Art for Art’s Sake? A gift to philanthropists and policymakers

Art for Art's SakeToday’s post is by Moy Eng, Senior Advisor and former Executive Director at the Community School of Music and Arts

Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education is a gift. Whether one is an artist, educator, policy maker, or philanthropic organization, it offers a comprehensive, cogent review of research studies, and identifies both evidence and gaps in our knowledge.  It examines the question of whether arts education helps to develop attributes for the workforce in innovation-directed economies, and lays out the next steps for potential research.  Perhaps most importantly, the authors remind us that the primary justification of arts education should be in the intrinsic value of the arts and the important habits of mind that they promote.

This study tempers what is at times a highly charged topic. When the question of public subsidy for arts education and its impact arises, assertions about the arts’ role in developing creative, innovative, and more empathetic schoolchildren emerge. Not unlike a heightened interest in the role of arts in economic and community development in the 1980’s and early 1990’s in New York City.  Arts advocates would assert its powerful impact on economic development and cite studies regarding its leverage ratios, for every dollar spent on a ticket to an arts event attracted three other dollars. As the issue became more popular and more studies were commissioned, the “artistic dividend” appeared to notably increase and one began to question the genuine leveraging potential and methodology of the economic studies.

The authors of the OECD study look methodically for evidence, and at best a causal relationship, that illustrates the impacts of arts education for schoolchildren.  A second prong of the authors’ scrutiny is the question of what, if any, benefits formal arts learning brings to other domains such as mathematics, language, the sciences and social studies. As befits these three respected researchers, especially Ellen Winner  – whose work at Harvard University’s Project Zero I’m familiar with -, their collective eye is rigorous and measured in its assessment, laying out the facts and identifying studies which have or have not demonstrated plausible evidence on the question(s) researched.  For example:

Music education strengthens IQ (intelligence quotient), academic performance, word decoding and phonological skills and there is preliminary evidence that music education might facilitate foreign language learning. While there are a number of studies showing a positive impact of music education on visual- spatial reasoning, the sole longitudinal study on this question detected no persistent influence after three years of music, which suggests the need for caution. There is also no evidence that music education has any causal impact on mathematics scores, even though mathematicians may be attracted to music.” Pg 18

As illustrated above, the reader will discover, as I did, that there is strong evidence that arts education has a positive impact on the development of certain selected skills. Yet, there is far too little research on the impact of arts education on outcomes affecting creativity, problem solving, and behavioral and social attributes, such as persistence and motivation.

A second notable aspect is the breadth of the review.  I admire the fact that the research team assessed more than 200 studies covering a sixty-year period (1950-2013). They also incorporated the engagement of and feedback from selected OECD staff members and the Center for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) governing board, as well as attendees at the OECD-France workshop, “Innovation for Education: the Role of Arts and STEM Education”, held in Paris in 2011.

The authors’ research recommendations are a clear call to strengthen our foundational knowledge of the habits of mind that each discipline may engender and their impact on learning outcomes, research on those habits of mind that may transfer to other subjects, and the methodological frameworks through which future research is conducted.

For this long-time “soloist in the choir” on the importance of arts education, I think that Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education is an exceptional new resource.  For my policymaker and philanthropic colleagues, I strongly suggest that you read and take note. There appears to be an opportunity for us to collaborate and invest in long overdue and seminal research studies in arts education.


Report co-author Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin talks about Art for Art’s Sake? in French to Anne-Lise Prigent

Report co-author Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin talks about Art for Art’s Sake? in English to Patrick Love

Useful Links

Arts education in innovation-driven societies by report co-authors Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin and Ellen Winner on the educationtoday blog