There is no pandemic recovery plan without the arts and culture
As we emerge from the pandemic, global and national leaders are recognizing the necessity of the arts and humanities to overcome the profound challenges of our time.
To cope with the tragedy of the pandemic, we looked into ourselves. We discovered new recipes and hobbies. We planted, restored, painted, reflected, emoted, and empathized. We creatively reimagined homes, schools, workspaces, and priorities as if fierce expression would save us. American ingenuity helped to stave off a drumbeat of doom.
Then one night in Manhattan, the great baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell — newly recovered from COVID himself — took to his balcony booming his Tony-winning ‘The Impossible Dream.’ His act of triumph over circumstance not only spawned a restorative nightly tradition for New Yorkers, it proclaimed the arts were there for all of us.
For the last few years, a chorus of international leaders has been advocating anew for arts and culture, touting the sector not only as an asset for healing pandemic suffering, but for addressing divides like those eroding unity in America.
The G7 held its first meeting on cultural heritage in 2017, and last November, the G20 put arts and culture on its agenda for the very first time. These global leadership groups assert culture’s potential contribution across the public policy spectrum to forge more sustainable societies. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay put it, culture “is an overarching need, underpinning all aspects of our societies. It must not be on the side-lines of recovery efforts — it must be central to them.”
Diplomats have always deployed the arts and culture to strengthen relationships. Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones soothed Cold War tensions by spreading the love of American Jazz across continents. Today, the U.S. Department of State, alongside entities like Meridian International Center, supports exchanges of hip hop artists in places from Uzbekistan to Nigeria. Like Jazz Ambassadors before them, Hip Hop Diplomats seed understanding, soul to soul.
When President Obama wanted to extend a hand of friendship to Cuba, he sent artists. We were part of the former President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), leading a delegation of policy leaders and artists like John Lloyd Young, Usher, Dave Matthews, Alfre Woodard, Joshua Bell, Larisa Martinez, and Smokey Robinson to Havana. By night, artists performed at street festivals, on rooftops, and in concert halls. By day, we met with Cuban cultural ministers (alongside leaders from the Smithsonian and the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities) to hammer out the first bilateral agreements with U.S. government agencies.
At home too, we’ve witnessed the power of the arts for recovery. The PCAH Turnaround Arts program paired artists and resources with struggling Title One schools and helped craft a pan-curriculum arts approach: math melodies, science scenes, geometry jigsaws, and history haikus helped students engage with the subject matter and each other, positively affecting both academic outcomes and truancy rates. Booz Allen Hamilton studied the schools as the program took hold, finding standardized test scores went up 13 percentage points for reading and 23 points for mathematics in just four years.
Wounded veterans have likewise benefitted. Second lady Karen Pence partnered with the Creative Forces Military Healing Arts Network, with the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Defense Department, and Veterans Affairs to put creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at 11 military medical facilities across the country.
Encouragingly, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico is introducing a bill that echoes the New Deal’s Federal Artist Project and the Federal Writers Project. It would partner the Department of Labor with the National Endowment for the Arts to put artists to work. The bill specifies outdoor concerts for local communities and funds for writers to document interviews with first responders and families of COVID victims. These artists and writers will reflect us, console us, inspire us, and lead us with poetry, photography, murals, music, statues, literature, and live performances.
If the bill makes it out of Congress, it lands on the desk of the president, a leader who sought out the arts to overcome the defining challenge of his youth: a debilitating stutter. As a young boy, Biden would recite the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mirror, each successful stanza setting him free. Today, the stutter is gone, along with the boy who battled it. With poetry, he more than survived; he triumphed.
In an era of global challenges and destabilization, imagine the triumphs if we joined the chorus to put the arts and culture central to our recovery.
Kal Penn is an actor and the former associate director of White House Office of Public Engagement who served on the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities with Megan Beyer, its former executive director and the current co-chair of Meridian’s culturefix program honoring the power of the arts and culture to help heal the world and fix global challenges faced by people, communities and the planet.
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