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The Value of Learning to Think Creatively

Posted: March 6, 2020 — Years ago, I took a call from a parent of one of my students who was taking a design class asking me to please talk their child out of pursuing a career in the visual arts. “I don’t want to see them become a starving  artist” they explained. As a parent myself, I could appreciate their well- meaning concerns for the future of their child. However, as someone who had taken the creative road in life and had yet to starve, I went on to explain a few facts about the value of learning to think creatively. First of all I said, think about the fact that we as humans owe everything we have ever done as a species to our amazing ability to manipulate every aspect of our environment, from harnessing fire, making tools, growing food, creating complex civilizations and everything that goes along with them. All these accomplishments have depended on the fact that humans have the compulsive need to manipulate, design and create where and whenever there was a problem to be solved, and a sense of curiosity to test the unknown, or to just make their world more beautiful. “That sounds well and fine for mankind” said the parent, but how is that going to translate into a job that will pay the bills? This was not the first time I had heard this question.

Here is where I called upon two important talking points, first my own experience in working in the creative economy. When I attended college for art, the goal of most art majors was straightforward and simple, work creating art and selling it. As I found out this was a rare exception for a fine arts graduate. Upon completing my education, I had little difficult finding a job, but it was a revelation to me that the creative jobs were so much more varied than I had ever imagined. I first worked for a museum installing exhibitions, then as a landscape designer, later as a props master for a theater and many other jobs that all fell under the umbrella of the creative economy, all the time working as an artist. Looking back ,these jobs were very rewarding, and they all had one thing in common, the ability to utilize creative thinking and to translate those ideas into a real and useful product. My arts education was money well spent.

My second persuasive point is what the parent really wanted to hear, facts and statistics. So here they are (of course these have been updated). Few Americans know how economically important the arts are to our economy. According the Bureau of Labor statistics report, the arts and cultural sector contributed $804.2 billion or 4.3 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016 (a new report is due out this spring). It showed that the arts contribution to GDP is greater than agriculture or transportation. Economic growth in arts and culture is widespread across the nation. (Louisiana was the only state to see a decrease in 2016.) And the arts have consistently run a trade surplus for the U.S., delivering more cultural goods and services abroad than the nation imports. The report reveals that five million people are employed in the arts and cultural sector. These five million wage-and-salary workers earned $386 billion in 2016 and is projected to continue to grow. This data  certainly demonstrates the overall value of the arts to the nation, to individual states, and to the lives of the American people.

As I finished my defense of the merits of  pursuing a creative career, the  chances of their child  becoming a “starving artists” to the concerned parent had dissipated. Today the student in question is both an professional artist and teaches robotics to designers in Chicago.

This article was written by Joel Chapin, Professor of Fine Arts at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

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