Arts Not An Indulgence When So Many Social Justice Issues Need Attention

Apparently Vu Le of Nonprofit AF blog spoke at Association of California Symphony Orchestras last week. (those lucky dogs) In his post this week, he addresses the question about whether arts and culture have value when there are so many health and social justice problems that need to be attention. As the executive director of a social justice non-profit, he knows very well just how much organizations like his need funding and attention.

He says yes, arts and culture definitely play an important role in society and helping to address the problems we face. He mentions that as an immigrant from Vietnam, both music and art saved his life and made him feel valuable when he was doing poorly in school due to his lack of English literacy.

“I began to look forward to the art projects. For so long I had sucked at everything that required English, including gym (I could not understand the rules of various activities, like volleyball). With art, I felt competent and respected and sure of myself. My being good at something changed the way the other kids saw me. Art motivated me to continue to learn, to explore. It gave me confidence. It kept me in school.”

In blog posts throughout the years, I have often pointed out that people turn to art, music, theater, etc to help them cope with tragedy and difficulty in their lives. But of course, as a person in the arts, I am predisposed to look for those connections. So I was happy to read that Le had observed similar situations.

He is definitely aware of all the places arts and cultural organizations fall short of serving all segments of their communities. But he disputes the argument that the arts are indulgent in when there is such need in the world and expresses gratitude for the work arts practitioners do.  As long as the following excerpt is, a number of his expressions of gratitude are edited out so it is worth reading the whole post just for that.

I’m telling you these stories because when there is so much going on, so many problems to solve, sometimes we think of art and music as indulgent. Who has time for singing and dancing and stained-glass snowflakes when kids are starving or locked in cages? By thinking this way, we forget about art and music’s power to heal, mobilize, build community, and so much more.


Art and music are critical in our work for social justice, as frequently they are the only things that can reach people, that can provide comfort or generate the visceral, raw emotions needed for social change. After the election in 2016, when many families and children were terrified, Families of Color Seattle gathered the kids and used art—having the kids draw themselves as superheroes, for example—to help them process their feelings. And this year protesters in Hong Kong, are singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables as they do a sit-in at the airport.

Yes, there are plenty of things to improve on. Art and music are not always accessible to marginalized communities. Resources are not equitably distributed to artists of color, artists with disability, LGBTQ artists. And in public schools, art and music programs are always the first to get cut, and the schools with the most low-income kids and kids of color are disproportionately affected. Symphonies, orchestras, ballets, and other art forms continue to struggle with diversity and community engagement.

While we work on those challenges, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the organizations and professionals who are creating art and music, whose skills and dedication bring beauty and hope and happiness to a world sorely in need of it.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Arts Not An Indulgence When So Many Social Justice Issues Need Attention”

  1. I’m not sure I understand why the folks at ACSO needed someone to tell them that the arts are important. Surely they all knew that already!


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