Can art change the world?

Tim Jones
CEO, Artscape
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The world of art needs more social enterprise and the world of social enterprise needs more art. With a foot firmly planted in both camps, it strikes me that both of these fields have only scratched the surface of how engaging with the other could lead to game-changing or even world-changing breakthroughs.

The art world is full of enterprising individuals, companies and not-for-profits, but has relatively few good examples of social enterprise. Some might make the case that a theatre company or a music label is a social enterprise in that it is creating and distributing products and generating a range of positive social benefits. But it is seldom the case that these businesses are driven from a social enterprise mindset.

On the not-for-profit arts side, the “get-a-grant, deliver-a-programme” approach rules, and cultural industries, like the vast majority of private sector companies, narrowly focus on maximizing short-term financial gain. I’m not saying that these businesses are not also reaching for such altruistic goals as artistic excellence or engaging in corporate social responsibility. It is just that the social benefits that flow from them are more often a by-product of the business than something that has been intentionally generated through social enterprise to have a powerful impact.

Many in the arts world are leery of “instrumentalizing” the arts. They make the case that art should be supported for art’s sake, for its intrinsic rather than its instrumental value. There is no question that when artistic expression becomes co-opted as political propaganda or overly laden with well-meaning but inept social messages, it loses its legitimacy.

There are, however, examples of arts-oriented social enterprises that promote positive social change without compromising artistic integrity. The BRANDAID Project comes to mind, which engages underemployed artists in Haiti to create beautifully crafted masks and other crafts that are marketed in developed countries. Our work at Artscape in Toronto of clustering artists together in affordable real estate projects that are designed to generate positive economic, social, environmental and cultural impacts is another example.

We need to get beyond the notion that supporting the arts for their intrinsic or instrumental value is an either-or proposition, as there is clearly an important role for both.

In the world of social enterprise, art may seem like a less serious area of endeavour when confronted with such global challenges as climate change, poverty, hunger, disease and political unrest. But as author John Howkins helped us realize in his 2001 book “The Creative Economy”, there is a big shift happening in the way that value is being created. It used to be that the value of things was made up primarily of the materials and labour that goes into them. Today, creative content makes up an increasingly important share. Artistry needs to play a role at the centre of every business – from the design of products and services and the adaptation of new technologies, to building a compelling narrative and brand. I wonder how many social enterprises value creativity as central to what they do.

The big opportunities for a convergence of social enterprise and art in my view involve engaging art as an agent of social change. David Buckland, the founder of Cape Farewell, helped the world understand that global warming is not only an environmental issue, but a cultural one.

Addressing our biggest challenges invariably involves shifting human behaviour and culture and this is where art can play a more pivotal role. It can help inspire new thinking, open dialogue, mitigate conflict, build local economies, accelerate learning and even play a therapeutic role for those afflicted by autism and other diseases. Artists could play a much more significant role in the change-maker’s toolbox if social entrepreneurs better understood how to collaborate with them to foster change, growth and transformation of people, culture and place.

Author: Tim Jones is President and Chief Executive Officer of Artscape.

This is part of a series for the launch of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 Awardees.

Image: A child tries to touch part of an art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Shanghai, China, March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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