Why Art?

Last night, the Center for Court Innovation was honored by Groundswell at their annual benefit.  For those who haven't been, I recommend the event highly.  Each year, Groundswell gets their friends to donate art for a live and silent auction.  The result is an event that is one part gallery show, one part cocktail party, and one part educational seminar.  The bottom line is that I learned a lot and had a great time doing so.

When it was my time to speak, I was asked the question: "Why does the Center for Court Innovation use art to engage young people?"  This is what I said:

You know, whole books and entire careers have been devoted to trying to answer the question “why art”?  I’m not sure in the 60 seconds I've been allotted here tonight that I have anything original to add to the mix.  I will say that I believe (to paraphrase Leon Botstein) that the visual arts are not a luxury good but one of the vital signs by which we determine the health and vibrancy of our society. And I believe in the power of art to inspire and stimulate change at the neighborhood level, because I've seen it happen with my own two eyes.

But really, instead of answering “why art?” I want to answer a slightly different question: “why Groundswell?”  Why of all the hundreds of wonderful organizations in NYC have we chosen to partner with Groundswell again and again in so many different locations?

The answer is simple: even though the Center for Court Innovation and Groundswell are very different organizations with very different cultures, we share some basic values.  At our core, we both believe that young people, including kids who have been involved in the justice system, can be a tremendous force for good in New York. And we believe that if we tap into this force, we can help make our neighborhoods safer and stronger without sending more people to Rikers Island.

For the past two decades, we have been proving that this is possible in places like Red Hook and Brownsville and Crown Heights.  Our partnership with Groundswell has been an important part of this story.  What Groundswell brings to the table is something pretty magical.  They bring a remarkable ability to engage even the most difficult-to-reach kids.  And they bring an ability to transform symbols of disorder and despair into works of art and sources of community pride.  That’s why we keep turning to Groundswell – because they deliver the goods again and again.

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