President Knapp Encourages Collaboration to Promote Arts

Dr. Knapp analyzes the importance of arts during a panel with Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski.

Phillips collection
Dr. Knapp joined Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski in a panel moderated by PBS arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown. Photo by the Legatum Institute.
January 29, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

Collaboration among cross-disciplinary enterprises may be the best way to raise public awareness and effectiveness for the arts and humanities, George Washington University President Steven Knapp said Monday in a panel discussion with Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski. The conversation was centered on “A Case for the Importance of Culture in a Prosperous Society,” Dr. Kosinski’s recent paper for the Legatum Institute.

The London-based think tank organized the dialogue between Dr. Kosinski and Dr. Knapp to examine how arts and the humanities contribute to prosperity in societies around the world. Jeffrey Brown, chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS, moderated the event.

Dr. Knapp said that universities around the nation are grappling with how to advance the arts and humanities while educating future leaders in the U.S. He gained insight while serving on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which produced the report “The Heart of the Matter.” The report identifies best practices and exercises—but Dr. Knapp explained one of the most effective ways to promote the arts has been to forge partnerships with different institutions.

“Where I see the real action happening is in collaboration among arts and institutions themselves. Advocacy and exploration are great, but we are really seeing traction in collaborative efforts that bring the arts and humanities to the level of public awareness we are interested in establishing,” Dr. Knapp said.

Dr. Knapp discussed the National Civil War Project, a collaboration that partners four universities—GW, Harvard University, University of Maryland and Emory University—with an arts institute to produce original theatrical productions and academic programming. GW and Arena Stage have joined forces to create three original plays that will analyze civil wars around the world.

GW will soon unveil its new home for The Textile Museum and continue construction plans on a conservation center for textiles on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, Dr. Knapp said. He added that GW has also co-sponsored events, lectures and programs with the Phillips Collection.

Efforts supporting the arts and culture are crucial because of the sector’s instrumental role in society. In her paper, Dr. Kosinski explained that the humanities contribute in promoting empathy and encouraging discourse within communities. She also said that art fosters innovation, creativity and civic pride while providing cultural anchors for neighborhoods and producing numerous jobs and tourism revenue.

But she urged art institutions not to be “sleeping beauties” at a time when funds for the humanities face financial pressures, limited budgets, changes in philanthropy and demands from a new technology-driven generation.

“You have to be not just relevant, you have to be needed,” she said. “It is no longer really acceptable to preserve, protect and display—it’s about your audience, education and bringing something of meaning to your community.”

Mr. Brown asked the panelists to articulate how to make the case for needing art to the general public. Dr. Kosinski answered that efforts should focus less on advocacy and more on showing the dimensions and complexities the arts add to daily life. She said the partnerships Dr. Knapp described transform arts institutions “from something insular into something dynamic and impactful for society.”

Dr. Knapp added that it is difficult to boil down the many arguments in support of the arts—instead, it is more effective if people witness firsthand how arts and humanities can enhance their surroundings.

“Part of the problem is thinking of the arts as a means to prosperity rather than thinking of the arts as the definition of prosperity,” he said. “People have to see participation in arts and humanities as an essential element of prosperity so that they are committed in a profound way and view the arts as something they don’t want to lose.”

That shift will only take place through participation and engagement—and the kinds of efforts institutions like GW and the Phillips Collection are pioneering, the panelists agreed. 

“It’s by actually having collaborations and going out to break down boundaries and exemplify connections; this is something we’re all doing—I’d like see more focus on those types of action,” Dr. Knapp said.