"When at-risk youths come into contact with the arts, their academic achievement and their civic and social engagement improve"

Sunil Iyengar, Office of Research & Analysis Director at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal agency responsible for promoting the arts in the United States. Under his leadership and strategic vision, this organisation has produced dozens of research reports aimed at showing the impact that participation in the arts has on societies’ economic development and people’s health and well-being. Prior to joining the NEA, Sunil Iyengar worked as a reporter and editor for a host of scientific publications. He also writes poems and book reviews.


Have you found any evidence of the value of cultural activities to social integration or to the reduction of inequalities, especially among sectors of the population that do not have easy access to culture?

Equality of access to culture is a fundamental aspect of our work. In our strategic plan, we have placed a lot of emphasis on ensuring that all Americans are able to benefit from engagement in the arts, regardless of the community they belong to or the part of the country they come from. And that is the unique strength of the NEA.

One of the goals of our research projects is precisely to understand how we can close the gaps in access to the arts. It is vital to our work to understand what routes of access to culture can be improved and which ones cannot, and to inform our political leaders accordingly. Our projects try to make the arts attractive to people and, among other things, they enable us to decide who we award grants to, which is part of our work.

We therefore need to take great care in our assessments, since we are obliged to produce annual performance reports and meet the requirements of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Nevertheless, and despite being a relatively small federal agency, I believe we manage to have considerable impact because of our ability to reach Americans from the most disadvantaged backgrounds through the arts. The arts projects benefiting from NEA funds are spread across the country, in urban and rural areas alike, and they are aimed at each and every demographic group.


From the research that the NEA has conducted and the programmes it has implemented, can any conclusions be drawn about how the arts are able to help at-risk groups and, in particular, younger people? 

Indeed they can. We have found that social equality can be promoted through the arts. The most effective way of doing this is through an arts education. Our analysis to control for the structural socio-economic differences existing in our society show that the gap between rich and poor tends to narrow when adolescents have been in contact with the arts from a young age. 

The rates of improvement among at-risk individuals or groups who are aware of and participate in the arts are very significant in every aspect. That is, when youths from less advantaged communities are in contact with the arts, either at school or through extracurricular activities, the differences between them and youths belonging to a higher socio-economic status decrease in the short or medium term with regard to both academic achievement and civic and social engagement.

However, previously at-risk youths may not manage to get better test results than those obtained by children with a higher socio-economic status. But at least they are much closer than they would have been if they had not taken part in arts-based activities. 

Bringing the arts to Americans from the most disadvantaged backgrounds helps to promote social equality

That is, at-risk youths get better grades and adapt better to society when they experiment with the arts.

Exactly. Within the same socio-economic group, there is a very solid correlation between academic performance and life conditions in the medium term among children who have had intense arts-related experiences compared to those who have never had any contact with the arts. 

At-risk youths who have come into contact with the arts tend to do better at school and beyond than children on the same socio-economic level who do not participate in arts-based activities. The same thing happens with children from a higher social class, but the difference is not as big. That is, the greater the risk of social exclusion, the greater the benefit from participating in the arts.

So, we have a reasonable belief that the arts can help to level the playing field, especially for youths and children. Many of them have often not had the opportunity to access culture. But when we do give them such opportunities, they seem to act as catalysts for them to get more involved in academic life and become integrated into a social and economic group.


How can the benefits of the arts be measured socially and emotionally, or on people’s health? Can you give an example from specific programmes?

We do a lot of work, for example, with the U.S. Department of Defense. We try to understand how the arts can help heal the physical and emotional injuries of military personnel who have taken part in armed conflict. Arts therapies (music, dance and visual art) have been applied in these programmes. Such therapies, in the very early stages, have proven highly beneficial to patients, who are mainly war wounded. This is one of the ways we have been able to research and measure the value of the arts in other contexts.


How do you think new technologies, especially smartphones, social media and video games have affected youths as regards the consumption of the arts or access to them?

That is a very important question, and we are paying particular attention to it in the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a regular report we do for the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the latest data available to us, from a study conducted in 2012, between 81 and 83% of adults participate in some type of arts-related experience via electronic or digital media. It is a high percentage compared to the one for those who have visited an art gallery or attended a performing arts show.

So, in short, a high proportion of the population – youths for sure, but also older adults – participates in the arts via their smartphones and tablets. And these statistics will almost certainly be higher in the results from the next survey.


In a society as heterogeneous as the American one, are their differences in participation in the arts by the individuals’ cultural origin and social class?

One of the most significant results we obtained from our studies was precisely the high participation of demographically very diverse groups in artistic creation using these electronic media. For example, African Americans, Hispanic or Latino Americans, and Americans of Asian origin are more likely to create music or digital art with electronic digital media. 

And that is great, because it enables them to empower themselves and become engaged in artistic creation at a much higher level than we have seen in the past.

As a consequence of these data, our agency is determined to allocate more funds and grants to the development of digital art projects across the country. Our director of media arts, Jax Deluca, is committed to fostering the cultural participation of the country’s diverse communities via these media because she considers it to be the best way of delivering services to the people.

Artistic and creative skills can help to improve learning in science disciplines

In Spain, the school dropout rate is high at very young ages. Do you think the arts could act as a way of redirecting these people towards the labour market?

That is a very relevant topic that we are also studying in depth. In 2017, we produced a report (The Arts and Dropout Prevention: The Power to Engage) about the importance of engaging in the arts as a means of successfully integrating into society. And we reached the conclusion that such engagement in the arts not only contributes to children’s growth, to improvements in people’s socio-economic situations or to individuals’ health and well-being, but is also an effective way of facilitating access to the labour market.

In these reports, firms and employers often tell us that the skills they are looking for in new graduates are precisely those that an arts education provides: creativity, critical thinking, communication skills and cross-disciplinary thinking. All these competencies are acquired by studying and practising the arts. 

What I think this suggests is that we have a unique opportunity to include participation in the arts as a fundamental part of the education system. This would mean a shift from the STEM model (the science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning methodology already used in many education systems such as those in the United States, the United Kingdom and Finland, among others) to the STEAM model. By adding the A, which refers to the arts, it means that artistic and creative skills can help to improve learning in the scientific disciplines.


So what type of artistic skills is applicable to science studies?

It is important to stress that it is not a matter of adding the arts as a complementary area of knowledge, but rather of integrating them into this educational model to foster creativity, innovation and design, for example.

There is evidence showing that such collaboration among disciplines works and is useful for educating people who aspire to enter the labour market. This year, we have collaborated on a study led by the National Academy of Sciences: Branches from the Same Tree, which explains how the arts can improve learning outcomes in higher education, as well as professional success. 

And this operates in both directions: by integrating the arts into practical science studies, and by integrating science, technology and engineering into the arts.


The NEA’s mission is to promote arts-based activitiesto facilitate individual progress, as well as the social and economic progress of the country. How does this vision align with the notion of “art for art’s sake”, that is, the idea that artists lead lives that are “Bohemian” or on the fringes of arts institutions?

Our mission is to pay attention to the entire value chain of the arts, strengthening the creative capacity of our communities at every stage: from those that understand art as a value in its own right – those devoted to art simply for “the love of art” – to those that give it an economic value. The conception of art as a channel for educating society is, of course, included within that.

Achieving true integration between how art is produced – whatever form it might take – and the way in which the importance of the arts is communicated is, therefore, among our objectives.

The main task of the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis is to conduct research into the social benefits of the arts. It should be borne in mind that we depend on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. We are therefore accountable for many concrete aspects, such as measuring the added value that the arts bring to the country’s gross domestic product.

Participation in the arts is an effective way of facilitating access to the labour market

When a youth decides to devote him or herself to the arts as a career, his or her parents’ reaction is usually to try to talk him or her out of it: “It’s badly paid”, “You won’t be successful”, “It’s a tough path”, “Do it in your spare time but look for a serious job”, etc. What would you say to these people?

Yes, this is a classic reaction… but the fact is that it is now happening much less often because many of those preconceptions no longer reflect the reality of the situation as it stands today. We have also addressed this; one of the reports we have produced on the trends and conditions affecting American artists (Creativity Connects) concludes that being an artist is not a linear path. 

Careers in the arts are changing. The resources and opportunities available to artists are on the up. It should be borne in mind that people who do devote themselves to the arts often have other careers. Most artists combine the arts with another type of occupation. In addition, the skills that the arts give you can be useful in many other areas: in management, communication and marketing, and in many other fields. Even the sciences, as we said earlier.

In short, people with an arts education can use their competencies in conjunction with other skills, thus becoming more attractive for the labour market. As a result, they can make contributions to other sectors while developing their artistic careers. This is what being a 21st-century artist means.

Furthermore, schools for the different arts disciplines (those that train musicians, dancers, actors, etc.) incorporate personal finance, business strategies and many other subjects into their study programmes. An arts education is not limited to learning and practising a specific speciality. Instead, it provides students with an integral education to develop other competencies that can help them in their personal lives.

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