The Arts as Springboard & Galvanizing Force

by Hannah Grannemann

Now that the Opportunity Task Force has released its impressive and comprehensive report and named a new implementation team to take action on their recommendations, an “all hands on deck” approach is needed if Charlotte is truly going to make progress on the entrenched problem of the lack of social mobility in Charlotte and move up from our last place finish in the famous report that sparked this two-year process.

In this blog series, Josh and I are going to share some ideas about how arts and culture can be integral in these efforts, inspired by the work of the Opportunity Task Force and responding to their recommendations. We see many opportunities for the arts community to be a significant partner along with all the social service nonprofits and public and private sector players.

Charlotte has a robust arts and cultural sector filled with staff, volunteers and donors who are passionate about the transformative power of the arts. They hold a deep belief – they KNOW – that the arts improve lives, not only on a spiritual and community level, but on practical levels as well. We know that the arts can help to move people up the tangible ladder of socioeconomic status. We know it because the studies and statistics show it. We know it because we’ve seen it in our audiences, viewers and students.

If you really want to get someone who works in the arts worked up (in a good way), tell them that you believe that the arts are “nice,” and ask them to persuade you on why the arts are important. Along with impressive statistics about economic impact and educational achievement of kids who study the arts, they will be able to tell you at least a half-dozen stories off the top of their head about people they know whose lives have been positively impacted on the deepest levels by the arts. They will probably tell you their own story.

I’ll tell you mine. Theatre made the world come alive for me. Theatre taught me how to understand people better. Theatre taught me how political and social and cultural history fit together, and how an artist’s personal expression sprung out of that context. Theatre gave me confidence when I was a young person. That confidence was a foundation upon which all my personal and professional successes have been built. Theatre taught me resiliency for my many failures, too. Theatre is something that is infinite – you could explore it your whole life and just scratch the surface, because at its core, theatre is the human experience.

You could easily hear the same story from someone else – just exchange theatre for dance, music, painting, sculpture, or writing. The arts make the world alive for us.

Now, this is a “nice” story. I was not struggling with economic mobility in my middle class family. We have been middle class for generations. But for others, the arts are an important tool for economic mobility. The arts can be a career path or a key part of keeping students in school until graduation. The arts build pride, community and social capital. [We’ll be discussing all of these areas in the course of the series.]

The Charlotte arts and cultural community is already having a positive impact on economic mobility. But we all know that we can do more, be more impactful, and share the stories of impact more broadly. A drive for deeper impact gets us out of bed and into the office, studio, darkroom, classroom and rehearsal hall everyday.

As I begin to think about increasing the impact of the arts on the social mobility problem in Charlotte, a few key questions come to mind about current efforts. I think these are good questions to ask at the beginning of the inquiry that will be this blog series, because we are focused on effectiveness:

  • There is a tremendous amount of activity in the Charlotte arts and cultural sector attempting to impact social mobility. With each organization doing their own program, what benefits would there be if we coordinated our efforts?
  • Each existing program has developed its own measures of success. Are these measurements helpful? How can we create meaningful impact measurements around social mobility? We would need to break the sector’s decades-long habit of depending mostly on metrics measuring participation, not impact.
  • Some organizations work closely with social services organizations to get the word out about their programs or (even better) partner with social services organizations to design the programs in the first place to better ensure that the programs are meeting needs. Too often arts staff are determining what the needs are. We are wonderful people, but our expertise is not in social work. Great examples of thoughtful processes are Discovery Place’s Welcome Program and the Bechtler Museum of Art’s Jail Arts Program. Is there a way to share learnings from those partnerships to encourage more of them, and find other ways to ensure we are creating programs that meet real needs?
  • How are we doing at communicating the offerings we currently have to the folks for whom they are created? I am curious whether arts organizations are finding that the programs they have that are meant to provide accessibility to low income residents and families are getting enough use. Are we turning people away, or are opportunities going unused?

Working on economic mobility is not new to the arts. All around the world, people are working tirelessly in the arts to solve deep social problems. In our city, let’s use the Opportunity Task Force as a springboard and a galvanizing force in the arts for introspection, inspiration and accountability. The future of so many people depend on it.

In tomorrow’s post, Josh shares his call to action for moving the arts from “nice to have” to essential when considering social mobility. Thank you for reading our posts and we look forward to a conversation and sharing ideas along the way.


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

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