Why Business Leaders Must Act to Protect and Promote the Arts

The “Arts” are under fire again. We have been hearing for the several years that we should be focusing more on math and science in our schools and less on humanities. Now the NEA[1] and NEH[2] along with other organizations that promote the arts are under siege by the new administration in Washington. The budget that our President has proposed eradicates any federal funding to those organizations.

Why… because there are those that believe the arts do not bring any measurable value to the economy and are only for the liberal minority.

If you don’t mind me saying so … that’s rubbish or dare I say, an alternate fact.

I will let others tell you of the pure economic benefits that the arts create both on a local and national economic level that is measured in the billions of dollars[3]. My purpose here is to make the argument that the arts are also important in developing great managers and decision makers and as business leaders we need to do everything we can to protect and promote the Arts.

Let me pause for a minute and state emphatically that science and math are very important and noble disciplines. I do not advocate that we stick our heads in the sand and ignore major global problems that science can help solve. What I am saying is that the arts play as important a role in helping us identify complex solutions to complex issues. And we need that in business.

Here is my reasoning.

  1. The best critical thinkers and problem solvers I have worked with over my career have all been people who have a background in the arts. There are no multiple-choice, or answers by rote, for most of the real problems business leaders face every day. The best managers bring a human element of curiosity to problem solving not just a spreadsheet. That makes for longer and stickier fitting solutions.
  2. Managing highly motivated and creative people is not easy and there is no one solution fits all answer. That type of thinking still exists in the military (probably for good reason) but is not the right fit for the dynamic business world of 2017. Managers I have worked with that have experience in the arts bring creativity and compassion to the management of their teams. Their teams excel over those run by military style drill-sergeants.  
  3. We need mentally tough leaders in business. Something very few business schools teach. I am not talking about prepping for a test or writing a case exam. That doesn’t prepare you to manage and deal with failure in the real world. An arts college does a much better job at this because artists have their work/performances critiqued every day in a real world setting with real world participants. By the time they graduate artists typically have learned to deal with embarrassment and failure and are mentally tough.

There are many great examples of the types of leaders I have been describing. Sir Richard Branson, Susan Wojcicki, John Mackey, Howard Schultz, Carly Fiorina, and Jack Ma to name a few. They all have a strong background in the arts that shaped their leadership and problem solving abilities and helped them achieve business success.

I have not had the business success of those mentioned in the last paragraph. But I have learned more about leadership and problem solving in my executive roles on non-profit “arts” boards than in my seven years in business and graduate school or in any singular business role I have had. I have solved many perplexing and seemingly no-win scenario problems while sitting in a hall listening to a concerto.

In September 1965, in a Rose Garden ceremony President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. The act called for the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

He stated “Art is a nation's most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” And I would add our business and economy.

Support for the arts from governments, setting the national tone, is a key distinguishing feature of progressive societies where business can thrive and prosperity follows. Those societies where the government devalues, controls and suppresses creative expression have a long, dark history of ultimate failure. 

As business leaders, we can’t let the arts be relegated to second-class or non-status. We need graduates who have a combination of arts and sciences on their resumes. We need to give the art and arts education equally footing with other disciplines. Right now, only 8% of American colleges have Arts as their primary discipline. This is half of what the number was thirty years ago.

I urge all business leaders to do two things

  • Support the NEA and NEH and the local arts community
  • Give that job applicant with an art based degree serious consideration when applying for a key position in your company.

Your business and our economy will be better for it.

See you at the theatre!

Darrell Pardy, CPA CA