The arts – a force for good?

People with an active interest in the arts contribute more to society than those with little or no interest at all, according to new study.

The fascinating research, which considers the issue of social responsibility, comes from the States, where its authors argue that people who sing, dance, draw, or act – or watch others performing in some way – are more likely to have an altruistic streak than others.

As part of their analysis, researchers at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), looked at attendance at museums and music events, and those who were involved in creating art or performing.

More than 2,700 randomly selected respondents were asked whether they had acted in selfless ways, such as donating blood, giving directions to a stranger, returning money to a cashier who had given too much change or looking after a neighbour’s pets and plants. Responses were then matched up to answers to arts-related questions.

‘Active citizenry’

For Kelly LeRoux, assistant professor of public administration at UIC and principal investigator on the study, the results showed a clear link between engagement with the arts and what she calls ‘active citizenry’.

“Even after controlling for age, race and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as an audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance and altruism,” she explained.

It’s certainly a thought-provoking idea, particularly in the light of the recent anniversary of last year’s summer riots in London, which saw local communities hit by a wave of looting, vandalism and violence.

If it could be proved that engaging with the arts might lessen the chance of these troubling incidents happening again, then the results could be extremely significant – not least in terms of the current issues surrounding the government’s backing and funding of arts projects.

Joined up thinking

For us at Children & the Arts, the results are particularly significant because they underline some of the latest outreach work in which we are currently involved. This includes an education project in Haringey, London – one of the boroughs most severely affected by the riots. The new project aims to open up opportunities for school children and staff through a three-year activity programme, led in conjunction with five other charities from The Prince’s Charities.

The charities are liaising closely with two secondary schools and their ten feeder primaries. The project will begin in September 2012 and aims to reach approximately 3,000 children. Alongside Children & the Arts, the charities involved are The Prince’s Trust, The Prince’s Drawing School, Business in the Community (BITC), The Prince’s Teaching Institute and The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.

As we prepare to launch the project, it is highly encouraging to read supporting evidence for the positive role of the arts in forging community cohesion. As LeRoux from the University of Illinois says: “If policymakers are concerned about a decline in community life, the arts shouldn’t be disregarded as a means to promote an active citizenry.”

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