I feel I need to respond to Mr. Solan’s letter titled, “Instead of art, fee should go for affordable housing.” The thought that supporting art and supporting affordable housing are mutually exclusive is rather naive. Both are important and both require support. I’ve worked in art museums for over 26 years and am currently the executive director of the Elmhurst Art Museum. I do not, however, speak on behalf of my museum but rather as an Oak Park resident for the past 18 years. To suggest that art is the commodity which can be traded away to supply housing is to begin the argument with a serious misconception.

The arts comprise what is best in our society. The contributions of art, architecture, music, theatre, dance, and literature are monumental in the fabric of our society.

Art is as essential as the tools we use for basic survival. Life in our society does not merely enjoy the arts like some sort of luxury option to be deleted if the ticket price is too high. Our society in general is only lived to its fullest when the arts are an expectation and, like a comfortable companion, fit our lives in a way that challenge, complement and complete.

The United States has always been, and continues to be, the most philanthropic country on the face of the Earth. There is a danger, however, in thinking of giving in terms of only improving the quality of life and not also as a requirement to maintain a quality of life.

I want to suggest that there is a way to see charitable giving as something other than a “zero-sum” equation. Giving to an arts organization does not mean that others suffer, and the reverse is also true. The valid question, “How can I support art and culture when there are so many needy or sick who need help?” begins with a misconception. It assumes that art and culture are something that wouldn’t be missed in the face of funding other important health and social organizations. If you follow that assumption to its logical conclusion, art and culture–the kind that is history-making and meant for the future–would disappear. And while health and social organizations would become more stable in their funding, it would be naïve to assume that sickness and poverty would be eradicated, requiring even higher levels of funding and the formation of more nonprofits seeking charitable dollars.

Support is given to health and social organizations to enable those organizations to lift the sick and poor into a healthy and stable relationship with the rest of society; helping those organizations makes possible the enjoyment of a fuller life, rich with all that our society offers.

What sort of society would that be without the arts?

A society without art and culture can only be a dimly lit container, holding just the barest of necessities for life. The noble organizations working so hard to fight sickness and poverty would find that the recipient of their good-will was now entering a bleak place where life, while better than before, was only better by the smallest of measures.

Finally, the issue of the importance of introducing young people to arts and culture has long been resolved. Testing over the past decades has shown that students enrolled in arts courses while in school score better in math, science and language arts. Engagement in the arts fosters creativity, which encompasses problem-solving, a critical skill for young people to develop as they seek to solve the world’s ills.

Join the discussion on social media!