The Golden Opportunity of Social Impact and the Arts

Clay Lord

Digging Up

In 2013, Bill Gates gave an interview in the Financial Times in which he implicated the arts community in some kind of strained opposition to community health. “He questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness.”1 Not only was this not a great moment, but this kind of thinking ultimately harms the artists and communities doing important work together that we know contributes to social wellbeing.2

Gates was exploring why the philanthropic dollars from high-net worth individuals would be better spent on preventing illness-induced blindness in children than to build a new museum wing, and it incensed the arts world. This moment became a proxy for the challenges of public value. The problem of this paradigm is two-fold. First, philanthropic resources do not need to exist within a zero-sum frame. Second, arts are central to community betterment; this is a non-negotiable truth. Is a museum wing worth not preventing blindness? No. But, could the arts be a mechanism for that prevention? Yes.

Art makes better human beings; art makes being human better.

Within the arts and culture field, this concept is a given, and across the world — Germany, England, Japan, South Africa, France — we see arts and culture as a central value to living. Moreover, and importantly, this same centrality of arts and culture is evident in populations within the United States itself, including Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx communities, and countless others whose cultures have been threatened.

“As Indians we are artistic; it’s in our nature,” says Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project and founder of the Red Can Graffiti Jam. “We have no word for ‘art.’ People, for example, look at our tipis, and they say ‘that’s art.’ We look at our tipis and say, ‘That tells a story.’ It’s very cultural.”

Garreau’s words echo loudly in Gates’ paradigm, challenging the implication that funding cultural practices could be understood as superfluous, or even immoral. Such a perspective calls upon a deep-rooted strain of white skepticism about the role of arts and culture in making communities better places, running the way back to the Puritan influences of the first European colonizers. The results of which and have manifested in a prolonged and persistent division of arts and culture into two main threads: “community art,” which has often been diminished as ineffectual, amateur hobbyism; and “art,” which is predominantly considered the formal production of art, held in controlled spaces, with limited access, and solid parameters of form and function.

The hole we find ourselves in, then, is deep, and it has been around a long time. John Adams, in a 1780 letter to his wife, Abigail, famously laid out a sort of priority for European American ideology that remains basically true, saying, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy . . . in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”3

We are a country where security, industry, and pragmatism come first, and art comes later. This mix of Puritanical asceticism and patriarchal classism undergirds the system.4

As the country grew from the time of John and Abigail, civic-mindedness and communal progress emerged as strong traits. We were a country anxious to collaborate to solve major societal issues,5 but also, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, a country concerned with “exclusively commercial habits . . . which seem to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts,” and focused “upon purely practical objects.” De Tocqueville brought it home, saying of the burgeoning United States, the “taste for the useful predominate[s] over the love of the beautiful.”6

The Arts + Social Impact Explorer is an interactive online tool that draws together more than 1,000 data points on how the arts impact and integrate into 26 different sectors ranging from education and innovation, to health and wellness, immigration, faith, and environment. The Explorer was designed as an entry point to the large and growing body of research, projects, and support organizations that exist at the intersection of the arts and various parts of our community. Users can learn from example projects, access research, and engage directly with the other partners doing this work from coast to coast.

The goal of the Explorer is to make it easier to see the ways that the arts can — and do — permeate community life, and to provide advocates and leaders with the information and research they need to make that impact visible and encourage deeper investment in the arts through pro-arts policy and pro-arts funding.

In the late nineteenth century, the staggering inequity of the Industrial Revolution created both wealthy capitalist-philanthropists and a growing class of people disenfranchised by them. Community development became more structured, and the relatively unique animal that is private American philanthropy was born.7 At their core, most of these philanthropies endeavored to improve communities through targeted investment in social change — like privately underwriting the eradication of illness-induced childhood blindness. The arts, by and large, went unthought of in this model of philanthropy, with certain notable exceptions, such as Andrew Carnegie’s library project. Most early arts philanthropy was instead about building up cultural institutions for the dual purposes of creating desirable cultural reputations and enclaves of limited access in which to enjoy the grandiosity that followed. This type of philanthropy has increasingly gone by the wayside, in favor of incremental and measurable social betterment.

We are all, then, in a moment of crucial translation. Foundations, government agencies, and private donors want community impact. They can also be skeptical that the arts are — and always have been — instrumental in community cohesion and transformation. To dig up, we need to understand the value systems of those holding power and privilege who have historically dismissed the necessity of the arts to community wellbeing, since they are the same people who ultimately make decisions about how to fund community wellbeing programs, and compel their embrace of a different narrative.


My daughter loves superheroes, particularly Spiderman. Her obsession means I have spent a lot of time reading superhero stories lately, and I have found that superheroes can teach us a lot about our own power through the arts. Like a superpower, the social impacts of arts and culture are both extraordinary and agnostic. Superhumans are people before they are heroes or villains, and regardless of what other people think of them, “villains” tend to think they are heroes in their own story. Our power exists regardless of the outcome of use — beneficial or detrimental — and most times evaluating our social impact is an exercise in spectrums rather than opposite poles.

We can assert, the arts are not inherently good or bad, but they are powerful. You can create the WPA Arts Project or disenfranchise, erase, and disadvantage whole populations. Sometimes (often?), we, like Spiderman, aim for one but do some measure of the other. Sometimes we feel it. Other times, because of distance, privilege, or belief, we do not.

Our calculus exists in two steps, just like that of superheroes. The first is social impact: doing an extraordinary thing that transforms a community. The second is social justice: doing an extraordinary thing that transforms a community in the direction of justice. And yet, the caution: in someone’s narrative, Magneto is an avenging angel, and Professor X and his troupe of superhuman mutants are just getting in the way. So, how do we navigate these narratives for ourselves while also thinking about those decision makers still in need of convincing?

Enter the Americans for the Arts’ Arts + Social Impact Explorer. Since the launch of the Explorer, we have access to stories that speak to this calculus. For example, we know that having a cultural organization in a community has been shown to increase the nearby residential property values by as much as 20 percent.8 In one Phoenix community, tax revenues more than doubled in a seven-year period following the integration of a “creativity hub,” compared to an overall decline in tax revenue across the city.9 These are social impacts, but depending on the nuance of the stories, they may or may not be socially just outcomes.

This gets even more complicated as we begin to examine the various goals of a social impact lens for arts and culture. For example, the arts have been shown to reduce a patient’s use of pain medication and the length of their hospital stay by up to one full day.10 This is great for patients, but in ongoing dialogues with health care CEOs, Americans for the Arts has heard repeatedly that patient cost savings is often achieved by reducing revenue to the health care organization. That is not an argument to bring into a boardroom, no matter how on board with the arts a CEO might be.

At their best moments, social impact and social justice marry and create unlikely alliances. At a convening for the Create Justice collaborative, which works on juvenile justice reform, former Kentucky State Juvenile Justice Commissioner Hasan Davis offered up a story of working with both social justice advocates and conservative lawmakers to overhaul the justice system together despite their disagreements on whether the rationale was a moral or economic one. He ultimately succeeded in engaging the conservative legislature in crafting and passing a bill that overhauled the Kentucky juvenile justice system and de-emphasized jails in favor of holistic work within communities. This pragmatism, which can feel distasteful, is essential when trying to tackle something that many people have deciding stakes in.

Through arts education and arts experiences, Overland Park, Kansas’s Arts in Prison program, has reduced recidivism rates among former participants in the program to less than half the average recidivism rate in the United States. That is both good for the incarcerated humans and good for the bottom line.

“We have to meet people where they are,” says Margy Waller, senior fellow at the Topos Partnership, a communications and research firm that specializes in framing science. Adults, particularly, have their values systems firmly in place, and success in communication is not about changing minds but about creating communications frames that help people understand that their value system and your value system align.

Bob Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, tells a story about when a program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation let him know that after years of underwriting Americans for the Arts’ work, the foundation was pivoting out of the arts space.

“Well, what are you pivoting into?” Lynch asked. The answer, it turns out, was improving local economies. “The arts do that. Would you help us quantify that impact?” Lynch said, thereby, with one well-framed question, launching a thirty-year body of work called Arts & Economic Prosperity.

Trees and Forests

In a reality of limited time, attention, and dollars, for individuals and communities to be actively and creatively engaged in community betterment requires that:

  1. The arts be ready to address issues that are top of mind for community members;
  2. Arts practitioners be equipped to engage in such efforts alongside community members;
  3. When such engagement occurs, the link between the creative intervention and the positive outcome be clear, thereby encouraging community members to support more such work in the future.

Proximity is key. The urgency individuals feel about different community challenges is at least partially determined by how proximate individuals are to those issues. Do they have children in school? Do they drive? Do they feel unsafe? But, sometimes, even proximity is not enough. While improvements are celebrated, root causes go unrecognized and this makes it difficult for efforts to proliferate. Evaluating and crediting the underlying interventions while addressing community issues expands what people care about and sets up a more successful conversation about what components would need to be deployed to address similar issues in the future. Interventions require resources, and resource allocation is prioritized based on perceived value and efficacy, as well as a belief that what is working should be given the resources to continue.

Public opinion polling research reveals a persistent disconnect between abstract and specific value; while nine in ten people believe the arts are important to quality of life, much lower percentages of people indicate a willingness to act by giving money, attending, or supporting pro-arts candidates.11 This is in part because the connection between arts and culture and the communities in which they live is not clear.

As Julie Garreau says, “We don’t want to save the world. We just want to save our kids.” For Garreau, the arts were integral to that salvation, and her Native American community got on board. This is not always the case.

“I see it as deconstructing the ‘art for art’s sake’ notion in a very positive way,” says Priya Sircar, director of arts at the Knight Foundation. “What is ‘art’s sake,’ anyway? It’s our sake.”

When asked, most people have trouble making the connection between arts and culture and a self-identified pressing community issue at all. When the arts intersect with someone’s primary personal or community challenges — basic health, good education, safe neighborhood, steady employment — the public needs to know that so they can value that. Since its launch in October, the Explorer has been viewed nearly sixteen thousand times, and the materials have been downloaded over six thousand times. Once there, people spend on average six minutes exploring, which is an eon in web surfing time.

Raising awareness of the role of arts and culture increases the likelihood of participation, public referenda, policy making, and more. And, support for arts funding increases when it is associated with another sector such as arts and education, health, or public safety.12

For funders, we see this dialogue increasing. Two arts program officers I spoke with indicated they had encountered significant challenges when talking to their foundations’ boards and leadership about why the arts program should not just persist but be more deeply funded in this time of competing priorities, crisis, and increased awareness of social return on investment. Arts program officers increasingly find themselves educating applicants and grantees on the difference between true arts-based community development practice and lip service. They also often end up engaging with relatively persistent questions of mission drift, shifting values, equity, and legacy.

If we can ultimately increase the perception that arts and culture have value and improve and make more ubiquitous quality practice within the field, we can create better places with more complete support. More abundant financial and nonfinancial support drives jobs, encourages investment, eases pathways to capitalization, and puts an imprimatur on the work. This centers community in the conversation, and practitioners then learn to work more effectively to address the community’s challenges. Higher-quality support also prolongs a project’s life and deepens the community outcomes over time. In short, the community improves more. The quality of the work — its prevalence, the expertise and the complexity of the theories behind it, the specificity with which it is able to be evaluated — reinforces and redoubles the strength of the work itself, which then completes the cycle by enhancing and amplifying the effects of the arts intervention on the community.

Arts and culture is one of the best tools for equitable community betterment: it can be engaged by everyone, drives innovation, reinforces community identity, and creates joy and pride. Our charge: make sure great work is not a lonely tree falling in the forest. Practitioners must be prepared to engage effectively. Good work must be showcased and made visible to the entire community. Stakeholders must be educated about the impact of the arts on community transformation. Public will, and the associated policy and resources, must be lined up.

A Path of Persuasion

“How do we frame our value in the community?” asks Maud Lyon, the president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “Economic impact favors larger institutions in certain locations and cities, and my personal take is that 90 percent of arts and culture isn’t that anyway. It’s more community based, focused on residents — helping people live happier, healthier, more productive lives.”

During the summer of 2018, the Alliance conducted their first Social Impact Census,13 driven by the release of the Arts + Social Impact Explorer and the completion of another research report the Alliance had commissioned, titled Beyond the Check.14 This second report compiled survey and interview data from individual donors and revealed that only about 30 percent of all individuals give to the arts as their priority. The rest range across education, the environment, and helping vulnerable populations. In a set of confidential interviews with high net worth individuals who do not give to arts and culture, interviewees revealed that they associated “arts and culture” with big organizations like museums, and that that was not what they were looking to do with their money. They wanted to reach the larger community, and they thought the arts were a nonstarter.

For the Social Impact Census, the Alliance surveyed 179 organizations and found over one thousand arts programs that had demonstrable, deliberate social impacts built into them. Some of these were about using the arts to educate the public on non-arts issues, and others were about using the arts directly with affected populations, like elderly or incarcerated people. Often the work was more than a decade old, and the dominant response was joy that their efforts were getting any attention.

We have a good story to tell, but we have not really told it. And in this moment, when much of both public and private funding is interested in addressing core, deep, persistent, and fundamental community needs we have a golden opportunity, if we can figure out how to take it.

“Here’s the thing,” Lyon says. “It’s all about a path of persuasion. We’ve got the stories, and more and more we’ve got the data. You’re not trying to change people’s opinions; you’re trying to build on what they already believe. So, let’s do that. Let’s get out there and open more peoples’ ears.”


  1. Richard Waters, “An Exclusive Interview with Bill Gates, Financial Times, November 1, 2013,
  2. University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) and Reinvestment Fund, “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project” (2017). Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City. 2.

    Researchers Susan C. Seifert and Mark J. Stern demonstrate the significant impact of cultural assets in communities through a two-year study of New York City, “In lower-income neighborhoods, when we control statistically for economic wellbeing, race, and ethnicity, we find that the presence of cultural resources is significantly associated with positive social outcomes around health, schooling, and security.”

  3. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society,
  4. As de Tocqueville noted, “The religion professed by the first emigrants, and bequeathed by them to their descendants, simple in its form of worship, austere and almost harsh in its principles, and hostile to external symbols and to ceremonial pomp, is naturally unfavorable to the fine arts, and only yields a reluctant sufferance to the pleasures of literature,” Alexis de Tocqueville, Chapter IX, Democracy in America, vol. 2,
  5. See, for example, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking,” white paper for The Mayor’s Institute on City Design,
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville, chapter 11, in Democracy in America, vol. 2, trans. Henry Reeve (Project Gutenberg, 2006), accessed March 11, 2015,
  7. For more about the history of community development, see Alexander Von Hoffman, “The Past, Present, and Future of Community Development in the United States,” Essays on People, Place & Purpose, Investing in What Works for America’s Communities,
  8. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, “Arts and Culture in Urban or Regional Planning: A Review and Research Agenda,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 29, no. 3 (2010),
  9. Mary Jo Waits, “Five Roles for Arts, Culture, and Design in Economic Development,” 21 (2014), Community Development Investment Review,
  10. “The Healing Power of Art: Can Hospital Collections Help?,” September 23, 2014, NBC News,
  11. Americans for the Arts, “Americans Speak Out about the Arts in 2018: An In-Depth Look at Perceptions and Attitudes about the Arts in America,”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, “Social Impact Census,”
  14. Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Beyond the Check: A Roadmap for Engaging Individual Donors, 2018,