The Arts Got Us Through COVID. Now Let's Invest in Them | Opinion

Crises often remind us of the importance of art, and the pandemic has been no different. Creativity can help us process trauma, express grief and even restart our economies. But for many, art education is inaccessible. That is changing thanks to digital art education, which is helping both our economic and personal well-being.

The demand for art is certainly here. Research conducted by the nonprofit Art & Well-being found that 45 percent of respondents accessed art much more during the pandemic.

This will likely increase as individuals turn to art to help them through mental health challenges which have increased exponentially during the pandemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2020, which is up from one in 10 adults reporting the same conditions in 2019.

Crises tend to remind us of the importance of the arts. We only need to look at the origins of Blues music or the paintings of Käthe Kollwitz to know that pain and suffering can be a cruel yet powerful muse. Studies have repeatedly found that creating art reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and helps to foster a more positive mental outlook.

Perhaps art, instead of being seen as a hobby or a job for the fortunate few, could be seen as a form of therapy. Many of the art students I speak to (whether they study in-person or online) tell me that they benefit from a therapeutic or meditative effect of their learning.

The benefits of art therapy, which applies art-based techniques like painting, dancing and role-play as an intervention for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, have been well-established. It should come as no surprise then that art therapists were essential frontline workers during the pandemic, with half of the art therapists surveyed claiming that they continued to go to work in-person throughout lockdown.

Better yet, art-based therapy is becoming much cheaper and more accessible than ever before. With the advent of online learning through dedicated platforms as well as YouTube, you no longer need to attend an exclusive art school to reap the psychological benefits of creativity.

 A person paints
A person paints outside Paint 'N Pour Studio in SoHo. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Online learning, which is relatively affordable, means art is accessible to those with a much wider range of experiences and backgrounds, beyond the minority of individuals who can afford the tens of thousands of dollars required to attend art schools. By breaking down the traditional barriers to artistic inclusion, we can also reach a broader section of the population with the therapeutic effects of art.

Increased artistic consumption—as well as production—will benefit our economies as well as our health. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that the nation's arts and culture sector is an $878 billion industry, which amounted to 4.5 percent of the country's economy in 2017, a larger share than many powerhouse industries.

What's more, landmark research by the University of Indiana found that the arts are not merely a barometer of the health of the economy, but can be a powerful catalyst for its growth and recovery. It is also one of the most robust industries because it is independent of the supply chains that affect other sectors.

It is for this reason that the creative industry grew faster than the general economy after the Great Recession. More recently, the New Orleans Jazz Fest drew thousands of tourists back to the region after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There will be similar arts "economic stimulants" post-pandemic, such as Mayor Bill De Blasio's "New York is back" music concert.

There are also new frontiers in the way art is bought and sold, as illustrated by the purchase of a $69 million dollar NFT by the artist Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple.

Greater investment in the arts, and the digital education that can fuel it, is a powerful stone with which policymakers can kill two birds: the psychological and economic recovery of the nation.

We should listen to the 71 percent of Americans who favor government funding for the arts. Or at the very least, we should see art education, including online, as important as any other subject.

Stan Prokopenko is a U.S. presidential scholar in the arts, and the founder of online arts education platform Proko.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.