If you’re reading this magazine, chances are you believe art is essential to a vibrant, healthy, equitable society, and that art can change the world for the better. Take heart—you are now armed and ready to go forth and preach: A major new study demonstrates that the positive, transformative nature of art is more than a feeling. It’s a fact.
On Oct. 25 Seattle-based arts granting engine ArtsFund published its Social Impact of the Arts Study, a 59-page statement on the power of art to affect social change, a showstopper some two years in the making. It’s the first study of its kind in the region and among the first in the U.S.
Through exhaustive research of academic papers, grantmaking reports, nationwide research and journal articles dating back a decade, plus a survey of roughly 200 King County arts organizations and an online survey of 430 King County residents, the Social Impact Study explains in deep detail the direct impact art makes on communities, focusing on three primary areas: youth development and education, health and wellness, and neighborhood vitality. Each of these areas, the study maintains, is a critical component in building and maintaining strong communities, and each benefits from a steady, equitable influx of artistic influence.
“We face resistance to arts support in our work, the idea of, ‘I don’t support the arts, I support education or community development,’” says Sarah Sidman, ArtsFund’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Communications. “But they’re not separate issues. The arts have great capacity to contribute to those issues and more.”
ArtsFund, which launched in Seattle in 1969 and has since granted millions of dollars to arts organizations around the region, worked with Berk Consulting, a civic brain trust oriented around urban planning and development. “We wanted a team who had that public policy lens and awareness of the vocabulary of those who are shaping our region’s future to help us better frame this report,” Sidman says.
A few of the study’s robust declarations: Art heals communities (“low-income neighborhoods with cultural resources have 14% fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and 18% less serious crime than low-income neighborhoods without cultural resources”) as well as humans (“45% of medical institutions nationwide offer some sort of arts program, with eight out of 10 stating they do so to benefit patient recovery”). Art also propels underserved youth toward brighter futures (“71% of at-risk students with high arts involvement attend college, whereas 47% of at risk-students with low arts involvement attend college”).
The study considers not only the social benefits of the arts but who has access to them and who stands to benefit most from their proliferation. “More equitable access to the arts can build more equitable outcomes,” Sidman says.
Ten in-depth case studies take a narrative approach, delving into the backstories and operations of King County arts nonprofits, including the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, Seattle Theatre Group, the Vedic Cultural Center and Jet City Improv. Together they paint a picture of an ecosystem that serves a wide variety of locales and demographics even as its systemic impacts have gone largely unrecognized by the general public.
When asked “How does art affect your life?” King County residents cited personal factors most, such as “Art brings me joy” and “Art helps me understand other perspectives.” External benefits, like “Art benefits children” or “Art promotes social change,” were among the least cited. When it comes to the overall social fabric, apparently people fail to understand the more nuanced benefits and connections the arts provide. Sidman chalks this up to lack of awareness. The study, she says, shines a light on “something that’s true.”
“Consider the alternative,” she says. “Increasingly disconnected populations and isolated individuals. As the diversity of our community expands, having tensions and differences highlighted instead of points of connection. The alternatives are possible. The arts sector is at risk if it isn’t supported and isn’t embraced as the powerful contributor it is. And if there’s risk to the arts sector, there’s a risk to the community at large.”
The ArtsFund study should help mitigate that risk. Sidman wants to see arts strategies further implemented in the decisions that will shape all levels of city life. She says ArtsFund is encouraging all regional arts organizations—and arts-oriented individuals—to spread the gospel of the study’s findings far and wide.
“The data exists and the impacts exist,” she says. “It’s a question of putting those together and connecting the community with this story so they can activate it moving forward. Either you’re the audience for this study or the amplifier.”
The Social Impact of the Arts Study is online at artsfund.org/socialimpact.