Where the Cultural Life Flowers, the Community as a Whole Prospers and Grows

Posted by Mr. Clayton W. Lord, Aug 17, 2015 0 comments

What makes a “healthy, vibrant, equitable community” healthy, vibrant, or equitable? As time marches on, what challenges will be presented to that community—to the millions of different communities that exist and overlap in every part of our lives? And how can the arts be a part of pushing past those challenges, empowering change, and creating a brighter future?

On a cool day in June 1962, a patrician looking man dressed in a dark suit with bowtie and pocket square took his place behind the podium in the main ballroom of the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington, DC. His name was August Heckscher, and he was an academic and a frequent politico of various stripes, there to speak to over 1,500 women drawn from throughout the country for the 71st annual Convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs around issues of community improvement and development.

“The arts,” he said, “have received in these years an attention, and have been employed with an enthusiasm, never before known in this country.”

“It is impossible,” he continued, “to go into the cities across our land without being convinced of the significance men attach to the cultural institutions in their midst.”

The women sat at their tables and listened. It was a remarkable time of change in the United States. The previous day, they had heard from Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy-by-marriage and the shepherd of a year-old government program called the Peace Corps. Shriver had articulated a new, peaceful view of what citizenship in America could mean. In so doing he had, in a way, primed the crowd for the speech Heckscher was now embarking upon, for Heckscher was the newly-minted (and first ever) Special Consultant for the Arts to President Kennedy, and he had been asked to speak about the federal government’s role in the arts, and the role of the arts in the betterment of American communities—a role that he felt was nothing short of vital to the future success of the nation.

Reflecting back on his work years later, Hecksher would say: “We must always remember our previous generations. Adams used to say that his generation had to build the continent and do the work with their hands, but a generation would come along which would devote itself fully to the arts and literature. And in the twentieth century that time has certainly come.”

And so it is as we march farther into the 21st.

The start of the 1960s was a time of incredible promise, optimism, flux, and frustration for the nation. Even in the glimmerings of the new, simmering social consciousness that would eventually erupt into the civil rights movement, even in the shadow of a looming and terrifying Russia, the close of the monotonous, post-World War II 1950’s brought with it a celebration of a sort of possibility—not least possibility for the widespread communities of ever-more-diverse people who called the United States home. To Hecksher, on that day in 1962, the nation seemed

poised on the edge of an era where fact-based knowledge was no longer either enough nor fulfilling, where economy had created a unique opportunity to look to the higher needs of the population, and where technology and health improvements had, for many, freed up copious amounts of time from doing work and allowed for longer lifespans. To Heckscher, such a convergence created a void most ideally filled with culture—or else dangerous and an opening to decline.

“We do not intend that our people should decline,” said Heckscher, defiantly. “We intend great days for ourselves and for our descendants. And so the cultivation of the arts attracts us.”

“There is thus,” he said, “in all parts of our country, and at all levels of the population, a new emphasis upon the life of the arts.”

Heckscher would eventually author the report that would lead to the founding, in 1966, of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities—the most significant policy statement about the role of the arts in the lives of American citizens ever made by the federal government. His life, stretching from 1914 to his death, at age 83 in 1997, would allow him to witness a tremendous progression in America—a shift from industrialization to an idea economy, a rising awareness of the multitude of voices that had before been a background drone to a single dominant culture, and, perhaps foremost, the ongoing transformation and re-transformation of America’s communities in cycles of boom and bust through war and peace, recession and prosperity, generations and generations again.

But on that day in 1962, smack in the middle of his life and the life of a very particular movement, Heckscher called out a truth that has echoed across at least the last 115 years, in various forms and functions - and that now, in the late dawn of a new century, leads the creative sector forward: “Where the cultural life flowers,” he said, “the community as a whole prospers and grows.” Arts & America: Arts, Culture, and the Future of America’s Communities emerges from an impulse, and a moment, not dissimilar from Hecksher’s—albeit separated from it by over fifty years. We are, today, in a significant moment—as silly and hubristic as that might seem to say. It feels, often, like as a country we are on the precipice of tumbling down a mountain one way or the other, either to a greener pasture or into a rocky destruction. Our communities function in ways as complex as the human-to-human interactions that compose them, and it is only by looking both forward and backward—not to mention outward to other sectors and inward to our better selves (and our inherent privileges and prejudices)—that we can create the healthy, vibrant, equitable communities that we each envision for ourselves and those we care about.

Arts & America is the first salvo of a longer conversation we are having here at Americans for the Arts—one that, we hope, will ultimately lead to a better collective understanding of the role of arts and culture in the many complex aspects of our lives. What will follow over the next few days are a few reactions to the book, the ideas planted in it, and the larger framework in which those ideas exist – a project called New Community Visions. I encourage you to take a look at the project (while there, you can also read PDF versions of the Arts & America essays, or order the full book), and to join us in a conversation that will stretch until next June.

How are communities changing? What is the role of arts, culture, heritage, and tradition? What new challenges will arise in education, economics, environment, social fabric, infrastructure, and more that will impact our lives, our communities, and our country? Tell us your thoughts in the comments the below, or write your own blog to be included in an ongoing series kicking off this week about Arts & America and the role of the arts in transforming communities. Contact our blog editor in chief at [email protected],org for more information. 

I hope you enjoy, and engage, the responses from readers that we'll be posting this week, and the essays themselves. If you're interested, another way to engage is to set up a Creative Conversation about these ideas in your own community during National Arts and Humanities Month in October. In September we’ll be launching a do-it-yourself toolkit so that you can walk through these ideas and brainstorm your own community visions—and then send them back our way to join an ever-grown set of input on how Americans for the Arts, and all of the artists, arts organizations, arts agencies, funders, and public and private sector partners who we serve, can make our communities better through the arts.

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