The Mellon Foundation has a bold new look. And it’s attracting attention. At the start of 2022, Mellon hired the design firm Pentagram to create a new logo. Originally made from clay, this logo is now being used across platforms in different colors and 3-D renditions. And if you think this is just a superficial branding stunt, think again.
The Mellon Foundation understands that philanthropic organizations for the humanities are entering a new era. That’s why it is taking a proactive approach to connecting with more diverse audiences through more bold public statements. Now more than ever, says President Elizabeth Alexander in a Fast Company article, the general public must be made aware that institutions like theirs, instead of quietly funding grantees, “are carrying meaning, we are carrying values, and we want them noticed.” Eddie Opara, partner at the Pentagram firm that created Mellon’s new logo, articulated it this way in the same article. He said: “We need the arts and humanities to be integrated into the idea of the future or we’re going to lose ourselves.”
Mellon is not alone in wanting to be integrated into the idea of the future. Anyone who has followed the plight of the humanities, especially since the economic downturn of 2008, knows that while advocacy and communication are not the only answers to future proofing, they are important pieces of the puzzle for addressing common misconceptions about the role, value, and practice of an arts or humanities education for today, and for tomorrow.
Awareness-building, advocacy, outreach, and engagement have become so essential that they are now built into the strategic plans of institutions and organizations that support the arts and humanities. For instance, the 2018-2020 strategic plan for Americans for the Arts cites “[expanding] individual awareness and recognition of the value of the arts and arts education as central elements to a vibrant and equitable nation.” The 2020-2024 strategic priorities of the American Council of Learned Societies include “[lifting] the public profile of humanistic knowledge.” The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) cites “making the humanities available to all Americans.”
Expanding the reach of both the arts and humanities through effective communication strategies has quickly become a top priority. But what is actually being done to achieve these goals? The National Humanities Alliance has several toolkits and resources to pitch the humanities to the media, with particular emphasis on communicating with members of Congress. The website of the American Historical Association (AHA) has a separate “Advocacy” tab that provides an overview of their public announcements. The Society for Classical Studies publishes a Careers for Classicists guide for undergraduate students. The Kennedy Center has designed an Arts Education Advocacy Toolkit. The American Alliance of Museums offers an Advocacy Resources page. Phi Beta Kappa has also created toolkits and direct action steps to support the Liberal Arts more generally. And one of my favorite resources was created by Americans for the Arts. It is called the Arts+Social Impact Explorer, featuring a colorful wheel with fact sheets from over 26 different fields. Each sheet provides an explanation of the social impact of the arts with data points, examples of practice, and a reading list.
And that’s not all. Several organizations, including Americans for the Arts and the National Humanities Alliance, offer yearly advocacy summits and provide materials and training to better reach members of Congress. In April 2021, responding to declining enrollments in the Humanities, the National Humanities Alliance even launched an impressive and thoughtful set of Student Recruitment Strategy materials.
Student-oriented materials have been emerging as well. The National Humanities Alliance recently launched an impressive new podcast series called “What Can You do with That?” The Council of Independent Colleges created an account on X (formerly Twitter) in the name of two cartoon characters, Libby and Art, who post to promote the value and opportunities of the liberal arts. And several years ago, 4Humanities, a humanities advocacy organization founded by Alan Liu and in which I am a co-leader, designed a Student Shout Out Contest that gave voice through song, poetry, storytelling, essays, and other forms to students’ personal expressions of the value of the humanities. To contribute to these efforts, I designed a free digital flipbook called Arts and Humanities: Don’t Leave College Without Them whose goal is to engage students through a fun design interface with short essays by and for students themselves. The book also includes portraits of young professionals, success stories, information about what one can learn in different disciplines, and answers to questions such as “How does Philosophy expand how you think?”
Here’s the problem though: my students at least do not typically see or engage with any of these materials. And their impressions and understanding of the role and value of the arts and humanities are the same as they were a decade ago. A quick look at this short video montage created by some of my students last year is quite enlightening in this regard. They asked three questions in on-camera interviews with fellow students around campus: What are the arts and humanities? Are the arts and humanities or STEM more important? And what careers can you pursue with a degree in the arts and humanities? Their fellow students’ answers, or lack thereof, makes clear that there is a systemic problem. It’s a problem not unknown to readers of The ACAD Leader, for sure. And it’s a problem that–brainstorming all this with Alan (who teaches at UC Santa Barbara)–we think can be changed.
One problem we face is that few humanities showcases or advocacy materials have been designed for the social media that high school and college students actually consume, nor have the young been encouraged to create such material by and for themselves in their own voices. According to the 2022 Pew report on Teens, Social Media and Technology, 95% of 13 to 17 year olds use YouTube, 67% use Tiktok, and 62% use Instagram. Yet our advocacy materials do not circulate on these sites. Is it any wonder that students are still not making the connection between the arts and humanities in their everyday lives and the educational learning opportunities afforded on our campuses?
In fact, effective humanities advocacy materials that are ready-made for the youth audience–or, for that matter, any specific target audience–are also generally hard to find by those of us working to support the humanities. I may come upon some useful stories of alums here, a funny Meme on Instagram there, or I may make use of a data point in the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Humanities Indicators project for a flier or project I hope to launch. But when I need exactly the right material for the right audience on the right platform, I come up empty. I became especially aware of this problem when I was working on a fundraising campaign and website redesign for a nonprofit in which I am a volunteer called the Ithaca Fine Arts Booster Group. Why is the process of advocating for the arts and humanities so arduous when we are all working toward similar goals?
Here’s how Alan and I see it: organizations for the arts and humanities–ranging from the small to the large, and the local to the national–are investing time, money and expertise in a common problem and a common goal of communication. But the resources and expertise available to a foundation like the Mellon are practically unattainable to most, especially to nonprofits driven by volunteers. Many individuals and organizations have little to no communications expertise or access to materials that can directly and effectively target their diverse constituents. Our institutions of higher learning are also reinventing the wheel, with very few investing in next-generation communication programs that include a humanities focus or, even rarer, programs embedded in humanities disciplines themselves as part of their mandate. Which begs the question: wouldn’t sharing resources, best practices, materials, and expertise for communicating the value of the humanities provide a higher return on investment?
There’s a lot that we can learn from the above-mentioned Humanities Indicators project, which started in 2009 to provide statistical tools, measurements, and analyses on the state of humanities education in the United States. The project was born from the need to provide for the humanities what the sciences benefited from for decades: the Science and Engineering Indicators, first issued in 1972 by the National Science Foundation. It is undeniable that educators, administrators, and policy-makers who before were forced to rely on isolated sets of statistics about the humanities are now benefiting greatly from Humanities Indicators as a source of information about the humanities in research, education, policy, and–not least important–funding.
Similarly, there’s a lot we can learn from science communication, which has been around since the 1800’s, became popularized as a term starting in the late 1930’s (rocketing up in usage after 2000 according to Google Books Ngram Viewer), and is now institutionalized as an interdisciplinary field of study and profession around the world. Science communication (including “science writing”) has had a significant impact in clearly articulating and popularizing science. By contrast, the field of humanities communication does not yet exist, though there are many people who already de facto, but informally, train for or work in this capacity in both academic and other roles (finding positions in cultural, educational, government, community, philanthropic, media, and other organizations related to the humanities and arts).
For this reason, Alan and I have been working to develop a Center for Humanities Communication (CHC). We are inspired by the model of professional and citizen-science science communication. But we want to create a model of humanities communication specific to the humanities. The mission of the CHC–as we have initially planned it and articulated on our just-started website–is twofold.
*Note: Please right click on image to open in a new tab for better viewing.
Humanities Clearinghouse. One mission is to create a digital, open-license clearinghouse of quality humanities advocacy and communication materials–one that humanities and arts organizations and projects at every scale can both contribute to and draw from. Such a clearinghouse would follow open-access and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reuseable) digital principles in accumulating a growing repository of humanities advocacy and communications materials shared through common standards, templates, linked open data, and easy and ready to use examples customizable to the needs of individuals and organizations. The clearinghouse will include archival humanities communication materials dating back, for example, to the era of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and the National Endowment for the Arts). But the clearinghouse’s main focus will be on recent humanities materials.
Humanities Communication Program. The second mission of the CHC is to mentor new voices of humanities communicators who can enter organizations, professions, and media roles to bring the humanities to the public. Such new voices include those of scholars-in-training–humanities students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels who seek additional career pathways utilizing their interest in the humanities. New voices also include age groups whose passion for the humanities are often neglected in discussions of the future of the humanities. These include the young in the K-12 and so-called Alpha and Z “generations” who might be recruited as “influencers” for the humanities. And new voices also include our elders: members of Generation Retired who have a passion for, and experience in, the humanities who might find meaning in their golden years in “influencing” not just in the à la mode social-media sense but in the ageless, cross-generational sense of mentoring and working with young people toward a common, better humanity. With others like Anke Finger and Isabell Sluka at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Alan and I are planning for the CHC to organize the following:
- General Workshops: topic-specific hands-on workshops by experts on a variety of subjects related to humanities communication practices across diverse media platforms and audiences).
- Scholar’s Program: for students and faculty in higher education as well as independent scholars.
- Influencer’s Program: for young and elder humanities communicators.
These programs will provide teaching and learning modules, guides and resources, and in some cases certificates. They will train a new generation of communicators to expand awareness about the humanities, bridge understanding between the humanities and other sectors of society, and enter into jobs in organizations, professions, and media roles that bring the humanities to the public.
These programs will also reach out to diverse fields, ages, and groups–thus welcoming the widest social range in our nation of underrepresented groups, immigrants, first-generation-in-college students, and others who need to be embraced as humanities communicators. After all, the heart-to-heart conversation that every humanities-inclined student who is an immigrant, first-generation-to-college, or member of an underrepresented group must have with their parent at some crucial moment of life-choice about whether it makes sense to major in the humanities has to be part of the national, and not just family, conversation about the humanities. It just has to be if the humanities are to join the beating life-pulse of the future and the people who will be a vital part of it. A humanities communication program that recruits trainees from across the social spectrum will be a structured way to create that shared, living conversation about the humanities.
There are many talented humanities communicators now spread out informally across a broad range of institutions, social sectors, and jobs. And there are many potential new humanities communicators from diverse ages and groups willing to work or volunteer in humanities communication. Creating a structured framework for this network of people to work together with shared materials in a sphere that is recognized, publicly and professionally as humanities communication is our goal. We believe that a widely sourced but centrally coordinated Center for Humanities Communication can directly and effectively support individuals, groups, and organizations both locally and nationally in their work of advocating and communicating about the humanities.
Recently, we have been meeting with many leaders and staff of major American humanities organizations, associations, and foundations to consult on how best to move forward with the Center for Humanities Communication, and to fund it–both during a start-up phase (for example, through seed grants to support designing our digital clearinghouse and our humanities communications training program) and for the long term. Will it be possible to launch such an initiative? We don’t yet know, but we’re hard at work on it.
While the initiative feels (and will be) big, we seek collaborators and contributors to start off small–that is, to work with us in strategizing; to prototype a clearinghouse of materials (see the bibliography of such materials we have already started for the CHC); to fund internships or fellowships for a pilot humanities communication program; and to provide seed grants for organizational start-up and digital design work.
We recognize that individual organizations may not have enough time or money to spare for helping build a collaborative clearinghouse or training program. And it’s true that each organization has its own mission and vision and may not need or want an additional layer of cooperation, which we know takes time, patience, energy, and resources. But what’s clear is that if each of us works individually, we will not get as far, as fast, or with as much impact as we would if we worked together. We must start now to advance the skill-sets, knowledge, and methods of humanities communication in ways that are strategic, sustainable, useful, and efficient. Because while the Mellon Foundation might get noticed in 3D renditions, it can’t lead us “into the idea of the future” all alone.