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What happened at the White House and National Endowment for the Arts’ first-ever summit on the arts

Tony Award nominees Renée Fleming and Anna Deavere Smith were among a slew of speakers who discussed the importance of arts to health and infrastructure.

(L-R) Renée Fleming and Anna Deavere Smith both spoke at the summit (Credit: Shutterstock for National Endowment for the Arts)

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the White House Domestic Policy Council co-hosted a national arts summit on Jan. 30 in Washington, D.C. Dubbed “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in our Communities,” the day-long gathering was the first of its kind. 

Nearly 30 leaders across various sectors — such as government, the arts, academia and philanthropy — discussed ideas, policies and actions aimed to further entrench arts and humanities nationwide. The day featured an opening and closing session, comprised of individual remarks, as well as three panel discussions on the contribution and impact of arts integration in three areas: health and well-being, physical infrastructure and civic infrastructure.

“What if every American understood that arts and humanities are critical components of a healthy democracy?” NEA chair Maria Rosario Jackson asked the attendees during her opening remarks. “What if artists had a strengthened role at the forefront of civic society and greater opportunities to help us see and affirm one another’s humanity?”

During the first panel, focusing on arts and health, Jackson announced that the NEA is investing $5 million for an initiative on healing through the arts. Jackson cited the success of other NEA-funded initiatives such as Creative Forces, which uses art therapy to deal with military-related trauma, and Sound Health Network, which investigates the role music can play in improving health.

“It is thought that music predates speech,” explained speaker Renée Fleming, a Tony Award nominee for 2018’s “Carousel.” Fleming, who is also a Kennedy Center artistic advisor and World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for arts and health, emphasized the grant-funded Renée Fleming NeuroArts Investigator Awards, which were announced in July 2023. The initiative pairs early-career scientists with artists for research in neuroarts, the study of how the arts measurably change the brain and body and how this knowledge is translated into practices that advance health and wellbeing.

Fleming stressed the importance of arts integration that is non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical and low-cost into health treatments; something as simple as exposing a stroke victim to music can help regain speech.

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