Can you save the arts, in our tech-focused world?

Why arts may be the single most important topic you’ll study in school.

“Art makes us reconsider our place under the sun,” Lawrence Weiner

In recent months, major political events have shaken our assumptions of the world; and as is often the case during such times, there is a risk for more division and misunderstandings. Arts can be a powerful tool here: it helps us appreciate other points of view, challenge our perspectives, and ultimately unite us.

It is therefore crucial to re-evaluate the accessibility and weight given to arts in our everyday life. More importantly, we want to provide our next generation with tools to understand and challenge our reality. In recent years, studies have shown that arts education may carry some of the most important benefits — in comparison to other fields — for the development of children’s and young adults’ critical thinking skills. And yet too often we see the arts treated as optional.

Out in the business world too, companies start to acknowledge design and creative thinking as essential skills to challenge their vision, and ultimately perform better. At a time when more and more consulting firms are buying design agencies and tech start-ups are hiring UX designers, the traditional boundaries between business, tech, and arts are finally starting to blur.

So why not offer arts programs in schools the value and resources they deserve? One of the goals we’ve set for ourselves at WeTransfer is to commit to providing arts students with the best conditions to succeed and follow their passion in creative disciplines. Here is why.

1. Benefits of arts in education

Arts classes can greatly benefit children and teens, as they are still growing physically and mentally. Music for example, has been proven to connect both hemispheres of the brain and therefore producing powerful changes in the brain structure. Learning to play an instrument at a young age enables stronger connections to form between various regions in the brain, and has a lifelong impact — thus highly improving communication and listening skills as an adult. It is similar to learning a new language as a child, which influences thought, consciousness and memory.

Arts also encourage students to value different perspectives, distinguish between reality and interpretations, and become more culturally aware. Research has shown that in low-income neighborhoods, kids in arts programs improve their overall academic performance (including math), score higher on the SAT, and are three times more likely to earn a Bachelor’s degree. Overall, arts classes provide a safe and fun environment that motivates children and young adults to go to school.

Perhaps most relevant to the ever-evolving world we live in, is how arts education fosters creativity and innovative minds. As Nelly Ben Hayoun, Wired Innovation fellow, director of NBH studios and Head of Experiences at WeTransfer, puts it:

“What our society needs are forward-thinking, disruptive and innovative minds, not more people who can only follow directions. We have the duty to inspire the next generation in science and tech to be bold, impolite and ambitious, and arts can provide that experience for them.”

Employers agree that so-called soft skills — like the ability to innovate — are crucial for young hires. In the workplace, we need people that are able to think of innovative ways to tackle problems, understand different perspectives and make conscientious decisions. Arts programs can help provide these skills early on in one’s life.

2. Current state of mind

Despite their clear benefits, arts programs are still undervalued. The worry remains that arts degrees won’t be “useful,” and that job prospects are low. Students (and their parents) question whether they should pursue their passion in music and other arts fields - even though the unemployment gap is generally at one percent between holders of arts degree and those of other disciplines, and the salary gap closes during the course of their careers.

Arts programs are also poorly funded here in the US. As a result of the 2008 recession, budget cuts forced public schools to reduce or eliminate them, especially dance and theatre. Schools in low-income neighborhoods are the most affected by these cuts.

On top of that, government policies like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) re-directs schools’ funding efforts on subjects like math and reading, at the expense of arts classes. This happens under NCLB, because schools need their students to first meet standard scores in basic skills before they can receive funding. Consequently, schools allocate their budget to classes with standardized tests.

Luckily, several education-driven initiatives have been launched to both inform about the value of arts in schools and allocate more resources to arts programs.

3. Existing initiatives

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with John Maeda, and discuss our progress at WeTransfer. What struck me was how easily he navigated complexities relating to site design and technology, within the context of a company’s core business challenges.

Since 2010, John has indeed been one of the most influential people behind the STEAM movement. That’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), with an additional “A” for Arts. As president at Rhode Island School of Design, John helped institutionalize STEAM and bring it forward to political forums.

In an interview with the Guardian, he explained:

Art helps you see things in a less constrained space. Our economy is built upon convergent thinkers, people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities. Superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (the artists and designers) and convergents (science and engineering) together.

In 2012, he worked with a bipartisan Congressional STEAM caucus. Stressing its impact on innovation and economic growth, he advocated for the introduction of arts and design into federal STEM programs.

At a district level, schools have also taken up initiatives to encourage students to pursue their passion for arts. Two years ago, NYU’s Clive Davis Institute established a free music program, called the Future Music Moguls. It is designed for high-school kids from under-represented groups, particularly from lower socio-economic neighborhoods in the New York tri-state area. Future Music Moguls is a twelve-week long workshop at NYU, where students learn the ins-and-outs of the music business. By teaching young kids how to combine their passion for music with entrepreneurial skills, the program provides them with the best tools to develop a successful artist career.

This previous semester, Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand kickstarted a new kind of design class at Yale’s School of Management. They are looking to help their MBA students to become fluid in design. This class, and its associated podcast, serves to re-state the importance of design in shaping innovation and all aspects of a business.

At WeTransfer, we are committed to supporting students who wish to pursue a career in the arts. We want to provide them with the best tools to succeed. That is why we launched a new initiative specifically for arts schools in the US. We are giving away one year’s free access to our premium Plus service to every arts student in America. They will benefit from a range of additional options, including bigger transfers up to 20GB, access to 100GB storage and the ability to personalize their profile and present their files in style.

When we approached NYU’s Clive Davis Institute to kick off our program and share the offer with their students, the response was incredibly positive and encouraged us to reach out further. Marat Berenstein, NY-based artist manager and faculty member at the NYU Tisch Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, said of the roll-out:

All of our students work with large media files that they need to transfer constantly, so I’m not surprised that the response from our students has been dramatic. Close to 100 students accessed accounts in the first few days of the roll-out, in part because the WeTransfer delivery system is quick and easy to use, as well as personally customizable.

We believe that by doing our part and offering this free support for arts students, we can facilitate their individual growth — and at a larger scale, help to encourage the development of arts education and our future generation’s well-being. And perhaps that’s all it takes to bring forward change.

Or as Nelson Mandela would say: “When the water is boiling, it is foolish to turn off the heat.”

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