Why Art Matters

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.” President John F. Kennedy’s tribute to Robert Frost


A world of increasing power imbalances and oppositional viewpoints has caused some people to wonder what—if anything—can art bring to bear? Some question whether art matters as much in this intensified world. Some have even chosen to cut off or reduce their support for art in favor of social or political issues, but it’s a false dichotomy and potentially short-sighted choice. The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation believes that it is precisely because of our present circumstances that we need to support a diversity of artistic expression now more than ever.


Art and culture have always been our conscience, our teacher, our historian, and our inspiration. Since the time of ancient peoples, art has been the method by which we have recorded our lives and sought the truth. Through drawing, storytelling, performance, and music, we have documented more than a passing of time but have given voice to how we lived, why we mattered, what we learned, what brought us hope, and what broke our hearts.


In the history of oppression, those who sought control did not stop at physical, economic, or geographic imprisonment of other people. They further tried to enslave people by stripping them of their languages, their traditions, and their art. They rounded up and imprisoned the political leaders, the philosophers, and the artists. They raided and despoiled the museums and shrines. Yet no matter how dire the physical circumstances, oppressed people have always continued to create and make because they found solace, dignity, and hope in song, in secreted cultural traditions passed down to them and then to their children, in the balm of imagination.


Art is an avenue—sometimes the only avenue—for those forced to the margins to be seen and heard. Unlike the streamlined equation of win or lose, art brings any and every kind of person into the arena and invites us to imagine ourselves as someone of a different gender, different time, different race, different world.


Art urges us to dream beyond any present fear. It offers us an oasis of beauty and joy where we can rest, heal, laugh and cry so that when we are ready, we can charge back into the challenge of our imperfect humanity.


This is why the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation champions and supports 170 arts organizations in the Chicago region and 35 in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. We believe that artists and the arts organizations who nurture them are not a luxury but a necessity and deserving of our sustaining support. Arts help us to better know ourselves as a people who can learn from history, who are able to empathize and engage with those from different experiences, and who can imagine a world beyond our present circumstances. In a most vital way, art matters.

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