On the Art of Change

For as long as I can remember, the arts have imbued energy and meaning into my life.

As a small child in a little Southeast Texas town, I pored over the glossy pages of art magazines that my grandmother, a domestic, brought me from the homes of the wealthy families for whom she worked. Page after page, hour after hour, my mind visited worlds from which I otherwise would have been excluded. In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations for myself. The arts broadened my horizons — my very sense of the possible.

As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I first saw the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and everything clicked. My life was changed forever.

As a young professional in New York City in the 1980s, I fell in love with the city’s museums and galleries and treasured institutions, the likes of which I had never experienced before. I found a passion for the performing arts — for Alvin Ailey and others — and for the theater, documentary film and the writers of Harlem, especially Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.

It was Baldwin — a Ford Foundation grantee — who wrote, “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” To me this rang true because I was insatiably curious about the world, and in art I found meaning. This was at a time, by the way, when I fell in love with an art dealer — and was introduced to a new world of artists, collectors, curators and critics.

As a result of all this, I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. In fact, I am a product of it.

I ardently believe I would not be standing before you today as the president of the Ford Foundation if not for my exposure to the arts. And, in turn, throughout my two-decade career in philanthropy, I have advocated for creative visionaries. I have sought new ways to support them, and to amplify voices of those artists around the globe who are not being heard.

AN UNDERLYING CRISIS: OUR MENTALITY OF INSTRUMENTALITY

And yet, given the importance of art and culture in my life, and in society, I have noticed a troubling trend during the last few years.

We all know how repressive regimes stifle creativity and persecute artists who rouse public sentiment for the sake of public good. But even where artists do enjoy freedom of expression, artists and art institutions are forced to justify their contributions in economic terms alone. Their relevance — their very existence — is often defended with studies and statistics.

All of this reflects a larger trend, of course: Our culture has bought into the idea that if something cannot be measured, then it somehow does not matter.

No doubt, it is not easy to quantify the so-called impact of a musician, dancer, painter, or filmmaker — let alone a graffitist or video-game coder. In my eyes, though, this is no excuse for only supporting those things that deliver immediately quantifiable returns.

SHORT TERM-ISM IS THE ENEMY OF ART

This is a problem not limited to art and artists. It reveals and reinforces a societal illness — a perversion and distortion. With increasing regularity, we prioritize short-term gain over long-term good.

This kind of short-termism has infected so many dimensions of our lives. Education. Health care. Development. Business. Government. It has disrupted the way our society makes decisions.

Take an example from our own recent experience: helping the city of Detroit, Michigan, to navigate its unprecedented bankruptcy without losing its soul, or the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection was owned by the people. At the Ford Foundation, we watched as billionaires circled above the city, waiting to strip down and sell off the museum and its masterpieces. Such “asset monetization” may have made sense in the short term. In the longer term, however, it was unacceptable. These potential buyers simply were not invested in the Detroit of 2020, of 2030, of 2050 — let alone in the people who live there now.

The Grand Bargain that emerged — which we were proud to support — preserved the pensions of hard-working citizens and a cultural institution that will be treasured for generations to follow. It is precisely this focus on the next decade — on the next century — that must animate our thinking and working.

ECONOMIES OF EMPATHY

The good news is, we can change our pervasive shortsighted outlook. We can prioritize long-term investments in community and in culture.

And the arts? The arts are an indispensable ingredient in the recipe for progress and change.

Apart from generating economic value, the arts and culture create economies of empathy. And because of that, we have seen them play an integral part in building a wide range of social movements, from the civil rights movement to the Arab Spring.

Artists challenge the status quo and give voice to those left out and left behind. Artists imagine a better world and inspire others to join in building it. They move us to hope, joy, compassion, resolve and, ultimately, action.

THE ART OF CHANGE

Because our work at the Ford Foundation is rooted in building social justice movements, my colleagues and I are devoting the next year to a process of rediscovery — exploring how the arts and creativity can intersect with, interact with and inspire all of our work for social change.

As a step of this process, we have invited a number of cultural visionaries to join us as fellows — to prompt and inform our own thinking. Their work will challenge us to reimagine ways the arts can help solve social problems.

We work on complex issues, but we have seen, time and again, how the arts can play a role in stirring our passions and awakening our creativity and empathy.

This role of arts and culture is not an add-on to our other work to improve lives. Rather, it is part and parcel — it is central, really — to changing beliefs and behaviors.

WHY THE ARTS ARE AT THE HEART OF OUR MISSION

Today, our reliance on and reverence for short-term, market-based justifications reveals a profound imbalance in the way our society is organized — an inequality of the highest order.

For some of us, less access to art means our shared insights are shallower, our collective creativity is duller and our lives are just more boring. Plain and simple.

For those among us who struggle the most, however, the stakes are significantly higher.

When people in the 21st century’s equivalent of my childhood town — all around the world — are denied an opportunity to connect with art, their imaginations are starved of the fuel to fully fire. Their horizons are pulled in and closed off. Their dreams are curtailed, and senses of possibility diminished. Their social movements are deterred and derailed.

We cannot allow this to continue. We owe ourselves better.

We still can be a society that celebrates art — that, literally, treasures creative expression. And we must continue working to translate this aspiration into action.

Twenty-some months into my presidency at the Ford Foundation, I hear friends and colleagues asking, “Where does the foundation stand on arts and culture today?”

My answer is that, for us, they remain right where they belong — at the heart of everything we think about, invest in and stand for.

Simply put, less art leads to more inequality. More inequality leads to less justice. And this is not something with which any of us should be comfortable.


This essay is adapted from an address delivered at the Skoll World Forum on April 17, 2015

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