Two weeks ago, I attended the dedication of five murals installed on the exterior wall of the LCCC—Donley Center in downtown Allentown.
There was excitement among the crowd as Donley Center Director Maryanell Biggica welcomed guests and touted the power of the arts to bring people together. The murals, celebrating the theme of diversity and inclusion, feature the work of five local artists, Pedro LeDee Jr., Albert Negron III, Alex Ortiz, Corey Reifinger, and Camille Stanley.
City of Allentown’s Community and Economic Development Director Leonard Lightner lauded the arts as an economic development engine. He stated that the City of Allentown was committed to filling the city with art. He then read the five artist statements to the crowd. Amidst all this enthusiasm and promise, however, was the noticeable silence from the artists.
After the remarks, I sought the artists out and congratulated them for their work, since the Lehigh Valley Arts Council had funded this mural project through the Pennyslvania Partners in the Arts grant program. I asked them why they didn’t speak for themselves.
Evidently, they had originally planned to present as a group, but one of their fellow artists was not able to attend so they opted out. Youth and unfamiliarity prevailed. I encouraged them to consider the value of speaking up, especially in the context of public art. Wearing the mantel of an artist comes with great responsibility since artists play a crucial role in shaping the future. Their perspective matters because they highlight the intrinsic value of the creative process.
Certainly, I agree with officials who recognize that the arts are good for business. (The Arts Council has administered five Arts & Economic Prosperity studies since 1995.) But the arts are so much more. They nourish the soul of a community. In an increasingly complex world, they can serve as a platform to address serious issues like global warming, social justice, and diversity and inclusion.
On the other hand, the economic impact argument is limited by the viewpoint that art is a commodity, which is bought and sold. Boiled down, economic impact measures the fact that I went out for dinner after the event and ate a hamburger.
We all need reminding occasionally not to take the creative process for granted. An investment in the arts is an investment in people and in the relationships that build our community.