Fuel’s founder on the real potential of artists in society
In 2008, I traveled to Austria as an artist delegate to the Vienna Forum convened by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT). During the opening plenary session, a BBC facilitator said of the panelists, “We’ve heard from politicians. We’ve heard from philanthropists. We’ve heard from UN officials and NGO workers. Do we need anyone else?” Pointing to Emma Thompson and Ricky Martin, two ardently committed anti-trafficking activists, she shrugged sheepishly and continued: “Well, yes. We need artists. We need artists because they’re famous and they draw the press.”
To the contrary, the humanitarian sector needs artists not because they’re famous but because – more than any other professional workforce in the world – artists are trained to expose the human condition, understand human behavior, transform words and statistics into living, breathing human beings, and most importantly, to deliver stories of unbearable human suffering to audiences in a language they can hear. Whether through a song, play, film, photograph or Thompson’s rousing speech delivered at a UN conference, artists have demonstrated time and time again their capacity to reach the hearts of millions of people, and render deeply human experiences with force, clarity and irresistible urgency.
And consider this. The creative industries currently control five of the most powerful communications platforms in the world: theatre, film, television, museums, and music. Each year, billions of people around the world go to see a play, or a film, or the Kahlo exhibit at the Met, or get sweaty to the tunes on their iPod, or veg in front of their TVs because artists compel them to.
Despite this wealth of resources and virtually unchallenged social reach, the innovation and expertise of our community remain largely unharnessed when it comes to compelling citizens to save and improve real lives around the world. At a time when war, genocide, illness and poverty escalate more aggressively than ever before in human history – significant financial resources, business models, communications infrastructure, creative innovation, and social capital lie dormant, waiting for activation.
Let me give you one example of the potential that exists here. In the early 1990s, Silicon Alley entrepreneurs and Wall Street bankers began to actively engage with the non-profit sector. Whether because the thrill of staring at their 8-figure bank account balances had lost its appeal, or because they genuinely had discovered their true calling, these billionaire financiers started applying longstanding business performance metrics to the question of non-profit social impact. In so doing, these trailblazers gradually transformed America’s philanthropic tradition and gave birth to three key social change concepts – social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, and social venture capitalism. Today, social entrepreneurs propose some of the most effective solutions to a range of social issues – micro-enterprise as a response to extreme poverty, sustainable farm collectives as a response to hunger, citizen-driven intervention as a response to genocide, green music tours as a response to global warming.
What new models and solutions will be born when artists and their industries deliberately – and systematically – apply their resources to the challenge of helping people around the world? Famous or not, artists are collectively one of the most influential communities on the planet.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans
Fuel Founder & President