How Important Is Creativity? Let The Census Director Count The Ways

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) posted a slightly longer than usual podcast episode a few weeks back with a conversation between NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson and US Census Bureau Director Robert Santos.

If you missed the introductions at the art, you might be forgiven for thinking Santos was the NEA Chair the way he went on about the importance and value of creative practice in one’s life. He talked at some length about being a live music photographer at the SXSW festivals in Austin, TX for eight years and the different perspectives he received while watching all the creatives present their work. He talked about how innovation doesn’t just emerge from scientific hypothesis and data, but by creativity fueled by an artful life.

Later, he discusses the use of art and creativity in healing, relating it to his time as President of American Statistical Association during the pandemic and using his monthly newsletter to depart from the usual messages about checking out webinars about statistic practice, but rather

“…send personal messages and reflections that would help folks understand that we’re all in this together and that we need to help each other out and we can do so virtually. So I would tell stories about of resilience and how we need to tap into them and I told stories of creativity and mentoring and it was specifically focused on thinking as creatively as I could to help the folks that were suffering so much because they were stuck in their homes.”

At another point, he mentioned the way the Census Bureau had used familiar cultural touchstones to engage with people to navigate the challenges Covid presented during the 2020 Census:

…we had artistic reincarnations of things like the Loteria, — there are cards that have little icons, very colorful, of different types of characters, and birds, and skeletons, and scorpions, and things of that sort. And because of the pandemic, we could not use our usual face-to-face methods, or community organizations couldn’t do that. So rather than having a table in a grocery store saying, “Come fill out a census,” they were going out and distributing in community centers that were giving out water, and talking about best practices for vaccines and things. They were handing out these Loteria cards that, instead of the usual icons, they had different census characters on them, like an enumerator, or a little graph, or things of that sort. So it was reinforcing the necessity and the importance of civic participation, but doing it in an artistic way that was very pleasing to the eye, and got you to think, “Oh, this is really interesting.”

The example of Albert Einstein playing violin is often used as an example of a scientist who embraced his creative side, but I am thinking it is time to find new examples to amplify this concept, starting with Santos and anyone else he might identify. Not to relieve the NEA and other creative entities from doing the same, but Santos seems really adept at identifying the bridges between creative and science based approaches and is a vocal advocate.  I mean, there was a point where he was saying, credit where credit is due, the NEA inspired me to think all federal departments should have artist-in-residence programs.

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.


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