Want Happy and Productive Employees? Give Them Meaningful Art Experiences

  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

 Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

In a recent piece looking at Alice Walton's emergence as a proponent of arts education, I noted that "with arts education once again on the chopping block, more work is needed to expand the body of evidence illustrating its benefits."

Soon after, I looked at the novel premise that the humanities can play a constructive role in community development efforts. And I'm happy to report the body of evidence keeps growing—which should give momentum to nascent funding efforts in this niche. 

According to Business Contributions to the Arts: 2017 Edition, published by the Conference Board and Americans for the Arts, "as employee engagement becomes a priority for companies, many of them are turning to the arts in an effort to fuel attraction and retention."

You read that right, HR department: Providing meaningful art experiences can attract that dream hire and retain high performers.

Before I dig further into the data, I'd like to explain why I find these high-level findings to be meaningful. First, consider the untapped potential of the American employee.

Many adults haven't had meaningful experiences with the arts. Some find "the arts" to be elitist and impenetrable. Your typical arts organization may look at, say, a local dot.com or real estate office and make the calculated decision that engagement just isn't worth the effort.

That may be a mistake.

Consider the success of ArtsWave, the greater Cincinnati region's local arts agency. ArtsWave's fundraising model includes strong support from the business community through more than 260 workplace giving campaigns. Its campaign, in essence, creates "gateway arts experiences" for a large pool of under-leveraged donors.

Viewed through the lens of enlightened self-interest, the approach helps ArtsWave raise money for community arts organizations. (And as any arts proponent will tell you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enlightened self-interest.)

Which brings me back to the Conference Board and Americans for the Arts.

Nearly 70 percent of companies surveyed responded that they offered board service opportunities at arts organizations for their employees, while 65 percent offered volunteer activities and 63 percent provided free or discounted tickets to arts events.

According to Americans for the Arts:

Companies consider the arts to be important in building quality of life, stimulating creative thinking and problem solving, and offering networking opportunities and the potential to develop new business and build market share. As a result, arts organizations enjoyed a positive three years between 2013-2016 in terms of contributions from businesses, with the vast majority of companies either maintaining or increasing their arts support. 

The study's "bad news" is that "only 28 percent of companies attempted to measure the business or societal impact of arts contributions."

"Measurement within the arts world has not advanced as successfully as other social causes," said Jonathan Spector, CEO of the Conference Board. "The benefits are clear, but companies and their arts partners need to become more sophisticated at demonstrating this in a business context."

Spector's comments aren't surprising. We've spent a lot of time tackling this issue, and arts organizations—and businesses in particular—can be forgiven for lagging in terms of measuring impact. It's complicated stuff, and it also explains why many corporations have been slow to embrace the arts with the same fervor as health, education or environmental causes.

At the same time, the larger narrative is clearly encouraging. As Spector noted, fewer than 30 percent of surveyed companies measure the business or societal impact of arts contributions. That's underwhelming. And yet, as you'll recall, arts organizations enjoyed a positive three years in terms of contributions from businesses, with the vast majority of companies either maintaining or increasing their arts support.

Are cost-conscious businesses recklessly throwing money at an ambiguous proposition whose return on investment is inherently unquantifiable? Not at all. They're maintaining and increasing support because, at the minimum, they appreciate the intuitive value of an arts experience.

For example, the survey found that 53 percent of respondents reported that arts support "contributes to stimulating creative thinking and problem solving." Can the metric be quantifiably measured and plugged in a spreadsheet? Of course not. But if you talk to a manager or an HR executive, they'll be able to pick out a creative thinker or problem solver from the pack. They understand the connection between arts experiences and the development of "soft" skills.

All that being said, do you know what data can be plugged into a spreadsheet? Employee retention and recruitment costs. 

The Society for Human Resource Management claims that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs six to nine months' salary on average. For a manager making $40,000 a year, that's $20,000 to $30,000 in recruiting and training expenses. If "Business Contributions to the Arts: 2017 Edition" is correct, and providing meaningful art experiences can "fuel attraction and retention," we're suddenly talking about real money. Now the CFO is paying attention. 

Similarly, ArtsWave's primary approach for communicating the value of the arts centers on the "ripple effect of benefits that the public associated the arts with—in particular, a more vibrant regional economy and more socially connected people," according to president and CEO Alecia Kintner. This strategy, as one can imagine, resonates with a key segment of ArtsWave's audience—the Cincinnati region's business community. 

All of which proves a larger point. There's no "right" way to communicate the value of the arts. There are numerous strategies to chose from, and if this exercise teaches us anything, it's that organizations should develop their arguments with the audience in mind.

I'm sure the future will present even more compelling strategies, thanks in no small part to Americans for the Arts. So I feel it's only fair to have President and CEO Robert L. Lynch have the last word:

Engaged, creative employees who are encouraged to think in new, innovative ways are more likely to be productive and active in improving both the company and their own business skills. The arts build empathy, observation, and problem-identification and problem-solving skills, which translates to better customer service and a deeper understanding of the constituency.