The Worst Best-Kept Secret in Philanthropy: Arts Engagement Boosts Workforce Skills

We tend to avoid the fetid swamps of electoral politics, but we couldn't resist mentioning this recent zinger from Senator Marco Rubio. "You can decide whether it's worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major," Rubio said, "because the market for Greek philosophers is tight."

We'll grant him the obvious fact that there isn't a massive demand for Greek philosophy teachers in this country. We also admit his comment was made within the context of students amassing punishing college debt. But we'd also caution that an exclusively market-based view of the utility of the arts is myopic. Don't believe us? Just ask the folks who are particularly well-versed in market dynamics: U.S. corporations.

H.R. directors across the country lament the dearth of candidates who can speak articulately and solve problems. For example, in a recent survey of 200 top human resources executives of corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies conducted by Theatre Forward, a Manhattan organization that funds nonprofit theaters and arts education throughout the country, 92 percent of respondents said young people "lack the skills to enter the workforce and be successful." 92 percent!

Now, answer this. What type of undergraduate educational model can best provide college kids with important critical thinking and communication skills? Arts education, of course. Yet, in a case of what can only be described as a failure to connect the dots, these very same corporations that can't find qualified candidates also often fail to support the very thing that helps build qualified candidates: arts education.

Asked what could boost the workplace preparedness of the next generation of employees, only 8 percent said arts education. (They were more likely to note the value of sports, internships, and communications courses.) Not that we can blame them. Making the connection can be a stretch. In fact, it was only after the survey prodded respondents further that a light went on. When asked specifically to reflect on whether participation in the arts could improve communication, creativity, and other workplace skills, 58 percent of respondents agreed.

A few thoughts here. First, framing the arts as a way to boost job preparedness should be embraced by arts organizations looking for funding—if framed properly. Like it or not, we live in an increasingly metrics-oriented world. Funders will respond to anything that can quantitatively move some important dial. (It's the same logic that underscores the pitch that arts education can boost test scores.) Therefore, grant writers should have data on hand connecting the arts to improved job performance. Thankfully, more data is emerging.

Secondly, arts organizations need to take arts education out of the realm of the theoretical. They need to get personal. Think about why a philanthropist like Bruce Kovner gives so generously to the arts. It's because he was personally affected by the arts at a young age. And the same logic applies here. Eighty-nine percent of executives surveyed by Theatre Forward said they received arts education or personally participated in the arts. And the majority said that that experience helped them build characteristics that aided their careers, such as "creativity, confidence, verbal communication, teamwork, focus and perseverance."

Bruce Whitacre, executive director of Theatre Forward, summed it up best, noting, "Even people who care about the arts and have benefited from it have trouble making the connection. We have to figure out how to break that mental block that separates art engagement from workforce preparedness."