SODO Track mural by Casey Weldon of WiseKnave. It helps us all see that mountains are really just paint.
SODO Track mural by Syd Bee and Casey Weldon, When it Rains it Purrs (in-progress), 2016. It helps us all remember that mountains are really just paint. Wiseknave

Today, ArtsFund released a big new study about the social effects of the arts on King County. The study finds that "arts are a viable and proven—yet often underutilized and unacknowledged—strategy to positively transform and benefit our communities."

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Translation: A robust arts scene with well-funded arts organizations isn't just "nice to have." It's integral to building and maintaining functioning, healthy communities. This study proves the arts can help solve serious problems facing this region in particular, including homelessness, inequitable and inadequate education, and general divisiveness. The only problem? Well, there's a couple problems.

The study consists of a poll on the perception of art's personal and political impact, an extensive and substantive review of the scholarly literature on that subject, a list of 200 "arts, cultural, and heritage nonprofits" in King County, and detailed case studies on 10 of those organizations. It's the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the few reports in the country that look at the way arts organizations enhance education, health, and neighborhood vitality. The study uses art's effectiveness within those three sectors to define "social impact."

The poll identifies one of the main problems faced by arts advocates. A majority of people believe the arts benefit them personally, but only 28 percent believe the arts can "promote social change." These results reveal a disconnect between how people feel about art themselves and how they think art affects other people and the overall community.

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These findings suggest that people don't see the way arts organizations integrate themselves into various private and pubic ventures, and so they don't know how much work those organizations accomplish. Arts orgs partner with all kinds of different places, including schools, retirement homes, parks, human services organizations, and tons of municipal and county departments. Here's the full list:

Lots of companies and schools partner with arts orgs to the benefit of both parties.
Lots of companies and schools partner with arts orgs to the benefit of both parties. ArtsFund

ArtsFund finds that these programs aren't just flash-in-the-pan operations. They've been around for a while, though recently we've seen an uptick in partnerships between health care facilities and arts orgs.

Those three categories--education, health, and neighborhood vitality--are the trio of categories the study uses to define social impact.
Those three categories—education, health, and neighborhood vitality—are the trio of categories the study uses to define "social impact." ArtsFund

The literature suggests that these partnerships yield pretty phenomenal results. In the realm of education, programs with prominent art departments graduate more at-risk kids and send more at-risk kids to college. More students also better demonstrate "21st century skills" when they participate in more arts classes.

In health care, a little under half of the U.S.'s "medical institutions" integrate with arts orgs, but those who do say they they work well to achieve actual medical goals. Cancer patients who undergo art therapy report less "pain, distress, and anxiety," according to a recent study of 600 patients from the Swedish Cancer Institute. Arts programs also improve productivity and quality of life in Alzheimer's patients, the study found.

In terms of "neighborhood vitality," communities with high access to "cultural resources" see less crime and less neglect of children. Public art projects can make the place attractive to newcomers with money, but it can also contribute to "place-keeping," wherein people who already live in the area work harder to maintain it. According to another study cited by ArtsFund, "Arts participants are more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities, independent of education, age, gender, or ethnicity."

The case studies offer up a mix of hard and anecdotal evidence that show how these programs have been working and evolving over the years. Arts Corps, a group that "intensively integrates art" into schools in South King County that have had to cut arts funding, reports that their recent efforts show "statistically significant increases in students’ mindsets as learners, higher levels of supportive learning climates, and higher literacy achievement as measured by standardized tests."

A passage from the study on Path with Art—an educational organization that partners with 30 social service institutions to provide arts classes for about 750 homeless people per year—really stuck out:

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While the model in the past has relied on social service and housing providers to connect students to Path with Art, since moving to the Pioneer Square storefront, the referrals have been going in the other direction as well. Attracted to the storefront and the opportunity to make art, homeless people not previously connected to services come in the door and are able to be referred to partners.

The big question is whether these programs work well enough. You'd be forgiven for thinking they don't. A lot of these orgs have been around since before Seattle declared a state of emergency on the homelessness crisis, and yet we still have 12,000-plus people who don't have a steady place to live in this county. We still have underfunded schools. Rampant inequality increasingly characterizes life in the region. If these arts organizations are really working, how come all these problems still exist?

Sarah Sidman, vice president of strategic initiatives and communications at ArtsFund, says that arts organizations can't single-handedly solve any of the challenging issues facing King County right now. But she warns that dismissing the arts sector as inessential greatly diminishes the power it clearly has to help address these problems in creative ways. Studies like this one help raise awareness of some of those possibilities. "If we don't understand the role arts can play in advancing more equitable outcomes in our community, we stand to lose," she said.

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