Taking Note: Varieties of Social Impact Programming

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Graphs and coffee
A new report from ArtsFund, Seattle’s local arts agency, hinges on a contradiction. A survey finds that just 28 percent of King County’s residents believe that arts and culture have the power to ignite social change. And yet, according to the report’s authors, analysis suggests that well over half of arts organizations serving the Puget Sound region run programs involving youth and education (plausible areas of social impact). Indeed, 70 percent of the groups have been doing so for more than eight years. The report ends on a plea for such organizations to promote these hidden assets, and for funders to invest more heavily in them and to incentivize cross-sector alliances with other types of groups pursuing social change. The ArtsFund report, titled the Social Impact of the Arts Study, reminded me of outcomes from Creativity Connects, a recent grantmaking initiative at the National Endowment for the Arts. The program revealed how nonprofit arts organizations of different budget sizes and geographical locations were able to form innovative partnerships with non-arts organizations to advance shared goals. Many of these goals align with what the ArtsFund report terms “social impact.” For example, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is conducting a storytelling collaboration with the community development organization Beyond Housing to explore the personal narratives of diverse students in rural Missouri and urban St. Louis and to enhance public dialogue. In Richmond, Virginia, the organization ART 180 teamed with the Legal Aid Justice Center, bringing together artists and lawyers to create media campaigns and exhibitions focused on juvenile justice reform. And in Chicago, Fifth House Ensemble is hosting arts and music residencies at social service organizations serving at-risk youth and adults—with related activities in research, documentation, and program evaluation to be led by Loyola University Chicago. This is the merest sliver of the NEA’s Creativity Connects portfolio, which, incidentally, features a large share of projects straddling arts and health and arts and business, among other sector pairings. But numerous arts projects striving for social impact can be found elsewhere in the agency’s awards database. Even in the grants program overseen by our office, researchers often work alongside arts practitioners to understand how integrating and delivering the arts with other program content can achieve individual or community-level benefits. Some of these grant recipients have also earned Creativity Connects awards. There’s Forklift Danceworks in Austin, Texas, which is using its NEA Research: Art Works grant support to evaluate its creative placemaking project, “My Park, My City.” Meanwhile, Carnegie Hall (another Creativity Connects alum) has received NEA research grants to evaluate The Lullaby Project, a personalized music intervention for at-risk pregnant women, and to study the effects of a choral music-based program on youth at juvenile detention centers in New York City. In addition, three years ago, a separate funding opportunity was launched to promote cross-sector research partnerships: the NEA Research Labs, of which there are eight so far. In a series of “case stories” at the end of its report, ArtFund profiles Seattle-area arts organizations that embody the ethos of social impact through their programs, whether or not local residents credit the work in these terms. Moreover, the report offers statistics from various studies about the arts’ potential impacts on youth development and education, health and wellness, and neighborhood vitality—a kind of Greatest Hits of data points on the arts and social impact. For a more exhaustive take on the subject, see Americans for the Arts’ “Arts + Social Impact Explorer” pinwheel, a tool with assorted fact sheets that debuted last month. Notwithstanding the value of arts programming that aims deliberately to effect social change, it is perhaps worth recognizing that the act of arts participation itself is often associated with broader social engagement. Two months ago, the NEA announced results from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, noting a significant increase in attendance at outdoor performing arts festivals—a type of venue that has been shown effectively to bring together people from different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Further, NEA research previously has shown a close correlation between attending arts events and engaging with other social and civic activities such as volunteering. In an NEA study based on the General Social Survey, large percentages of adults reported socialization as their primary motivation for attending arts events. More recently, 59 percent of older adults (aged 55 and over) reported that doing arts activities helped them to socialize. Recognizing the perceived importance of the arts to social impact, a group of funders including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Bush Foundation, Knight Foundation, and Art Place America, have banded with the NEA to explore the state of evidence about the arts, place, and social cohesion. This project, still underway, could yield valuable insights to improve public health access and equity.