By Eleanor H. Oakley
President and CEO
What is the arts world up to these days? Last month, several United Arts Council staff members attended the Americans for the Arts annual convention in Boston. A quick glance at a few session titles provides a glimpse into current issues in the arts community:
The Arts and Community Health, Vibrancy and Equity
The Future of Creative Youth Development
New Community Visions for Military, Health and Wellness
The Role of Artists in Creating Change
Fostering Risk to Creatively Solve Stubborn Problems
For two days, conference attendees focused on how to make their communities better. We heard these words again and again: community, youth, health, cultural equity, solutions.
Our mission at the United Arts Council has long been to build better communities through the arts. The arts do not belong in a fanciful realm of nice to do. At their best, the arts are part of the community’s fabric and central to the solutions to a community’s problems.
What to do about at-risk youth?
At one information-packed session, a co-founder of Raw Art Works in Lynn, Massachusetts, spoke passionately of program evaluation in terms of her remarkable organization. Lynn’s crime, poverty, teen birth and high school dropout rates are more than twice the state average. Her organization’s team of clinical art therapists and professional artists travelled her state creating art with incarcerated youth. In 1994, they opened Raw Art Works space to help more youth and to prevent more incarceration by creating a safe, supportive environment within their community—with free programs for all youth. Since then, RAW has used the power of the arts to inspire thousands of young artists to tell their stories, envision new possibilities, and transform their lives.
Their programs have evolved to add mentoring for college access and SAT prep, financial aid access, youth employment, and opportunities to develop life skills like public speaking and personal financial responsibility. And they now are tracking the development and progress of these youth throughout school years and beyond.
How to address the issues of military personnel returning from wartime tours of duty?
An innovative art therapy program at Walter Reed medical center helps heal soldiers who suffer from traumatic brain injury and psychological problems. The program’s lead art therapist Melissa Walker gives her patients—still on active duty–a blank mask made of papier-mache and plastic. Each creates his or her own mask. “Someone who has experienced trauma has a block that keeps them from verbalizing what they've been through. There is a shutdown in the… part of the brain responsible for speech and language. The mask gives them a way to explain themselves. The concrete image of the mask unleashes words. It reintegrates the left and right hemispheres. Now they can discuss their feelings with their social worker or psychiatrist.” The results of this program have been so successful that the US military has asked Melissa to re-create the program in other parts of the country at military hospitals and care centers.
It was an energizing two days in Boston for our staff members, reminding us and reinforcing that the arts are so much more than nice to see. Instead, the potential for large impact in our communities is right in front of us.