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Do the Arts Open Hearts?

New NEA-funded research finds a link between altruistic behavior and attending cultural events.
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Would you like to meet people who are engaged in their communities, tolerant of others’ differences, and more willing than most to help out those in need?

Try a concert hall, theater lobby, or art museum.

People who regularly attend arts events are more likely to embody the aforementioned qualities, even after taking into account such variables as age, race and education. That’s the key finding of a new study by political scientist Kelly LeRoux of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It’s the first in a series of studies on the arts and society funded by research grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Based on our analysis,” LeRoux and co-author Anna Bernadska write, “those individuals who attend arts events at least once a year are more likely to participate in various civic associations, exhibit greater tolerance towards racial minorities and homosexuals, and behave in a manner which regards the interests of others above those of oneself.”

The researchers analyzed data on 2,765 people who participated in the 2002 General Social Survey. A prominent source of data on the attitudes and trends of Americans, the GSS is an every-other-year survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Among other things, each person was asked whether he or she had attended a live drama or dance performance, or visited an art museum or gallery, during the past year. They were also asked whether they play a musical instrument, whether they had given any kind of performance in the past year, and whether they were a practicing visual artist.

They then answered seven questions to gauge their level of civic engagement, including how frequently they attended a church, neighborhood association, charitable organization, or political party meeting. Additional questions assessed their tolerance for people of different races and sexual orientations.

A separate questionnaire measured altruism. It asked how often in the past year they had performed such selfless acts as donating blood, giving directions to a stranger, or looking after a neighbor’s house while he or she was away.

LeRoux and Bernadska found that both attending arts events and creating art have “a positive and statistically significant effect on civic engagement,” as well as altruistic behavior. “Not only participation in community and informal arts, but also audience-based participation in high arts, may result in higher rates of an individual’s participation in civic life,” they write.

Attendance at arts events was also associated with higher levels of tolerance for minorities. However, the researchers note one troubling exception. While “making art and playing music has a positive and significantly significant association with gay tolerance,” such activities “do not appear to have a statistically significant association with racial tolerance.”

Perhaps, like our churches, our stages remain more segregated than we care to acknowledge.

Overall, however, this research suggests a positive link between exposure to the arts and civic-minded behaviors and attitudes. LeRoux and Bernadska concede that the reasons behind this association “remain obscure,” but they offer one plausible explanation.

“There is something about the creative process that puts people more in touch with their emotions, which manifests in helping, nurturing, caring types of actions,” they write.

In any event, they add, “this analysis underscores the importance of arts as another strategy for securing citizen engagement.” If policymakers are looking for ways to promote open-mindedness and a spirit of community, one promising path is to support the arts.