Art Strengthens Civic Culture As Well As Individuals

Jeff in a Brecht play
With Dean Goodman in Brecht's 'Puntila and his Man Matti'

This year, the German government will spend 2.4 billion dollars on the arts. The Ministry of Culture wants to “open spaces for discourse” and strengthen their “valuable culture of democracy.”

This morning, on my Medicare birthday, I’m thinking about all the spaces that my 50 years as an artist have opened up for me, how being an artist has supported my mental, emotional and physical health as well as, at times, strengthened our civic culture.

Last year, when I was still young, a middle schooler swerved in front of my bike. I flew over the handlebars and in midair my clown skills kicked in; I landed without a bruise. The poor kid was panicked – “I killed a geezer!” – but years of work as a teaching artist gave me the skills to get her calmed down and off to school.

Artistic work can open up physical and emotional health.

I’ve worked with high-performing teams on short, intense projects and I have worked in decades-long collaborations; I’ve had creative ways to grapple with gnarly subjects like slavery, war, the Holocaust, my father’s suicide; I’ve worked in many different backstage cultures and with people from many cultures working together backstage.

Artistic work can open up mental health, political and intellectual engagement and a love for our diverse world.

As an artist living in a country without a Ministry of Culture and a national arts budget that is less than 9% of Germany’s, I’ve had to learn a lot of different jobs, which gave me the skills, a decade ago, to leverage my artistic career into a consulting career.

Artistic work can open up a growth mindset.

If you are ever tempted to advise someone against a career in the arts, please remember that the famously tenuous economics of the field is not inherent in the work; it reflects our country’s lack of a strong infrastructure for arts and culture. Art is essential for the emotional, physical, mental and political health of a society and the work of an artist opens up a life.

Jeff Juggling at 18
My first photo shoot
Jeff in Taming of the Shrew
Grumio with an audience member in 'The Taming of the Shrew'