California Forum

Can the arts save California’s civic life?

A display of buttons in the exhibit “The Summer of Love Experience, Art, Fashion and Rock and Roll” in Golden Gate Park at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A display of buttons in the exhibit “The Summer of Love Experience, Art, Fashion and Rock and Roll” in Golden Gate Park at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) AP

On every public policy challenge other than climate change regulations, the state seems stuck. We can’t transform our education system, our health care, our transportation or our housing markets to meet our expanding needs. Silicon Valley, once billed as a savior, is more interested in grabbing our data than making society better. The majority of Californians don’t bother to vote, much less engage in civic life.

The state’s arts sector wrestles with the same challenges: invasive technology, diversifying demography, fading engagement, stagnant education, economic inequality. Over the last 18 months (after being assigned to edit a series on arts and society), I embarked on a crash course in how arts organizations seek to engage us. The experience left me uncharacteristically optimistic. While the arts can mirror the state’s larger dysfunction, they also may be the part of California best positioned to lead us out of this dark time.

Today, the arts retain credibility that other human pursuits such as mass media, politics, and business have lost. In surveys, the biggest complaint that Californians voice about the arts is that they don’t have time to enjoy them.

California’s arts sector could revive the state’s civic culture, connecting Californians and offering a sense of meaning, accomplishment and even happiness.

So I’d like to propose that the arts could be the secret sauce of a revival in California’s civic culture. While technology can leave us feeling isolated, the arts connect us, and provide a sense of meaning, accomplishment, even happiness. Researchers have shown that people who participate in arts and culture are more likely to vote, belong to civic organizations, know their neighbors, and do charitable work. The arts, in short, encourage us to be sociable. And sociability is becoming a lost, and thus valuable, art.

What’s the secret of the arts’ success?

The answer starts with healthy self-criticism: Arts leaders express urgent concern that their arts organizations aren’t meeting the expanding needs of today’s communities. In response, California arts organizations have been aggressive experimenters in connecting with communities and in creating spaces for tough local subjects. Take the Cornerstone Theater’s six-year “Hunger Cycle” of nine plays on food equity. Or the Oakland Museum of California’s popular exhibit “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,” which risked criticism of cultural appropriation and of celebrating a movement associated with violence.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has prioritized the work of “social bridging”—intentionally bringing together people from different walks of life through exhibits and events. Museum executive director Nina Simon writes about matching “unlikely partners—opera singers and ukulele players, welders and knitters, Guggenheim winners and backyard artists … to build a more cohesive community.”

When is the last time you saw institutions outside the arts pursue that level of mixing? These days, businesses, interest groups and politicians rarely try to make converts; they instead focus on turning out their core customers and monetizing their contacts. But many of California’s top arts institutions make their events and exhibits free, especially for kids.

The arts could do even more in California. Amidst a stressful deluge of digital information, arts organizations are models of how to filter, so we see what deserves attention. The arts also are a case study in the folly of giving people what they want, instead of what they need. Scholars have shown how web sites that give us what we want give us too much of the same stuff, thus constraining creativity, and ultimately disappointing audiences. The arts stand as a direct rebuttal to Silicon Valley’s data obsession because art’s value is undeniable but can’t be quantified by attendance or economic studies.

All this asks an awful lot of the arts, particularly when President Trump seeks to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. But our arts organizations provide California with a rare and invaluable template for building broad networks of people to imagine better futures.

Joe Mathews, Connecting California columnist for Zócalo Public Square, wrote this for a Zócalo inquiry on arts engagement. He can be contacted at