The Importance of Art in our Communities

by Dr. Sharon McCoubrey, Professor Emeritus, UBC

Many years ago, I was assisting an artist install a sculpture in our community when a store worker came outside to eat her lunch. She watched us for awhile, then approached me and asked, “why are you spending money on that art when we need to fix our roads and clean up our water?”.  It was a legitimate question and one that I always keep in mind and fortunately, can always easily answer.

Adding art to a community results in a better community.  I will support that declaration by giving a few reasons, but first, a brief exploration of what is meant by art will be helpful.

The term art is used to cover visual arts, music, dance, film making, architecture, landscape design and more.  For the discussion here, my use of the term ‘art’ will refer to the visual arts in all its forms, paintings, sculpture, drawings, installation art, realistic or abstract, as a few examples.  It will refer to both indoor and outdoor art.

Indoor art is quite straightforward, someone needs to enter a building in order to see the art.  Art Galleries are the most obvious indoor spaces that offer art for viewers.  The distinction among galleries is that they can be public art galleries, commercial art galleries, or artist cooperatives.  One might also see art indoors if they visit an artist’s studio, enter a hotel lobby, a bank, city hall, or other spaces that display art in order to enhance and highlight those spaces.

Outdoor art is often referred to as public art, or street art and generally consists of sculptures, banners, or murals on buildings.  It is special in a very unique way.  Public art is out and about in our community for everyone to see.  You do not need to enter a building in order the see the art, instead, the art is there for you to see as you drive or walk throughout your community.  Everyone will encounter public art.

One additional category of art that is of great value to communities is integrated art, which combines a function and a design or image.  Examples of integrated art are fences or retaining walls that have designs along them, or, bus stop shelters that have pictures etched into the glass walls, benches that are made into unique shapes, or bike racks that form the outline of an animal or other shape while holding bikes secure.  This combination of form and function has never ending possibilities in a town and add so much interest to basic items.

Just why is art so important

to our communities?

Here are ten answers to that question.

1. Art keeps a community from being boring, it adds the sparks that make it interesting.

2. Art contributes to the overall aesthetics or beauty of a community.  We try to make our towns attractive by making sure that they are clean, by reducing clutter, ensuring that the buildings are interesting and by including green spaces.  All of these efforts are important, but the addition of art takes the aesthetics, the beauty of a community up a notch by adding unique special features.

3. Art adds the features that distinguish our community from other communities, contributing to each town’s identity.  Most towns consist of the basic elements of stores, homes, streets, lights, signs, maybe farms and parks.  The art that is added in one community will be different than the art that can be found in a different town.  Sometimes, the art will reflect a town’s history, pioneers, geographic features, or significant events.  That is the nature of art, it strives to be unique, to be one of a kind, thereby adding to a town’s identity.

4. Ensuring a community has art ensures a healthy balance for its citizens, which is the mandate of local government.  An imbalance might be seen in a community that has great roads and transportation systems, but have no parks or green spaces.  A town with an efficient infrastructure system but no sports facilities would be imbalanced.  A community that offers safety, sports and plenty of shopping, but no art would also be lacking balance.  Art adds balance to a community by ensuring that there is something for all interests and needs.  It provides something to engage people, it provides experiences, it entertains us.  The variety of art within a community enables people to have different ways of knowing and understanding.  These types of balances are essential for well rounded, informed citizens.

5. We are all concerned about the economy, so here are a few facts that explain how the arts contribute to the economy of a community.  Arts festivals and events bring visitors to town and fills restaurants, stores and hotels.  The artists living in a community make sales, so they pay taxes and make purchases.  Through such activities, the money moves around and keeps the economy going.  But what is really interesting is the multiplying factor.  Studies in Edmonton, Vancouver and other cities, have shown that for every dollar that those municipalities spent on the arts, seven to ten times that amount was injected into the economy.  Another study showed that visitors attending arts events contribute two and a half times the economic activity than sports visitors.

6. An abundance of arts within a community ensures that there are jobs and career choices. The range of ‘what do I want to be when I grow up’ is as wide as the people within a town.  The arts provide opportunities for careers.  Some might be direct, such as being an artist or a gallery owner and some might be indirect, such as a producer and seller of materials and supplies.  Both direct and indirect arts activities contribute to a community’s economy.

7. Health is of major importance to all of us.  It is amazing to hear how the arts improve our health.  A study in New York showed that after being involved in arts programs for a couple of years, seniors had fewer falls and fewer hip breakages.  This wonderful outcome happened because the seniors were more engaged, had a purpose, moved more, reduced some medications, had better balance and generally felt better.  The demands of making art requires brain actions, which keep our brain connections and which is highly beneficial as we get older.

Some concerns of youth at risk can be addressed through the arts by allowing them to deal with their issues in a personal and expressive way.  This often results in a more positive sense of identity and self-esteem.

The arts also make us happier.  A 2012 study from Norway showed that depression is decreased and happiness is increased when people participated in arts experiences.

A Canadian study from 2013 stated, “The arts might not save you from the common cold, but it could be key to increasing your overall health, people who immerse themselves in the arts have better physical health and a stronger satisfaction with life than those that don’t”.  That benefit is realized by being a maker of art, but also, by simply being an observer of art.

8. A very important benefit of having art in our communities is that it helps develop an understanding of multiple perspectives.  In order to function harmoniously at work, or in our homes, we need to accept that some people think differently than we do.  The variations within art convince us that people think and work from different perspectives. When two people look at an artwork, it is common for one person to like the art and the other to dislike it, for one to think it is of good quality while the other might think it is a piece of junk.  Each artist uses background knowledge and experiences, personal opinions and skills to create an artwork.  Those differences show through in the art.  Such is the outcome of creative people making art and of different people responding to art.

The giant spider just outside the National Art Gallery in Ottawa is a strongly emotive image, playing with people’s fear or love of spiders.  Some people love this sculpture and some think a huge spider should not be a public work of art.  This sculpture called Maman’ was created by Franco-American artist Louise Bourgeois and was acquired by the Gallery in 2003.

 9. The ability to understand multiple situations or perspectives is especially helpful when dealing with social justice issues.  Art has been used throughout history and more so in current times, to draw attention to social issues.  Some of the crucial issues of our time include poverty, racism, other forms of prejudice, hate, violence, or environmental problems.  Sometimes the art that focuses on these issues keep us from turning a blind eye to an important social issue and sometimes, it provides us with some joy and beauty to counterbalance the challenges of our world.  In the article ‘Art in Precarious Times-a Reprise’, the author made this statement, “so many valuable human experiences revolve around beauty, stunning moments of awe that stop us in our tracks, like a jolt of reset-lightning pulsing through our beings saying, this matters”.

10. The fact that things are always changing can sometimes be challenging.  The skills that are essential for anyone coping with change, or navigating life in general, are creative thinking and problem solving.  Art cannot be created without creativity and problem solving.  There is no job of the hands that does not require the use of the mind.  Creative thinking is about developing the imagination.  So when people make and respond to art, they are developing their imagination, their creativity and their thinking skills. Fortunately, these vital skills can be applied to many different aspects of our lives.

Conclusion  •  I have heard many people say that they don’t bother going into the art gallery in their home town, or, to go on a public art tour, but these are exactly the things they do when they are traveling and visiting other towns.  I have always wondered why that is.  I encourage you to engage in the art of your own community so you do not miss out on all the benefits that come from engaging in these art experiences.

Let your voice be heard, that you want art in your community to ensure that these ten important benefits are available to you and your neighbours.  Above all, engage in the art in your community for your own enjoyment.

I am grateful to live in a community with many opportunities to participate in arts experiences.  The relatively small community of Lake Country hosts many artists, a large number of public artworks and many arts events.  Hopefully you will have an opportunity to visit the Lake Country Public Art Gallery, or to search out the many pieces of public art and to attend the annual ArtWalk festival.


Dr. Sharon McCoubrey is Professor Emeritus at UBC, following a career in the Faculty of Education with a specialization in art education.  Sharon currently volunteers as President of the Lake Country Art Gallery, Chair of the Lake Country Public Art Commission, Past Chair of the Central Okanagan Foundation, Insight Team with ArtsBC and is in her 22nd year as Chairperson of the Lake Country ArtWalk festival.


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