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Robert Lynch: Art Is “America’s Secret Weapon for Positive Change“

(Image: "Reformabit #2" by Andrew Reach).

Art is an often-overlooked yet powerful tool for long-lasting, positive change. Yet in America, on the national level, there’s at least one strong professional advocate for the arts unwavering in his creative convictions and advocacy.

The arts provide a way for people better to understand “who they are in a time in history where that is desperately needed,” says Robert Lynch. The progenitor of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, is “the nation’s leading advocate for the arts and arts education,” and Lynch is the organization’s CEO.

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Art aids community development, and studies show the multiplied benefits of art. For instance, in a report by Americans for the Arts, which cites research from The College Board on SAT scores for high school students, it was discovered that students who had four years of art and music classes “on average scored about 100 points better on their SATs than students who took only one-half year or less” of art and music. And another report by Americans for the Arts that cites James Catterall, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,” informs that low-income students “who are highly engaged in the arts are more than twice as likely as their peers with low arts involvement to have earned a Bachelor’s degree.”

On April 23, the NEA’s acting chairman, Joan Shigekawa, announced that under its Art Works grants program $26.3 is scheduled to be awarded in support of arts education and 12 other categories. The NEA received “1,547 eligible applications” for said grants requesting more than $80 million of funding. About half of the applications were rejected, and less than 30 percent of the funding is slated for award; $26.3 million is not much to spread across 50 states in a nation of more than 300 million citizens, and because the Art Works grants come with a mandatory stipulation of a 1-to-1 ratio of non-federal matching support, one has to wonder how many organizations in need were automatically disqualified on that basis.

It’s a policy that requires having money to get money, which is counterintuitive to serving the underserved.

So while it is commendable that funding exists, it cannot go unnoticed that more accessible and more adequate funding would serve to complement America’s ailing public education system, for instance, with this being even more painfully true as this year’s federal government’s sequester budget reducing NEA dollars by $7.3 million.

In a PBS Newshour interview with Jeffrey Brown that aired April 12, Lynch summed up the NEA’s multi-decade funding dilemma:

The National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] had a budget that had reached $176 million in the mid-90s. One big slash came along in the Gingrich Congress and it went all the way down to just a little over $90 million. Now it’s built back up all these years to $166 [million]. It was almost back up to where it was, and then it was cut $20 million in the last couple of years, and then sequestration comes along and there is another $7 million off of that budget. So it’s back down in the $130 million area.

Additionally, Lynch emphasizes five target points that he believes to be especially capable of “creating social change.” These include:

1) The arts as partner in communicating and facilitating the diversification of America.

2) The use of the arts in healing and health environments – including the role of the arts in the healing of our returning wounded military.

3) The arts as a modifying influence on violence – including, but not limited to gun violence.

4) Improving overall pre-K through 12 education results in America by increasing arts education in our schools.

5) Helping to create a safer country and world through International Cultural Diplomacy.

Lynch has testified before Congress that federal funding for the arts should be $1 billion, which would provide enough funding for his proposals. But if President Barack Obama’s new budget is passed, it will be 85 percent less than Lynch’s recommendation, at $152 million.

Art “is something we see central to great civilizations throughout the world for thousands of years,” so when we “think of Paris or Rome or Beijing or ancient Cairo … we think about … an artistic presence and cultural thriving,” Art is basically “America’s secret weapon for positive change,” Lynch said.

Lynch is a gifted musician, playing piano, mandolin and guitar. And with more than 30 years of experience in the arts industry, Lynch spoke further about his passion and commitment to the arts in the following interview:

Max Eternity for Truthout: As head of the nation’s leading nonprofit arts advocacy organization, what would you say is the key motivation behind doing this work?

Robert Lynch: I think that the arts are basically America’s secret weapon for positive change and the motivation is that the arts themselves – music, theater, dance, literature – are a way for people to understand better who they are in a time in history where that is desperately needed.

And in what ways can the arts achieve this?

Today we are seeing the arts being used to help solve other problems: The arts and community development, the arts and law enforcement for crime prevention, the arts and healing.

I want to see more opportunity for kids and adults to have access to the arts to be used in community advancement.

How do you define and what are some challenges and benefits of public art?

I think fairly broadly. That is that it is art that is primarily of a visual nature, but not exclusively, that is designed to be produced in collaboration with community interest and need as a public benefit [to] the community within which that art resides, and I think there are great examples.

I see two differences as public art: art that is part of and reflective of a community, and art in public places that may or may not be reflective of the community but is in a public [place] for the public to see and to enjoy.

You have wonderful examples of both in airports, let’s just say.

I do enjoy seeing great art in airports, but who takes care of all that?

There is a very practical challenge in public art – that’s preservation – where not a lot of money has been set aside to preserve or restore that art. Also in bound-economy times, so much is local-government-funded, and a lot of the programs are 1 percent or 2 percent ordnances.

I’d like to see the percentages retained or go up.

It’s important that the value of public art is understood.

This past April, I spoke with San Francisco’s director of cultural affairs, Tom Decaigny, and one of the most striking things he said to me was that he considered broad access to the arts an essential city service. I see a parallel to this in one of the things your website says: “arts are fundamental to humanity.” And yet, I don’t really see or hear this conveyed in public debate. Your thoughts?

I would completely agree that the arts are central to humanity, and they ought to be a central part of the management of community.

The reasons for that are many, and it has to do with the fact that we have government to help us create an environment where we, as citizens, can thrive and strive. Having art as part of that mix helps communities and people thrive and survive.

When you look around the country, you see communities that have embraced the arts as central to their planning process, and they are communities where the government has created a climate where the private and nonprofit, with some government incentive and help, have been able to create great art institutions. This leads to vibrant neighborhoods, and neighborhood development.

This is something we see central to great civilizations throughout the world for thousands of years. When we think of Paris or Rome or Beijing or ancient Cairo, what is it that we think about? It’s usually an artistic presence and cultural thriving. That’s what we think of.

Yes, right. But with very few exceptions, though, I don’t see this happening in the US.

In the US, if you think about the roots of our culture, there was a time in this continent, pre-Columbus, where art was a central part of American cultures, which is to say in Native American cultures. There’s not even a word for art there because it’s not separated, because art was essentially part of everything: clothing, ritual, pottery et al.

And that’s different from what happened when the Europeans colonized?

If you think about the Puritans, for example, these are groups that even outlawed the arts. So we think that was over 200 years ago, but in fact that very practical nature is something that forms the roots of our culture.

It’s quite different in other parts of the world – making it a slower conversation about how to involve the arts – and really wasn’t something until the last half of the 20th century that happened here.

On a national level, how so? When did change occur?

The NEA was not established until 1965, and before 1965 there were only four state art councils. So when you think about that, this is new here. And so that’s why in some cases there’s a big education curve.

DeCaigny also said when we talked that he considers public art to be civic art and that “controversy around civic art really is getting down to the issues we are grappling with as a society.” I think this is a great observation. But again, when some controversy comes up this disconnect remains elusive – that the culture is reacting to itself and not the isolated work of a particular artist or art.

I think that it’s true, although if you look across America at the arts in general, in the work itself some of it deals with societal issues, and some of it is simply a community working with an artist to express something like joy or a sense of beauty. As you move into things more like questions and concerns, then you’re getting into societal issues.

Art should be used and viewed broadly to enhance dialog and create a wonderful environment.

Annual arts funding through the National Endowment for the Arts amounts to approximately 50 cents per citizen. I wrote about this in an article for Truthout. Seriously, why isn’t the NEA’s budget exponentially bigger?

There are a number of reasons: That the NEA was formed in 1965 and the government was only formed 200 years ago. So we’re trying to catch up in the arts. Sometimes because of the economy and sometimes because of ideology.

The highest [the NEA budget has] ever been is $176 million, and then it was cut all the way down to $95 million, and we built all the way back up to $166 million. And since then, cut back by Obama to $138 million. It’s gone up or down under Democrats and Republicans.

All of those numbers seem woefully low to me. What’s your opinion on this?

I have testified before the US Congress that it ought to be $1 billion, but an agreeable number would be is $350 million.

I’d personally like it to be $10 billion. I’d love it to be that because I love art.

No argument there. And in Europe, how are things different?

In Europe, it’s a vastly different system; the vast majority of funding for art comes from the government – like 80 percent or 90 percent. Our system is an incentive or leverage system, so a small amount of money will be invested in the hopes of attracting private money. So, where you look here [government funding] is about 9 percent, most of that being at the local level.

So how much money is there in proportion to the NEA and other nonprofit arts budgets?

The NEA is a fraction of the $61 billion of all the aggregate, which is all the budgets of all the nonprofit arts organizations. When the NEA began, there were about 7,000 nonprofits; today there are about 115,000.

That’s amazing growth—very inspiring to see nonprofits stepping up.

I just came back today as a keynote speaker for PBS, and one of the things that I was pointing out there is that we’ve seen a growth for arts organizations. Every American should have access to the arts, but a significant growing and new phenomena is the arts being found by, and being used by, other aspects of society – like with the military working with wounded warriors or with at-risk-youth programs where they’ve discovered that working with the arts helps recidivism rates and improving communications. We also we see the arts being used in 50 percent of the hospitals.

Art is being used creatively as a problem solver – this goes all the way back to Native American life – and as a growth thing to help people move forward.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

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