Barry Edelstein on Why Arts Matter

The vast majority of Americans who encounter art do so through not-for-profit institutions: museums, orchestras, dance companies, theaters. Most are chartered under the 501(c)(3) provision of the federal tax code. In layman’s terms, they’re exempt from paying taxes so long as they deliver a public good to the community.

Therefore, our every moment at The Old Globe—a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit—revolves around a simple question: How can we conceive of theatrical art as a public good?

When the Globe’s annual budget injects $25 million into San Diego’s economy; when tourists travel here to see our work and stay in hotels and eat in local restaurants; when our productions go on to Broadway and shine national attention on our city—that’s us doing public good. When we provide employment and benefits to more than 700 people each year, that’s a public good.

When our Department of Arts Engagement brings theater to our neighbors in ethnically and economically diverse parts of the county, to senior centers, homeless shelters, refugee centers, veteran and active-duty military facilities, and even prisons: a public good. When a job-skills program we run sets a homeless veteran on a new course, changing his life and showing the positive impact an arts institution can make on seemingly intractable civic issues, that too is a public good.

Art brings joy, beauty, empathy, and a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.

But these are the extrinsic impacts of art, the things that demonstrate the ways in which art can be an instrument of social change and community growth.

More indispensable still are the intrinsic impacts of art. These are the ways in which art brings joy, beauty, empathy, and a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.

When an audience at our theater laughs at a Steve Martin comedy and smiles so wide that their faces hurt, we’ve created a public good. When they stomp their feet and cheer at a showstopper like "Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat" in Guys and Dolls, their happier hearts have benefited from a public good. When they weep at the carnage onstage at the end of Hamlet, or gasp at a Shakespearean turn of phrase that, four hundred years after it was written, still stuns in its concision and splendor, they’ve grasped a public good.

Art matters because, better than anything else that our species has invented, it distills the big, incomprehensible universe into intimacies and vulnerabilities that we all know and feel. It makes the public, private. And it translates the private, the confidential, the personal, into a public good.

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