We intuitively understand that the arts add value to our lives. We listen to music, watch live and filmed performances, admire photos, paintings and sculptures, and marvel at the skill of craftspeople. Occasionally a work of art enriches our understanding of the world – a haunting performance, a visual juxtaposition, a tapestry of words whose imagery lights our mind.

We know this. And yet, there never seems to be enough money to support the arts – in schools, in communities, in well-established institutions, and, of course, at foundations.

That message was made clear to me in June when I attended the annual Americans for the Arts conference in Pittsburgh. The large gathering drew people who raise money to support specific arts organizations or initiatives, people who distribute local, state, and federal arts grants, and people who spend their days promoting the arts.

These are the people who provide the managerial framework for an industry that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, added $131.2 billion in value to the economy in 2010.

That’s big business. And, based on the attendance at the conference, employs many people.

I was there to learn about the role of arts in communities, particularly in downtown revitalizations. Here’s what I learned:

Lesson 1

The arts provide a great way to bridge generational and cultural gaps within communities (I’d argue that food does, too). For example, the displays and activities at a holiday street festival stitch people together across generations, ethnicities and geographies as they share the stories of their diverse heritage.

Clay on Main at Boyertown Family Fun DaysLesson 2

A current trend is to pull art out of the establishment and into the community. This manifests itself in different ways. For example, last year our Boyertown Charitable Giving Program provided a grant to Clay on Main in Oley to take blank clay tiles to the annual Family Fun Days event at the Boyertown park (photo at right). Residents decorated the tiles in the park, and Clay on Main took them back to the studio to fire. The cured tiles will be put together in a public art display in Boyertown for all the residents to enjoy. Instead of going to Clay on Main’s studio, Boyertown residents experienced art in a place they planned to go to anyway.

Lesson 3

Artists can have a big impact when they’re asked to take part in addressing seemingly unrelated problems. In one community, artists were asked for input on how to bring land that had been used for strip mining back to beauty. In another community, artists were asked to help design a wastewater treatment plant to make it inviting to visitors.

All of these ideas have funding implications – each activity has a cost and each artist needs to eat. Yet, we’ve found that few of the donors who’ve established funds at the Community Foundation did so to support local arts. There are some exceptions – a fund created by the late Levi W. Mengel provides an annual grant to the Reading Public Museum, for instance, and the Support Performing Artists Fund provided fellowships for local artists for a decade before it made its last grant in 2012.

Nevertheless, what I learned at the conference is that there are ways to include – and ultimately support – local arts within other community initiatives, such as bolstering downtown revitalizations, improving educational attainment and improving the capacity of local nonprofit organizations.

And that’s a valuable lesson.

Heidi Williamson

Vice President for Grantmaking and Communication