During our Americans for the Arts Annual Convention ARTventure to San Antonio’s culturally rich Westside neighborhood, we spent the afternoon with San Anto Cultural Arts, a local organization that builds community through the process of creating murals. Outside of their small office there is a large religious mural featuring a profile of Jesus surrounded by two angels. One of the organization’s co-founders, who was kind of hanging in the background of our tour, was encouraged by the tour guide to tell this story.
When heading back to the office one day he noticed a woman, whom he later found out was a prostitute, hanging out on the border of their property near the mural. As soon as she saw him approaching she apologized for loitering and promised to leave right away. He told her not to worry and began talking with her. She told him that the church down the street wouldn’t allow her to enter, so she would often come to this outdoor mural to pray.
The storyteller wasn’t trying to commodify this story or use it as a sales pitch. He shared this experience so we could understand the human element of their work. Those moments that we experience everyday and assume that others can summon when we talk about that abstract “power of the arts,” need to be shared, built upon, and married to supportive data.
During the Emerging Leaders Preconference, Americans for the Arts President and CEO Bob Lynch said something to the effect of “…for a group of artists, we need to become better storytellers.” I think this was said in the context of arts advocacy but I believe it is interrelated to growing as a community.
It was probably because of our own personal narratives or the persuasive narratives of others that convinced us to spend our lives in a financially (and emotionally) unstable field taking up the banner for the arts. This is not to underestimate the power of studies such as the new Arts and Economic Prosperity IV (4.1 million jobs are supported nationally by the nonprofit arts sector, nice!). These studies are invaluable to a diverse field that hosts a diverse audience, but these two quantitative and qualitative narratives could benefit from becoming more intertwined.
Politicians know the power of storytelling. Listen to upcoming presidential elections (yes, sometimes storytelling goes way too far and is way too contrived, see Joe the Plumber) and you’ll hear all about “Sue from Eau Claire, Wisconsin who…” fill in the blank.
I think it is important to find consistency in narratives and strong community leaders understand that with the swinging pendulum of extreme economic, political, and social uncertainty our biggest strength is our humanity.
Again, I don’t want to underestimate the numbers, advocacy and community building needs to be a multi-tiered strategy and depending on your audience, sometimes the most compelling story is data (another example from AEP IV: The arts industry generates $135.2 billion in economic activity every year!). But I’d love to have conversations about strategies for coalescing the op-eds and the business sections into a holistic narrative.
During an arts education roundtable we discussed the power of pairing narratives and data, for example, data showing the decreased drop-out rate by students who participate in arts programming with personal narratives, better yet, giving those youth an opportunity to share their own story.
On the shaky social ground of which we’re standing, movements begin and are sustained by the interconnected power of the people, and it is our diverse yet parallel narratives that help bring us together for that long journey.