Last week, we wrapped up our 2019 Arts and Business Breakfast series with PlazaCorp founder and CEO Jeff Nicholson and his wife, artist Barb Nicholson, of Kalamazoo, Mich.
An audience member asked about the tangible return of investing in the arts from a development perspective. Jeff responded, “Putting art and architecture into your developments is a differentiator, for sure. Whether you can ask for more rent because of it, I’m not sure. But it definitely keeps employees and renters happier and more likely to stay.”
That got me thinking about the challenges we face in trying to get investors to support the arts. For example, when you put money toward a stadium, field, arena, aquatic center or any type of facility, there are literal bricks and mortar. Donors have the satisfaction of seeing their names on plaques or on locations.
That’s often not the case with the arts. When you invest in the general operations or even specific programs of an arts organization, you can expect to be listed on websites and programs and sometimes even to be thanked at curtain speeches — but there’s rarely the imposing prestige that comes with investing in a physical building.
So why invest in the arts? I go back to Jeff’s comment. We should all be investing in our arts organizations and in public art because they are a differentiator. They are the type of ephemeral quality of life component that surprises visitors and engages citizens.
The arts have a unique capacity to level the playing field. Every culture, and every type of person, understands the arts at their core: rhythm, shapes, tonality, movement and storytelling are universal truths to what it means to be human, regardless of your place of origin, gender, sexual orientation, language or age.
But you can’t put your name on any of that. And you might never see a direct return on those investment dollars.
So I challenge us all to look deeper, to think well beyond the dollar return and, instead, think about the human and humanity return on investment.
When a child from a disadvantaged family is given an instrument or is able to take subsidized lessons, she might audition for the youth symphony, stay in school, graduate and go on to be a contributing member of her community.
When a formerly incarcerated person works on a production at a local theater, he might find amazing parallels to his own life and stay on a new path.
When a woman speaks little English and is invited to join a quilting club, she might discover that she speaks the same artistic language as the others and find that her voice has tremendous value, too.
When a disaffected, run-of-the-mill kid whose family has lived here for generations joins a school choir, improv troupe, dance class or tech crew, he might not bring a gun to school and cause unimaginable horrors because he has found his place.
All in all, investing in the arts likely won’t put your name up on the outside of a building, but it might save lives, foster the next generation of good citizens, inspire the disenfranchised and expand the way we live in community together.
That feels like a darn good return on my investment; I hope you think so, too.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, May 27, 2019.