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Why art?

Why Art?

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The Museum of Art/WSU is dedicated to delivering transformative experiences to students and visitors as part of the university’s commitment to a world-class learning environment.

A World-Class Learning Environment

A fundamental goal of a well-rounded education is to create life-long learners who can seek out divergent opinions, adapt to new situations, and find personal meaning in their world. Nurturing an appreciation for the arts has proven to be an essential element in preparing future leaders capable of examining complex issues from a variety of perspectives.

“We continually wrestle with new experiences that alter the anchors in our lives. Artistic expressions transform perspectives. Now we are ready for what the day brings because art has given us a deeper understanding and a fresh look at the world around us.”

-Reuben Mayes, Washington State University, ‘92

Art and Society

In an uncertain global economy, it is understandable that we need to make the case for our educational system in real-dollar terms. We do that by recounting the number of patents licensed, the number of jobs created, the amount of research dollars brought in, and so on.  WSU, as the state’s land grant research university, has much to be proud of in this regard.   

But we also have a responsibility to provide a balanced education by which we create good citizens as well as a trained work force. Cultivating an appreciation of the arts produces heightened creativity, tolerance, and critical thinking – all traits that contribute to a better informed citizenry. Students involved in the arts are more flexible in their approach to problem-solving and more willing to take intellectual risks.

Here’s what Clifford V. Smith, the former president of the General Electric Fund, said:

“GE hires a lot of engineers.  We want young people who can do more than add up a string of numbers and write a simple sentence.  They must communicate ideas, and be sensitive to the world around them.  Participation in the arts is one of the best ways to develop these abilities.”

Can we quantify the good the arts do? Sure. For example, the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum drew over 400,000 visitors. That’s a lot of people who made the effort to view a series of experiments in imagining what art could look like. The economic impact was compounded beyond the price of admission, in the gift shop and café, and could be tracked in local hotels, shops and restaurants during the run of the show. 

Other studies have shown that cultural participation has quantifiable benefits on health measurements. One published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health demonstrated actual improvements in overall health, social functioning, vitality and happiness (irrespective of socioeconomic status or educational level).

But I’d rather move from what is quantifiable to what is important.

STEM to “STEAM”

The current dialogue in education places a major emphasis on “STEM” disciplines (Science, Technology Engineering, and Math). “Innovation” is heralded in these fields; its decline is mourned. We in the arts applaud anything that encourages investment in and draws attention to education, but we also lament the absence of the ARTS in this discussion. Indeed, innovation and creativity are the essential characteristics of what we call art. 

Through this emphasis on STEM, we risk losing sight of the kind of society we want to leave to future generations. It is culture that defines us as a people. It is through the arts that we connect with our dreams. It is through the arts that we appreciate other people’s differences, other time periods and other cultures.

 “Art is an expression of a person’s soul. It is something that reflects back to us how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see the world around us….”

–Heidi Adielia Stanton, former Washington State University student

If STEM is the fuel that keeps the machine of the nation going, “STEAM” is the dream of culture by which we apprehend our character. If STEM builds a bridge, “STEAM” imagines why we go to the other side. Or put it this way: when was the last time you received a dozen long-stem roses without flowers? Stems are not enough! Let’s add the ARTS into the conversation about what constitutes valuable elements in a quality education and society: expand STEM to “STEAM.”

The Big Idea

Our remarkable opportunity in the arts is to ignite the flames of intellectual curiosity and creative passion in our communities. This is especially important within the context of a land grant university in such a vast rural, “underserved” area as ours. The “big idea” here is actually quite “small” in a way, because our effect is on one individual – and one very personal experience – at a time.

I want to be clear that I do not see this as an “add-on” to campus life, but one of the best things we can be involved in. The arts are often seen as somewhat less than essential to the most pressing challenges of our time, but if you think about it, those “urgent” political issues and elections, even those wars and disasters, come and go. Art lasts. I think of it this way: the arts are not so much the icing on the cake, as they are the flowers on the STEM, which thus complete the bouquet of a full life. 

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