Arts and Culture

In August, the National Endowment for the Arts released data that estimated annual state-level arts participation from the years 2012-2015.

In Kentucky, this study didn’t make too much of a splash because across the board, when compared to other states, we didn’t do too badly. We were solidly average when compared to national statistics regarding attending arts events, reading literature and consuming arts via electronic media.

But there is one number that is disconcerting in our current sociopolitical climate: only 35 percent of Kentuckians personally performed or created artworks (compared to states like Montana with nearly 60 percent or Pennsylvania with 50 percent).

According to the NEA specifications, this category includes:

Making pottery, ceramics or jewelry; making leatherwork, metalwork, or woodwork; making weaving, crocheting, or other textile art; playing a musical instrument; acting; performing or practicing dance; doing social dancing; performing or practicing singing; creating films or videos; taking photographs for artistic purposes; creating other visual arts (e.g., paintings, sculpture, or graphic design) and doing creative writing.

And while personal arts participation is lagging on a state level, national reports of stress are steadily climbing.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America study (the most recent year for which the organization has data), 75 percent of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.

Additionally, over the last several months of heightened political divisiveness, another APA survey revealed that the 2016 presidential election — and perceived uncertainty regarding the future of the country — caused more than half of Americans “significant stress.”

It’s these statistics that bear giving the NEA data a second look as we enter the new year.

According to local arts professionals, if we could get more people participating in the arts on a personal level, it could serve as a powerful tool in addressing growing feelings of stress and anxiety.

‘Creativity is a really powerful tool’

Kristin Hughes is the director of the Kentucky Center’s Arts in Healing program. The program brings music, dance, drama, storytelling and visual art to a variety of communities and organizations like Our Lady of Peace, The James Graham Brown Cancer Center, Home of the Innocents and Catholic Charities.

“Basically, the idea is creativity is a really powerful tool to have when you are in crisis or transition or any kind of emotional stress or trauma that accompanies even a physical ailment,” Hughes says. “Healing is often about how you are addressing yourself as a whole person.”

Hughes says there is something distinctive about using art as a tool for healing, though she stresses Arts in Healing is not a therapy program (she leaves that to the rich community of art therapists and music therapists in the state).

“What we’re doing is just providing creative experiences for people in health care settings,” says Hughes. “In an institutional setting, most people are bored out of their minds or totally stressed, and so it allows them to move into spaces in their minds and hearts that change that feeling, or their perception of their surroundings.”

It’s not unlike using art to cope on a personal level with political or social events outside one’s control.

What causes the participation gap?

So what’s keeping about 65 percent of Kentuckians from participating in the arts?

Granted for some, it could be a lack of interest but according to Christen Boone, the president and CEO of the Fund for the Arts, it could be as simple as encouraging the community as a whole to branch out from attending arts events (which 65 percent of Kentuckians did, per the NEA) to giving it a shot themselves.

“It’s one thing to be an active participant in our world-class arts community, but another thing altogether to be someone who is a creative maker,” Boone says. “Many people are citizen artists but might not consider themselves as such.”

She also addressed issues of access, something Christopher Ingraham noted in his Washington Post analysis of these NEA statistics. He writes:

Education is a big part of it. The percent of state residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is positively correlated with creating artwork: in other words, more education, more art…Conversely, poverty rates are a strong negative driver of arts participation. If you’re working three minimum wage jobs, you’re probably not going to have a lot of time to indulge in crochet or creative writing.

In Kentucky — where according to 2016 Census Bureau data, 18.5 percent of Kentuckians lived in poverty last year, which is one of the highest poverty rates in the nation — the straggling arts participation numbers make sense.

This is where Boone says Fund for the Arts, whose 2016 campaign generated over $8.3 million for regional arts initiatives, continues to be committed to increased access for all members of the state.

“We want to continue working to provide and support opportunities for all in their pursuit of creative outlets,” Boone says.

She says additionally, Fund for the Arts provided 563 grants to arts groups, schools, community centers and cultural organizations over the last year.

“In 2017, we look forward to building on that momentum,” Boone says.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.