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Hearts and Minds: The Arts and Civic Engagement

January 31, 201831 January 2018

Arts attendance / Social impacts of the arts

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This international literature review attempts “to better understand whether research has shown that arts experiences of any kind – whether conventional audience experiences or newer “engagement” experiences, learning in the arts, or making art itself – affect civic engagement”.

A key finding of the report is that “correlations between arts participation and the motivations and practices of civic engagement are substantial and consistent.” However, “the effects of the arts are likely to be cumulative over significant time and difficult to document: a slow drip rather than a sudden eruption, and easy to take for granted”.

Another key finding is that “arts experiences during adolescence are particularly influential”. Among youth with low socio-economic status, “high arts participators were more likely to have an inclination toward civic engagement across every one of [12] indicators”, including volunteering, participating in clubs and student government, voting, and reading a newspaper.

Comparative research indicates that youth involved in arts programs did better than those in sports or community service programs on every social indicator measured, “including linguistic developments that indicated growing capacities to plan, work with others, use their imaginations, solve complex problems, and reflect on their own learning and development”.

The report argues that “art making experiences appear to encourage civic engagement more so than experiences as an audience member.” For example, research into participatory art making activities in informal settings found that these experiences make “it more likely that neighbors will help neighbors, build social skills and tolerance, see and move beyond normative social divisions, and appreciate and share gifts with people who may be quite unlike themselves”.

Similarly, European research into “participatory and voluntary arts projects” showed a range of social impacts, including personal development, social cohesion, community empowerment, community image and identity, as well as imagination and vision. Research into community arts projects, “primarily in Australia, found that participants believed they had increased social and human capital and built and developed communities. Most reported the experience had improved communication, organizing, and planning skills, as well as understanding of different cultures and lifestyles.”

Research also indicates that “some arts experiences in some settings generate social capital directly”. For example, through active art making, youth “built values, dispositions, and skills that are characteristic of engaged adults, and [the author sees] the mechanism of active art making among adolescents as the social, cognitive, emotional, and skill-based engine driving that development”.

The literature review found “limited research on the effects of audience experiences on civic engagement, and what is known falls considerably short of suggesting that these experiences may affect civic engagement significantly”.

Overall, the report concludes that “there is just a thimbleful of research on these questions in an ocean of social science, but everything in the thimble points to a significant relationship between arts participation and civic engagement. More research is clearly needed”.

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