Arts & Culture

No art? No social change. No innovation economy.

America must invest in art and imaginative capacity.

Welcome to the creative crisis. Welcome to a nation unable to solve its problems, incapable of civil discourse, bogged down in a morass of multicultural conflict, and lagging the global innovation marketplace. Just look forward a generation or two, and this will be America if we do not address the dearth of investment in art and imaginative capacity.

As social entrepreneurs, we have not stepped up as champions because we are not seeing the impacts that arts can have on every issue we care about. For too long we have allowed arts and culture to be treated as a nicety—the first budget cut and the last investment made. In the last 30 years, we have seen our nation’s investment in the arts decline as advocates for the arts have scrambled to communicate relevancy through the frames of educational achievement, creative economy investment, and economic development—these are all true but undersell the power of art. 

I have had the opportunity to work on poverty alleviation, educational equity, environmental health, and many other issues. Increasingly, I see that solutions to our most critical problems are not to be found in institutional hierarchy or traditional policy and enforcement models, but rather in collective action, dispersed innovation, and shared responsibility. For example: About 35 years ago, we had a water pollution problem. We passed the Clean Water Act and enforced shutting down 100,000 pipes that dumped toxins into our rivers. Today, more river miles are polluted (not from industrial polluters, but from the actions of individual Americans that end up impacting their watersheds). 

There is no way to monitor and enforce whether every American conserves water, makes alternative transportation choices, etc. However, when people and communities are armed with information, imagination, and the ability to engage with one another, we can change public will, our actions, and impacts. This is true for protecting our drinking water, preventing child abuse, dealing with climate change, and the list goes on.

Our economy is moving from being manufacturing-based to being innovation-based. Are we fostering the imaginative capacity to compete? We are faced with cataclysmic food, fuel and water issues if we do not address our reliance on a carbon economy. But are we sparking the creative thinking to find new technologies and new ways to work with nature? We have a dramatically changing population that is shifting the demographics of voters, students, workers, and leaders. Do we have the multicultural humility and the cultural context to leverage this change as an asset?

For the last century, financial and institutional capital have been the priority leverage points for addressing society’s challenges. I deeply believe that, in the future, human, social, and creative capital will have the greatest impact.

And this is where arts and culture are a necessity.

There is no discipline that nurtures and sparks the cognitive ability to imagine, and unleashes creativity and innovation, more than arts and culture. There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and engages our shared values more than arts and culture. There is no investment that connects us to each other, moves us to action, and strengthens our ability to make collective choices more than arts and culture.

To unlock this lever for change, I believe we must do several things:

  • Focus on strategies that foster real collaboration—finding the best ways to leverage existing structures where they help and work around them where they get in the way, and to change them where they truly impede progress.
  • Identify the stakeholders who must join, support, and advocate for solutions—we must reach beyond the “choir” to deeply understand the values, needs, and motivators of other partners including parents, community-based advocacy, development organizations, business, neighborhood, and civic leaders.
  • Get out of our own way by identifying solutions (programs, structures, policies, practices, and financial models) that might be outside our comfort zone and require letting go of territory.
  • Learn from ourselves and others—a great deal of thinking and work has been done and has changed the positioning, importance, and funding in many other arenas.
  • Recognize that it will be hard and will take a long-term commitment—this is not a simple or obvious task. The political challenges, economic constraints, competing interests, priority gaps, and complexities are all real and significant challenges.

  • And ultimately we must:
  • Seize the moment—we are in a time of massive economic challenge, political, and generational change. Historically, the most significant reforms and investments in social capital and game-changing approaches have been accomplished during similar periods of challenge and transformation. We are in a time when policymakers will have to address significant structural changes and where the body politic is in play with pendulum swings left and right that demonstrate a willingness to risk the status quo.

We need the smarts and the power of the people reading this post to increase access to quality arts for every American. We don’t need another cultural study or symposium. What we need is shared leadership that engages the political clout and the power of our voices to shift the normative expectations of our community and to demand art as a necessity, not a nicety.

Read the original, full article.

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  • BY Elizabeth Winder Noyes

    ON May 26, 2011 09:38 PM

    I shared this with my network today.  I am already getting positive responses. In particular I am thinking of the eco-art movements whose artists have created both beautiful and ingenious designs and solution for urban and third world small gardens and agriculture, forest renewal and water use - just the tip of the iceberg.  They are strong advocates for the philosophy Eric Friedenwald-Fishman describes.

  • m chugg's avatar

    BY m chugg

    ON May 27, 2011 05:51 AM

    Social marketing guys understand that it is the “we need” focus that creates demand and moves money into any given market. They are marketers first focusing on the social connections to create a revenue source.

    As to funding art and culture, Eric does not focus on the lessons taught in history. Artists express their ideas through their physical interpretations of life around them. This can’t be fostered through investment solutions. It arises out of the depths of one’s need to create, to survive and to express. This is where the true creative genius arises, otherwise the representations are not creative but a reflection of a welfare system. We in America are too lazy to truly search for the talent. We would rather spend our time analyzing data or throwing money at something without waiting for genuine artists and talent to emerge.

  • BY Shannon Greene Robb

    ON May 27, 2011 07:25 AM

    I think Eric hit an important piece about collaboration. It’s about “getting out of our comfort zone and letting go of territory”. It’s finding the “win-win” for all—and that can be done through the arts. My experience is that many organizations (arts and others) are yearning to work together. Some need to be coached through, since so much of the process seems chaotic until everyone can get clear on the end result.

    @m chugg- I’m confused at what you mean by “This can’t be fostered through investment solutions”?

    I feel that we should use money to search out talent—not to “wait” it out…to wait would be lazy.

    As a society, how can we work together as artists and those who have the means to fund make an impact on all?

  • BY Elaine Lipson

    ON May 27, 2011 09:43 AM

    I think this is a great start to a great conversation. You lose me a little bit when the recommendations (bullet points) devolve into cliches (get out of our own way! reach beyond the choir!) that aren’t instructive. And I think that we need local and national/global solutions. Finally, manufacturing still matters; the return to making things and making them well has to be a part of any creative revolution.

    But this is brilliant and worth sharing everywhere: “There is no discipline that nurtures and sparks the cognitive ability to imagine, and unleashes creativity and innovation, more than arts and culture. There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and engages our shared values more than arts and culture. There is no investment that connects us to each other, moves us to action, and strengthens our ability to make collective choices more than arts and culture.”

    Thank you for writing and publishing this.

  • BY Jesse Arnold Miller

    ON May 27, 2011 10:19 AM

    The term I like to use when discussing how to increase creative capital is cultural development. Surprisingly, when people ask me what I do and I say I work in cultural development I receive a 100% response rate of ‘What is that?’

    Cultural development is the thread and needle that stitches the seams of community, patrons, artists, ideas, media, business and government into a vibrant societal and rich cultural tapestry. In more detail it is a social ecosystem that requires monitoring to ensure the proper ratios and diversity of social capital.

    Personally, I was raised by a colony of artists in the Pacific Northwest. As I have traveled and explored the country hunting for other artists colonies, I am always surprised where I find them. It’s like hunting for an endangered species. However, the commonality between them has nothing to do with money, climate, or geography and everything to do with individuals.

    What I am seeing as the most important aggregate of cultural development is the free exchange of ideas and information. A lot of times this requires an individual to check in on a cultural development project and saying, ‘When I was visiting X, I saw this incredible work and it reminds me of what you are doing.’ It is important to recognize our time and place in history and is a relevant argument that we do not need to re-invent the wheel, but that there are vastly new communication tools that should be reflected in the development of contemporary culture.

    Art & Science is about pushing the mind into new ways of thinking, whether this means sharing the wheel with those who have never seen a wheel or whether one reveals a creative exercise or concept that explores the relation of 2d to 3d and with the knowledge gained we build a fourth or fifth dimension in which to share.

    Finally, thanks to everyone who is working in the creative field, scientist, artist, programmer, agriculturist, politician, as you may note creativity can benefit every individual and every industry, one just needs to invite it to the dialogue.

  • Todoko Stephen's avatar

    BY Todoko Stephen

    ON May 30, 2011 02:33 AM

    Please Eric you have sent an important piece about ownership and collaboration amongst the affected people. People tend to distant themselves from issues affecting them and trying to project it to Government. All is about people owning and become solution to all poverty issues in their midst.
    I quite agree with you, in my country Uganda there are smart and good policies ,but shelved collecting dust no implementation,if at all it is poorly implemented to suit the implementers.
    I don’t care attitude is the driving force in my Country which hinders working together and ownership of issues and programmes.

  • BY Rachel Manley

    ON May 30, 2011 01:13 PM

    You have made some excellent points in this article! Thank you for making the connection between social change and the arts.  I especially appreciate the point you make about “reaching beyond the choir.”  This is something often overlooked or misunderstood by both artists and organizations trying to promote social change or awareness of any kind.  In fact, we can (and should) help each other tremendously. 

    Please understand, I am not advocating that artists just donate a work of art and move on. This rarely benefits the artist (no tax deduction, often devalues a work, etc.).  Also, the organization only benefits from an one-off situation.  I think artists should get more involved. . . curate a show, license a work to the group for free, do pro-bono design work, promote the group’s message through artist’s networks that the group would not normally reach, write a grant for public art which raises the group’s awareness, etc.  These small projects can exponentially help an organization (and the artist potentially) more than money.  Money should come from other sources. . .complimentary sources.

    I am an artist but I would not consider myself an activist.  However, I find myself time and time again helping organizations by doing what I know best. . . using the arts to communicate.  This has taken many forms over the years (design work, publishing, fine art contributions, strategic and creative direction, etc.). 

    I am very proud of a project that I am currently working on with the Save the Cord Foundation.  We have partnered to promote the life-saving benefits of umbilical cord blood and the options women have for saving this cord blood at birth both publicly and privately.  We are using my painting, BIRTH, as a vector of communication.  The project has blossomed into a traveling exhibit, book and posters available nationwide.  It all started with a genuine shared interest and our worlds have come together beautifully.  They complement each other which is key.

    I encourage you to read more about how we are using art for social change.  Learn more at  or or

  • BY michael rohd

    ON May 30, 2011 03:44 PM

    A related Post about the newly formed Center for Performance, Public Practice & Civic Innovation-

    would be great, Eric, to connect with you.

  • BY Eric Friedenwald-Fishman

    ON May 30, 2011 07:13 PM

    Eric FF here - Thanks for diving into this conversation.  Elaine - I agree with you that the bullet point cliches do not give the depth warranted (Faustian choice in a short post). Check out the full article link that gives tangible examples from other movements and social change efforts where these approaches have worked (like: “getting beyond the choir” as the environmental movement has started to do with the faith community). I actually believe (with more depth) that these are startpoints on actions we need take and encourage others to add suggestions.


  • BY Mark Nowotarski

    ON June 1, 2011 02:06 PM

    A great place to see the intersection of art and innovation is  The inventor community is as active as the artistic community.  More on IPwatchdog

  • I agree with your statement that “solutions to our most critical problems are not to be found in institutional hierarchy or traditional policy and enforcement models, but rather in collective action, dispersed innovation, and shared responsibility. “

    I’ve lived this belief over the past 35 years by my efforts to connect adult volunteers with different business and education backgrounds with inner city youth via non-school community based programs.  In many of these programs volunteers with arts and technology backgrounds are mentoring kids to create art, videos, web sites etc. 

    I created the Tutor/Mentor Connection in 1993 to gather information about existing non-school tutor/mentor programs operating in Chicago, so that leaders could use this to build market-based strategies that would help existing programs constantly improve and new programs start to fill voids. At is a map-based directory showing about 200 existing tutoring and/or mentoring programs, with sort features that enable you to determine what age group they serve, and what type of tutoring and/or mentoring they offer. We have links to the web sites of each of the groups who have a web site.

    With this we can invite programs to come together to share ideas. We can also identify what is working well in some programs and share those ideas with others via email newsletters, on-line forums, conferences, etc.  We can even create more public attention that encourages volunteers and donors to choose programs in all poverty areas, not just the brand name programs.

    Unfortunately, most of this resource has been ignored by city and school leaders who constantly create new strategies to do what we’ve already been building. This means we have too few resources and it means that new projects start from scratch, and often don’t last more than a few years.

    Thus, I would be delighted to connect with leaders of arts and culture organizations who view these tutor/mentor programs as potential distribution points where more arts volunteers and benefactors could be connecting with kids and more creativity and problem solving could be mentored at each location as a result.  If someone is aggregating information about arts, music, technology, writing programs operating in the city, that information could be added as new layers of information on our maps, so that a basic understanding is created showing the distribution of existing arts-based mentoring programs. The events we each organize throughout the year could be drawing attention, volunteers and needed operating dollars to all of the arts/mentoring programs enabling each to grow, and more to form and fill voids in future years.

    From this more people could be brought together year after year with a shared goal of making more and better, arts, tech, mentor-rich programs available in neighborhoods throughout the city.

    Read more about the strategies of the Tutor/Mentor Connection and see if some of these don’t fit with what Eric is trying to accomplish.

    While we’re piloting this in Chicago, this could duplicate in any city as long as an intermediary organization takes on the role of collecting, managing and sharing this information.

  • zds526's avatar

    BY zds526

    ON June 30, 2011 03:36 PM

    It is true that art and culture can have profound social and economic impacts.  ‎And access to quality art can make a difference.  But part of the problem is ‎that art no longer matters.  And what this article fails to address is that the ‎blame for that, in part, lies with the artistic community.  Popular art – to ‎which the public has considerable access – remains too cautious to take a ‎material stance.  And contemporary high art too often recycles the same tired ‎themes that the bulk of its liberal audience already accepts.  Art needs to be ‎better – literally, more provocative, more thought-provoking, more ‎challenging, more keyed into the issues that really matter today.  For instance, ‎the deficit is an issue that the public needs to learn more about and understand, ‎because it threatens our future, and Congress is failing to address it.  But how ‎many artists are tackling this issue? – by shedding a light on it in a way that ‎makes it more accessible to the public? or casting it within a unique, innovative ‎perspective that sparks a wake-up call within Congress?  Why have no artists ‎reached national acclaim based upon work they are producing that enmeshes ‎them within the immigration discourse?  There’s a role for the artist here, but it ‎is not being filled.‎

    You say that no discipline other than art has greater potential to unleash ‎creativity and spark the ability to imagine.  That’s not true.  That’s a ‎misconception harbored by the artistic community, but borne out by few ‎artists.  Creativity arises not only from being free to think, but from ‎challenging what you already think.  Studying other disciplines – including ‎ones such as math, history or economics —though not conventional vehicles ‎for creativity, can have enormous impact on imaginative thinking.  Learning to ‎think critically in one area, no matter what it is, can radically affect how ‎creatively you address issues within another area.  Art schools would do well ‎to encourage the notion of the prototypical artist who is well-versed in one or ‎two other disciplines – such as statistics or nuclear non-proliferation – so that ‎they can bring a higher level of critical thinking to their work.  In short, artists ‎need to produce work that operates at the level of the intellectuals and policy ‎makers, but is nevertheless accessible to a wider audience.  Then art will ‎matter.  Then social and cultural capital will be on par with economic capital.‎

    There were periods in history when the artist mattered.  That is rarely now the ‎case.  We can bemoan each time Congress cuts the budget for the NEA.  But ‎we can also demand more from our artists.  Otherwise, society will never come ‎round to accepting that for the complicated social and economic obstacles that ‎we face, the contribution of the artist matters. ‎

  • I think if I were an artist I would write a play lampooning “social entrepreneurs” who use words like “leverage” “stakeholders” and “solutions.” Maybe you could draw what you mean…

  • Pam Hodges's avatar

    BY Pam Hodges

    ON January 6, 2012 08:18 PM

    Arts are basic. As a life-long artist, I find I must often justify and apologize for my meager income and not “sell out” my vision and passion. I am so tired of the attitude that art is somehow just the frosting on the cake. Art programs in the schools are the first to be cut because of this, because of a deep-seated fear that they are not practical or lucrative or important enough to warrant support. But teaching children to explore creativity, to think out of the box, has far-reaching benefits no matter the field they pursue later. And collaborative art deserves special support. I can think of no better team building activity than theatre, which requires a full range of skill sets, making athletic sports seem one-dimensional in comparison by insisting that the only worthwhile players must be the fittest, fastest and strongest of a population. There is, in reality, no culture without art, no heritage worth handing down, only impoverishment of both body and soul. A community that supports and appreciates artists of every discipline is a vibrant and healthy one that has the vision and energy to take on challenges and find creative solutions to problems.

  • Viktor Venson's avatar

    BY Viktor Venson

    ON January 27, 2012 11:01 AM

    Good thinking Eric. I think we there must be a clear distinction between creativity and art in this conversation. More art classes won’t necessarily contribute to more innovation and stronger economy. I think what Eric means is that this is about creating problems solvers for the 21-st century. That is not what schools are currently doing. Education must re-think what creativity means and look at it as both cultural and complex problem solving, apply, test, learn, scale, and repeat.

    How that could look like? We don’t know yet. But in 2011, we wanted to find out by challenging the creative industries of U.S. to concept solutions that could help the creativity crisis in education. It was called No Right Brain Left Behind -

    We are currently working on rolling this concept out globally, challenging the global creative industries. Please feel free to comment as this is a new frontier and we are learning, testing, and re-thinking as we go.


  • BY Laura Wilhelm, LMHC

    ON May 29, 2012 01:12 AM

    I run a non-profit art-voc-safe space for artists dealing with those individuals with disabilities, or any kind of life struggle and wish to share a studio space.  We have a new line of product called “The Art of Necessities” - ie - using textiles, leather, tiles, used clothing on which to showcase each of our members art using a washable permanent transfer technique.
    Art as a Necessity, is at the root of our cause - using art to de-stigmatize those struggling with disabilities.
    I plan to open a gallery space at some time and or incorporate a more global theme - planting small “communities” of artists in Africa and such where gaining a vocation as well as self-expression can give economic viability to those who otherwise would be destitute.
    Funding has been ridiculously scarce for what we do and I must work a full time job on top of the more than full time dream of mine…..
    Yes!  Some have been blessed with reaching to the top of Malsow’s hierarchy, and Yes we should use our collective abilities in creativity and art, culture, to reach towards obtaining the “basic necessities”—money, food ,clothing , shelter so that others, too, can climb.

  • RT Spitz, PhD's avatar

    BY RT Spitz, PhD

    ON August 22, 2012 06:44 PM

    Arts, in the broadest sense, in the context of social change, can never be more than a vehicle for the communication of perceived need for change. From earliest time, the arts have been used to convey messages among and between humans, whether that message be the location of the best hunting grounds or a political protest painted on a wall in the dead of the night. Furthermore, to get more blatantly specific - art ultimately has no value apart from its role in the promotion of human inter-connectedness. As such, it can be a very powerful force for the transmission of important information in our world today.
    Nonetheless, to speak of the need to identify stakeholders, solutions, or for people to emerge from their “comfort zones” is an exercise in platitudes. Regardless of the very few “grassroots” movements over the past century that have promoted any change, only actual threats to the social order have demonstrated the ability to generate laws mandating change. Sometimes, like the civil rights phenomenon, these changes in the legal system are painfully slow. And the arts did have a role in the sense of technology which communicated on a wide scale the atrocity of human behavior. But it has never been the case that the arts, per se, have been the engine for social change.
    That being said, however, art remains a significant form of communication that must take up the challenges facing humanity today. No issue is more critical than the rapidly escalating destruction of our environment. The world of Art must find a way to bring this message to as many on the planet as possible. If the “medium is the message”, the Artworld must act, quickly and radically - out of their “comfort zone” - and use the power inherent to this uniquely human activity to provoke widespread behavioral change.

  • John Carlo's avatar

    BY John Carlo

    ON March 15, 2013 08:03 PM

    I love this article

    In fact, we are 3rd year and 4th year students in the Philippines and we are running a social enterprise , a mini company competition of JAPI (Junior Achievement Phils.).

    Our business believes that Arts and Culture is the best way to transform the society rather than forcing the society the way we want.

    on the other hand, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, and business practitioners tends to be uninformed about the importance of “arts” to their chosen career, for in arts, an attitude of CREATIVITY and INNOVATIVE minds are being practices,

    and in the 21 century business and other corporate industries needs to be more creative and innovative in formulating processes and strategies ...

  • BY Lingkar Merah

    ON October 26, 2014 09:56 PM

    What with all the white wine and glory holes, you are waaaay more confused than you realize Mooney…

  • Great article Eric! Thanks for sharing! I totally agree that arts and culture are necessary, especially nowadays. Hope future generations will have more respect towards our heritage.

    Frank from

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