Role of the Arts & Humanities in Addressing Society’s Problems

I recently attended a quiet conference that brought together leaders and innovators in the arts, humanities, and public broadcast. We met for two days to explore how the arts and humanities, writ large, contribute to articulating and solving some of society’s most intractable problems.

The program opened with a heads-up ceremony by Vera Sheehan of Abenaki Arts acknowledging and honoring the land and its earliest inhabitants. It was a wonderful reminder that we white Vermonters are not the beginning of civilization.

The program looked at major challenges Vermont faces, such as health care, economic development, diversity, support for veterans, and equity and inclusion.  Presenters gave examples of how Vermont’s cultural organizations have both told stories and offered solutions. One of the more compelling was a Flynn Mainstage dance program performed by a company of Vermonters with Parkinson’s, followed days later by a flash mob performance on Church Street.

There are myriad examples of how cultural organizations have transformed struggling communities by making them arts hubs which then attract tourism, engage communities, and create economic activity in new enterprises and jobs. Nicola Smith who co-wrote “Deployed,” a play about women veterans and performed by Northern Stage at V.A. Medical Center in White River, explained how her work had uncovered and dramatized the staggering degree of sexual abuse in the military and the psychological damage it incurs among veterans.

Societies and economies have always been informed and transformed by the arts and humanities. Vermont’s own cultural non-profits: The VT Arts, Humanities, Folklife Councils, the VT Historical Society, The Flynn Center, Catamount Arts, Burlington City Arts, Rokeby, The Shelburne Museum, Vermont Authors Project, Billings Farm and Museum, Old Stone House, VT College of Fine Arts, Center for Cartoon Studies, Vermont Studio Center, The Clemmons Family Farm, as well as the cultural programs of Vermont’s 20 plus colleges and 250 libraries all enrich our consciousness of and discussion about how society and the economy affect our lives.

As issues like environmental degradation, higher ed failures, health care access and cost, homelessness, small school closures loom larger, the stories we tell one another, through the arts and humanities lens become increasingly important and intrinsic to our understanding of how to find our way forward. For example, The Young Writer’s Project and the VT Youth Orchestra probably tell us more about ourselves and our future leaders than the many demographic reports we see.

But unlike most other civilized countries, the U.S. which hasn’t seen fit to offer a national health care system, also denies significant support for our cultural heritage, museums, public broadcasting, and arts and humanities organizations. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is less than a third of the $437M budget for the military’s 130 marching bands. Support for perhaps the most illuminating aspect of our lives, our capacity to share our stories and experience, is left largely to philanthropy and the modest support that states can afford to invest.

All of Vermont’s cultural non-profits have a rich treasure trove that chronicles our shared experience throughout our history. Much of it languishing in libraries, small museums or in private hands. A concerted effort to digitize images, story, music, and artifact is needed to literally turn our cultural non-profits inside out and make them available to all of us and to other peoples and cultures around the world. Support for public media is vital for many reasons, but in the arts and humanities it can play a vital role in the broad dissemination of our cultural record and our dialogue about the future.

As the conference ended, we were asked for our significant take-aways. I offered two moments that I found particularly enlightening. One was the memorable Abenaki land ceremony which made so clear that we are all part of a continuum of stewardship… hardly, as we imagine, the beginning of civilization.

The second was from an African-American choreographer and professor who said they’re often asked if they’re a Vermonter, to which they ask back, “What to you is a real Vermonter?” The conventional answer I’ve heard and tacitly subscribed to all my life is – a white person, often from an agrarian background, descended from at least three generations of the same. The professor went on to suggest that a state trying to attract more young people and immigrants might want to develop a less exclusionary definition. What if the simple answer were, “anyone coming to Vermont out of appreciation for its values, land, and people.”

What I learn from the arts and humanities continues to transform me even at the age of 74.