Why Support the Arts?

5 Aug

At the beginning of the summer, one of my friends sent me an article from Vox – an online news source – that focused on a foundation committed to effective altruism, “a growing movement that commits itself to using empirical methods to work out how to do the most good it possibly can.”[1] The approach profiled in the article utilized a ranking system to quantify the impact that could be made by donating a particular amount to a particular organization. This approach does not favor the arts as donations to organizations in this sector score drastically lower on the effectiveness ranking.

As someone who has always experienced the arts as a significant positive dimension of her life, that article was hard to wrap my head around. Even more challenging was the task of reconciling the view of philanthropy presented by the Vox piece with the goal of the development office at ABT where I was about to spend eight weeks: namely, to raise financial support for the company. My specific position as the Major Gifts intern heightened the intensity of this task as a large part of our office’s job is to show major donors exactly why their generous individual support is a worthwhile choice.

During week seven of the 2015 Met season, ABT presented Swan Lake – perhaps the epitome of classical ballet. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette/Odile, the ballet’s female lead, in the run’s Wednesday matinee. Well known in both the ballet world and popular culture, Copeland is the first African American ballerina to rise to such prominence at ABT. The end-of-season promotions marked her official status as ABT’s first African American principal dancer.

Valentino Carlotti – ABT trustee and Copeland’s sponsor – delivered a toast at the post-show reception honoring the ballerina. His words finally answered the question that had been nagging at me all summer – why support the arts? – by hitting on the timely relevance and impact of her Swan Lake debut. Carlotti first toasted the beauty of Copeland’s dancing and finished by lifting her up as a sign of hope for the African-American community. The Charleston church massacre occurred exactly one week before the Swan Lake debut.

Carlotti’s comments capture the combination of celebration and poignancy that marked this occasion. Moreover, they highlight the potential for the arts to carry a relevance that extends beyond the parameters of the stage. The arts inspire and impact the outside world, just as the outside world may have the same effects on art itself. The tendency to question the necessity of the arts or the practical value of supporting them overlooks this powerful function. Art occurs not in a vacuum but in the context of the world around it. Undoubtedly, ballet holds a beauty and power internal to the art form. That aspect of art does not – should not – detract from the recognition of the power, relevance and impact that the arts carry even after the curtain has fallen and the applause has faded away.

Grace Singleton

Major Gifts Intern

Summer 2015

[1] Dylan Matthews, “You have $8 billion. You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?” Vox, April 24, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/4/24/8457895/givewell-open-philanthropy-charity.

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