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Why invest in this effort? What's at stake here?

Scholars have described and debated the value of culture and the arts to society for centuries. In recent years, national arts agencies in the US, England and Australia have commissioned numerous studies taking stock of the various impacts and benefits of culture, heritage, and the arts to individuals, families and society at large. Some of these studies tackle the difficult question of culture’s unique value – the value germane to culture that no other sector, such as sports, can deliver. Common themes across numerous studies point to several distinct veins of public value (in no particular order):

  • Economic prosperity. Culture, heritage and the arts contribute to a region’s economic base. Numerous studies by economists suggest that investments in cultural programs and amenities generate a positive net return on investment in terms of employment and tax receipts.

    • Economic impact is greatest in cities and regions with major cultural attractions such as festivals and cultural districts that attract both residents and tourists.

    • Some studies point to reductions in public spending arising from cultural programs in hospitals (resulting in shorter stays), prisons (lower rates of re-offense) and schools (lower truancy rates).

  • Revitalization. In many communities, culture is a key contributor to urban revitalization and the regeneration of distressed neighborhoods. Cultural districts are widely recognized as a useful approach to community development.

  • Binding to place. Culture helps to build a sense of place – the feeling of belonging and community identity that fosters civic pride and contributes to a community’s “livability.”

  •  Social wellbeing. Culture, heritage and the arts contribute to social wellbeing and social cohesion.

    • Culture, heritage and the arts are seen as an important means of communication, and provide an alternative language that can help people understand each other better.

    •  They are a means of coping with complexity – they help people to make sense of life and navigate their way through.

    • They provide an essential means of social connectedness and transmission of shared meaning from generation to generation.

    • There is strong evidence that cultural programs and amenities help to make communities feel safer and stronger to residents.

  • Discourse. Culture is an essential means of discourse. Cultural programs can address difficult or sensitive questions, provoke reactions, stimulate debate and encourage people to consider where society has come from and where it might be heading.

    • Cultural programs and activities offer an important forum for the exchange of political views without quick judgment, and a forum where the voices of the disenfranchised can be heard.

  • Personal development. Culture, heritage and the arts contribute to the intellectual, social, emotional, aesthetic and moral development of children and adults. 

    • They allow people to express themselves creatively and give form and meaning to emotions that might otherwise be difficult to comprehend.

    • Individuals, especially children, draw on culture and the arts to develop a sense of personal identity and to convey this identity to others.

    • Active participation in cultural programs can build literacy, social skills, confidence, and self-esteem and is for many an essential avenue of life-long learning.

    • Students who study arts subjects are more employable, and are more likely to stay in employment.

    • They allow people to understand and interpret the views and experiences of other people, especially people from different cultures, contributing to a capacity for empathy, tolerance and acceptance.

    • They unlock the imagination and inspire people to reach for goals that they never before considered.

  • Subjective wellbeing. Numerous studies conclude a positive association between cultural participation and subjective wellbeing or life satisfaction.

  • Physiological and mental health benefits. Some cultural activities have physiological benefits, such as the therapeutic mental and physical benefits of gardening, hiking along heritage trails, or dancing.

    • Many studies provide evidence of the health benefits of cultural participation to older adults and to adults and children living with disabilities.

Content comes from Creative Community Phase 1 Summary Report, November 2015, WolfBrown.

For Further Reading

Above photos: A dancer in the 2016 Santa Barbara Solstice Parade (Photo credit: David Powdrell) and two girls dancing at a concert organized by Viva el Arte and the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe’s City Hall (Photo courtesy of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center).

Project funded by

the Santa Barbara Foundation


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