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Book and discussion ask, 'Are the arts essential?'

Could we do without the arts? Two dozen artists, scholars, and critics from around the country address the question in a new book that’s also the subject of a public discussion in Pittsburgh this week.

The book is titled “Are The Arts Essential?” It’s co-edited by Alberta Arthurs and Michael DiNiscia. Arthurs, a former president of Chatham College (now Chatham University), returns to town to join two other contributors, theater artist and educator Cristal Chanelle Truscott and PBS NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

Alberta Arthurs is co-editor of "Are The Arts Essential?"
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures
Alberta Arthurs is co-editor of "Are The Arts Essential?"

The free Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures event takes place at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland.

Arthurs launched the book project four years ago to help dispel the idea that the arts are merely entertainment with little impact outside the realm of the theater or museum gallery.

“It was the concept of this book to try to bring home to people the extent to which the arts are actually activating and making change, and for inspiring change, and that in a way they had important policy dimensions,” said Arthurs, a senior fellow of the John Brademas Center of New York University, and a former long-time Director for Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Contributors to the book include such names as Oskar Eustis, longtime artistic director of New York’s iconic Public Theater, and acclaimed choreographer Elizabeth Streb. Writers argue, variously, for the arts’ importance to education, social justice, public policy, economic development and more.

“The arts are essential because they keep a record of the ideas, dreams and innovations of the past, of what people were thinking and exploring and struggling with, innovating, living through, and how they lived through it and how they survived. And they’re with us in the present moment, being shaped by our times, and shaping our times,” said Truscott, who teaches at Northwestern University, in a phone interview.

Thinkers, researchers, and policy-makers have long debated the uses and value of the arts.

The discussion often revolves around whether to subsidize the arts and, more specifically, public funding. Ever since an early-1990s round of the “culture wars” led Congress to slash funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, arts advocates have felt increasingly pressured to make the case that the arts are valuable not only for their own sake or for their emotional impact, but as engines of job creation, consumer spending and educational achievement.

In an interview, Arthurs said she is among those who conceive of “the arts” largely in terms of nonprofit arts groups that rely heavily on unearned income, the vast majority of which comes from foundations, corporate giving and individuals rather than from tax dollars.

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Truscott tends to think of the arts more broadly, including commercial offerings, from pop music to Hollywood movies. Truscott would even include elements of “performance” in everyday life, such as the performance of identity. “The idea that we can identify and look at performance and creativity in every realm of life is really powerful,” she said.

However, Truscott said subsidized art forms — classical and contemporary dance, theater, classical or avant-garde music — remain vital because they are more likely than commercial forms to be experienced live and provide additional opportunities for audience members to experience personal transformation.

For more information on the May 12 event, see here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: