Soon after I was appointed Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts in 2007, I attended Davos. Having spent most of my adult life in the art world and in academia, I was not prepared for the corporate culture shock. I knew little about the business executives who frequented the conference, and I had only a superficial understanding of the event’s political framework.

I was very aware, however, that the conference is perceived as a gathering of elites who are mostly concerned with financial success. But I soon learned that many progressive, societal issues are also discussed at the event. Sessions on “Europe After Brexit” and “Robotics and the Internet of Things” run alongside others such as “Reducing Global Inequality”, “Building Inclusive Cities”, “Moral Decisions and Happiness” and “Loneliness: An Epidemic”.

Nevertheless, on my first visit a decade ago, Davos lacked a strong arts presence. I had to look hard for any sign of artists. Luckily, I happened upon a small show of paintings in a temporary structure attached to the Congress Centre. Few attendees seemed interested, but someone had had the good sense to bring something visual into the space.

That someone was Hilde Schwab, Chairwoman of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Schwab has a great love for art, and had been trying to bring it into the Forum’s complex structure for some time. The most meaningful way to include the voice of artists in conversations about the state of the world would be to integrate them into the conference’s ongoing debates, she realized. But she hadn’t yet found a wholly satisfying way to do so.

In seeking out Schwab, I met Gilbert Probst, Dean of the Forum’s Global Leadership Fellows Programme, which develops leadership cohorts of talented young men and women from around the world. Together, Probst and I went on to devise another programme, now held at Columbia every summer, that helps future leaders gain the skills they need to succeed in a public arena. We began by bringing onboard the best voice teachers we knew – Kristin Linklater, Andrea Haring and others. We also worked with master teacher Brent Blair and with Augosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, to help develop presence and confidence in young women and men poised to take the stage as global leaders. And because many of these Fellows stay on to work at the Forum and develop content for Davos, our programme has inadvertently made sure that the arts remain integral to the Annual Meeting.

I have chaired Davos sessions about creativity and the origin of ideas, interviewed arts practitioners and recommended artists whose work should be considered for the event. As a result, I have become involved with an intense and growing group of cultural leaders who attend every year. Artists, writers, designers, filmmakers, cartoonists and musicians of many nationalities have been invited, not as tangential guests but as essential participants in conversations around immigration; climate change; surveillance and privacy; the treatment of indigenous populations; urban issues; gender discrimination; disability inclusion; economic inequity; environmental sustainability; and world health.

The increased presence of these figures reflects the decades-long efforts of many people, including photographer Platon Antoniou, famous for his stunning portraits of world leaders, and Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art. But in 2013 the arts programme became truly prominent when the World Economic Forum hired Nico Daswani as Head of Arts and Culture, reflecting its deep commitment to including the arts in its intellectual and activist life.

Photographer Platon Antoniou discussing his work at the Annual Meeting in Davos in 2015.
Image: World Economic Forum

The effect has been cumulative. In 2018, 120 cultural leaders from 20 different countries were invited to Davos. They collectively participated in 70 sessions devoted to the work of individual visual artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, game designers and others. Cultural leaders shared their expertise on specific issues that might, at first, appear unrelated to art-making, though in fact they are essential. For example, artist and geographer Trevor Paglen participated in sessions related to the “Invisible Images of Surveillance”. Artist Olafur Eliasson has presented several projects addressing sustainability, including his magnificent Little Sun, a solar-powered LED light that offers an alternative to kerosene in developing countries throughout the world, making it safe for children to study at home and to walk between villages at night.

In 2016, the Forum commissioned Collisions, a virtual reality film that premiered simultaneously at Davos and at the Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Lynette Wallworth, Collisions tells the story of the testing of the atomic bomb in the Australian bush in the 1950s. The narrator, Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, is an Aboriginal elder whose first contact with Europeans was when he observed, without context, one of the Maralinga atomic tests. When the film ended, the audience took off their virtual reality glasses to find Nyarri Nyarri Morgan standing before them, ready to discuss what they had just experienced. Collisions and its director went on to win several awards, including a News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding New Approaches to Documentary. The film also had a great impact on the Australian parliament. After 50 years of debate, it finally voted on a budget that included reparations for Indigenous Australians who were victims of these atomic tests.

Attendees watch Collisions at the Annual Meeting in 2016.
Attendees watch Collisions at the Annual Meeting in 2016.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich

In recent years, the Davos Conference Centre has been animated by awe-inspiring and provocative works. In 2017, Tomás Saraceno suspended one of his enormous, transparent “Aerocenes” from the triple-height ceiling of the main hall. The Aerocenes are solar-powered inflatables that Saraceno launches into wind currents around the world as experiments in sustainable travel. His team appeared at the Forum with MIT scientists to explain the possible orbits that Aerocenes could take. In 2019, the Forum commissioned the Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo to produce a site-specific painting installation, titled Finding Hope, that covered three walls of the main Congress Centre.

Most corporate leaders attend Davos to do business, make connections and by osmosis learn about the ideas leading the world into the future. But when they spend time in the Conference Centre’s large halls, the scale and dynamism of such installations inevitably catch their attention. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his wife, Nane, always chose to be part of the Cultural Leaders dinner, as they believed that the most inspiring conversations were taking place among the artists.

In 2018 the conference put enormous focus on the “handmade”, featuring an exhibition called Masterworks: Crafting Culture for the Common Good. The Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, not only curated this exhibition of international artisans working in wood, ceramics, plaster and metal, but also made it possible for conference attendees to try their hand at throwing pots and crafting jewellery. The decision to call attention to the handmade was a deliberate reminder of what has been lost as a result of our addiction to computers and social media. This interactive craft exhibition sat in striking juxtaposition to the many sessions devoted to the ominous predications about robotics, artificial intelligence and the future of work.

Tomás Saraceno, who suspended one of his Aerocenes inside the Conference Centre's main hall in 2017.
Tomás Saraceno, who suspended one of his Aerocenes inside the Conference Centre's main hall in 2017.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

In 2019, the conference’s focus on art and culture took a new turn. Following the lead of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the World Economic Forum restaged part of the remarkable 2018 exhibition Access+Ability. Events and panels explored how to create practical and extraordinary designs for those with various disabilities, providing them with beautiful, functional objects to wear and use, from fashionable prosthetics and compression socks to easy-to-don “cool” clothes for autistic children. This year, the World Economic Forum was very much about redefining “different” as super-normal, and exhibiting designers’ efforts to develop, in the most creative and optimistic ways, garments and objects for those with physical challenges.

MagnaReady's magnetic shirt on display at Davos 2019. To address this daily challenge caused by her husband's Parkinson’s disease, fashion designer Maura Horton embedded a magnetic closure system behind the shirt’s buttons. Magnets make getting dressed easier for everyone while also retaining a person’s dignity of dressing independently.
Image: World Economic Forum

For all of the many cultural highlights that have challenged the status quo at Davos over the years, none has been as moving as the performance of and dialogue around the Afghan Women’s Orchestra. When these 40 young women performed at the 2017 Closing Plenary session, they brought down the house. The audience understood what a daring act it was for the performers to defy their families and the ruling Taliban, which scorns music and forbids women from studying it. They also understood the courage it took for founder and instructor Ahmad Naser Sarmast, who was almost killed by the Taliban in 2015, to educate these young women. This year, the Forum featured the Sphinx Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, comprised of some of the best young African American and Latinx soloists in the US.

The Afghan Women's Orchestra, "Zohra", joined forces with members of Geneva's youth Orchestre du Collège at the closing performance at Davos in 2017.
Image: World Economic Forum

The Crystal Awards for artists began in 1995. That year, they recognized the work of writer Nadine Gordimer, director Oliver Stone, violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, writer Elie Wiesel and others. Since then, artists as diverse as classical violinist Midori and hip-hop artist will.i.am have received the award. It is no coincidence that the acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, so determined to unite cultures through his Silk Road project, now serves on the World Economic Forum Board – the first artist ever to do so.

So what is the importance of this emphasis on art, design and culture that has evolved at Davos each year? For one thing, it reflects a plurality of approaches to the world that one does not usually associate with the World Economic Forum, which is mostly perceived as intertwined with business, profit, government and celebrity.

But the Forum’s underlying assumptions are not monolithic. Every year, Davos attempts to present the world as it exists, in all its complexity. Of course, there is much discussion about the implications of the present state of affairs on the future. The arts provide a way to anticipate how these complexities will evolve, and therefore the arts function at Davos much as they do in society, reflecting the hidden currents that feed the vast ocean of contemporary thought and ideas. They also monitor the world’s disturbances, which they hope to repair.

Over time, the World Economic Forum has made a central place for artists and cultural workers engaged in the public sphere, and has invested in the production of new, socially significant art for the 21st century. Perhaps others with equal resources and motivations soon will follow, recognizing that artists understand how to talk across cultures, incorporate difference and connect to diverse groups through hearts and minds. Perhaps business and policy-makers will realize that the worlds of individual production and large-scale production can blend together organically. Then they might understand that any effective agenda for changing the world must include the force of visionary artists.