based on the authentic assets that comprise those communities. This new narrative provided people both inside and outside the community a fresh perspective on the value of the businesses and people who reside there.
But it isn't only artists and arts organizations that are stewards of strength and connection in communities. You can be, too. Take the time to go to community meetings and learn more about what's happening. Tend to a neighborhood; participate in projects like community murals or sidewalk painting. You'll be surprised how these small, creative acts can change the perception of neighborhood value and safety both inside and outside the community.
Integrating the arts more fully into our lives enriches each of us, and because engaging in the arts brings individuals together, it fosters community. Art and artists aren't only in museums or concert halls -- they are all around us. Every one of us has the ability to create and to imagine a way to make our neighborhood healthier or stronger.
As the month-long, coast-to-coast celebration of National Arts and Humanities Month concludes, be aware of the many events and opportunities to engage in the arts, and take advantage of them. Whether you react, you produce, or you take a stand, you have a role to play.
Robert L. Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Laura Zabel is executive director of Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul.
This op ed was originally published by TwinCities.com on 10/27/15 after our first Community Visions Initative forum in St. Paul, Minnesota.