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Arts Education Means Business

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Arts education is good for business.

For many business executives, that proposition rings like a leaden tuning fork. Year after year, arts groups camp like mendicants on their doorsteps, seeking support for the local symphony or for yet another struggling, avant-garde theater group. More recently, those with hat in hand are likely to be scrabbling to rescue a school arts-education program that is going under.

To be sure, many executives are pleased to respond, whether out of a broad philosophical belief in the value of arts education, because they have a child in the school orchestra, or because they believe support for the arts is good corporate citizenship. But seldom do advocates for arts education make their case on business's terms. But the arts are good for business, for four reasons.

  • Arts education builds the skills businesses need in their employees. The world of work has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Routinized behavior is out, and the ability to adapt, diagnose problems, and find creative solutions--even at the most basic levels of production and service delivery--is now critical.

C.E.O.'s continue to recite the now-familiar litany of need for such basic skills as reading, writing, computing, speaking, and listening. But more and more, business leaders are looking for something different. They want people who can work comfortably with many different symbol systems, make decisions, solve problems, apply reasoning skills, and think creatively. They want workers who know how to imagine and how to apply their imaginations to real business problems.

But as many corporate leaders are beginning to realize, getting workers who have learned to think creatively and imaginatively means starting them on that path in the early years. As Richard S. Gurin, the C.E.O. of Binney & Smith (the Crayola people) puts it, "If we don't encourage people to develop imagination and vision when they are very young, why would we ever expect them to exhibit those qualities as adults, in a pressure-packed business career?'' And, Mr. Gurin adds, "it's not just 'the arts for art's sake,' or even appreciation of culture. It may be that the economic future of America depends on our country's ability to develop innovative ways of learning.''

When it comes to leadership development, the personal characteristics that are among those most highly prized in business turn out to be responsibility, self-esteem, self-management, cooperation, getting along well in group settings, and imagination. The U.S. Labor Department agrees. Its 1991 report, "What Work Requires of Schools,'' insists that skills like these are critical for the 21st-century workforce in the global economy.

Funny you should mention. Those are exactly the skills and characteristics that a sound education in the arts fosters and nurtures. A listing of almost 150 research studies, compiled by the Kentucky Alliance for Arts Education and the Kentucky Arts Council, confirms overwhelmingly that the arts enhance creativity and foster such highly touted thinking skills as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The research also shows that studying the arts improves communications skills, helps students learn the cooperation essential for today's work groups, and develops a more positive self-concept. Equally important, an arts education demonstrates the crucial connections between disciplined work habits and getting results.

Researchers have also demonstrated that arts education helps students perform better in other subjects. In one study done by the Educational Testing Service, for example, students who had more than four years of art and music education scored 34 points higher on the verbal S.A.T. and 18 points higher on the math S.A.T. than those who had not studied the arts.

The evidence all points in the same direction. Arts education pays off when it comes to the kind of worker companies are looking for. Businesses should support arts education because they get better workers when they do, and because the quality of the country's workforce depends on it.

  • A healthy culture and a healthy business climate go together. There is no business in the United States that is not, in some way, dependent on the arts. Every machine that stamps out an automobile fender, weaves a textile, or generates electric power incorporates the arts in its design, manufacture, and sale. The media arts inform and entertain 250 million Americans daily. Applied arts such as architecture create the spaces in which Americans live and work. Local newspaper ads, television commercials, and other forms of business promotion all derive their appeal and power to communicate from the arts. Creating more attractive and more competitive products depends on the imagination and skill of artists. Taken together, the commercial and fine arts make up 6 percent of our country's gross domestic product; in a $6 trillion economy, that's $360 billion a year.

Beyond the business context, the qualitative contribution of the arts to society, culture, and civilization itself is enormous. In the end, nations that endure do so not through the power of their arms, but through the power of their ideas and their art. (What remains, after all, of Attila and his Huns?) Art is the only physical remainder we have of Greece and Rome; art is what connects us most powerfully with the Renaissance; art is the richest legacy we can leave to the generations that come after us.

But great art doesn't just happen. It has to be produced--by people whose talent and skill are recognized early, nurtured, and given room to grow. Art needs, too, educated audiences to view it, listen to it, and pay for it. But audiences are created only if we educate our children to understand, appreciate, and make art themselves. And that means arts education.

  • Arts education fosters appreciation of cultural diversity. Art connects us to the past, but it binds us to one another just as powerfully in the present. But today, the cords of society seem frayed to the breaking point. Who today is not aware of the virus of ethnic, religious, and racial divisiveness that infects the world--from Los Angeles to South Africa to Northern Ireland? Unity seems a mirage; group contends with group, division reigns, and violence overwhelms civility.

Historically, Americans have looked to the schools to bind each new generation to a shared core of social and civic values. Yet even in the schools, we hear the crescendo of demand--for special treatment, special populations, separate schools, and curricula that stress cultural exclusivity. This is not the stable environment that businesses need, and communities torn by such problems are not where companies want to do business or commit to growth.

What has all this unrest to do with arts education? It would be naÃive to suggest that these deep divisions can be healed by better visual art, music, dance or theater programs in local schools and communities. Yet, the truth remains that fractiousness is often just diversity with a bad temper. It is in our communities that we must begin to build, recognizing that cultures and subcultures are primarily defined and expressed through the arts. The arts disciplines foster a natural diversity of artifacts, productions, and events that express cultural values, both materially and spiritually. Well taught and supported, arts education is authentically multicultural because it seeks what unifies amid diversity: beauty, utility, and respect for the other's vision of the world. Arts education teaches--by helping children experience what others see, hear, and feel--that we are more alike than different. It creates connections.

In that light, it is also worth noticing that American corporations are now evaluating current and potential employees on their sensitivity to cultural differences, both in the workplace and the community. What better place to teach that sensitivity than through the arts, and to teach it first in the schools?

  • Arts and arts education strengthen communities and the businesses in them. Every business wants to live in a community that has vitality, that attracts more desirable employees, where their workers' children can get a balanced education; in short, where "amenities'' are a defining element of community life. Those kinds of communities speak directly to any company's balance sheet.

With the possible exception of athletics, arts education is more community oriented than any other school-related activity. School arts activities such as concerts and plays, dance recitals, art exhibits, puppet shows, and band festivals become community rallying points. They can also help businesses that involve themselves in these events establish a strong community presence. Arts partnerships provide businesses with a unique opportunity to support a school budget line that insures a continuing, high-quality program with qualified arts specialists. Such partnering also provides businesses with chances to support programs that provide enrichment experiences with community artists, arts organizations, and cultural institutions.

Interestingly, business-community arts partnerships play directly to the positive attitudes and opinions most Americans have about arts programs in the schools. According to a Louis Harris poll published by the American Council for the Arts in 1992, nine out of 10 Americans believe arts education is important for their children; 75 percent believe arts courses should be a part of the regular school curriculum, and almost seven out of 10 said they were willing to see cuts in school administrative spending to support arts education; more than half said they even would support cuts in school athletics to do so.

The Harris poll is reinforced by John Blair's 1991 study, "Urban and Regional Economics.'' Businesses seeking relocation, he noted, "may choose a site with more amenities or a better quality of life if other direct cost factors are about equal, and many firms will select amenity-rich environments, even when other things are not equal.'' Other researchers have verified that cultural amenities increase the leverage of companies in attracting the employees they want.

At the community level, the arts and other cultural amenities contribute to a healthy business environment in at least four ways: (1) they directly provide employees with skills that businesses need; (2) they stimulate local economies and generate secondary employment, for example, tourism and arts-audience spending, including entertainment, food, and lodging; (3) they attract businesses that are not arts-dependent; and (4) the arts are themselves an industry that creates jobs directly. Studies of communities such as Memphis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle have also shown that the arts are a powerful tool in economic revitalization and development.

The secret is out. The message about how the arts help business is getting around. One group spreading it is the South Carolina Arts Commission, whose campaign to bring arts education and businesses together has become a national model. A recently released study on the economic impact of South Carolina's cultural industry shows that it supports more than $674 million in total state output, nearly triple the figure of four years ago. Arts-education programs in South Carolina generated more than 3,600 jobs in 1992 and accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of the economic impact of the textile and tourism industries.

One state's experience with what arts education can do for business is only an illustration of what can happen. But what's possible in one place is only a step away from what is possible anywhere. Business executives across the country are beginning to take that step, learning from experience the truth behind the South Carolina commission's colorful bumper sticker: "Arts Education Means Business.''

Carol Sterling is the director for arts education at the American Council for the Arts in New York City.

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