Even with another great arts season just weeks away, recent events are making all of us at ArtsWave think beyond the stage. We are wondering anew: How can arts experiences help foster empathy, tolerance and compassion?

Many Cincinnati arts events, over the past year and planned for the year ahead, give us grounds for testing this idea. The ArtsWave-sponsored exhibit “Nelson Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu,” created by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and now on its way to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, was one of those opportunities for reflection not only about past but about the present. Matthew Wilman’s haunting photographs chronicled the final years of the extraordinary life of one man who dared to say, “Lay down your rock. Lift up your fist.” Guiding visitors on a journey of introspection, the final gallery then asked us to reveal our own power to bring about change by asking us to write and post on the wall our answers to the questions: “Who will you forgive?” and “What will you fight for?”

Last week, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we had a profound opportunity to learn from the personal experience of one of our own team members. In a special event organized by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and focused on the Mandela exhibit, Janice Liebenberg, senior manager of the corporate campaign and new business for ArtsWave, told us how she is living this moment in American history with a unique perspective:

“In reflecting on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela and the impact he had on my life growing up in South Africa during Apartheid, I was astounded by the parallels in the institutionalized racism back then and the recent expressions of hate in modern day America,” she said. “There are no words for the sadness that I feel.”

The exhibit gave all of us a way to talk about the current political environment, how it makes us feel, and what it means to be community leaders in a time of great division.

ArtsWave’s research has shown that there is a clear correlation between active arts participation and the level of interest Greater Cincinnatians show in people from different backgrounds and cultures. We don’t know which causes which, but people who engage in the arts are more likely to have a broader world view, to report stronger social bonds, and to value their civic involvement. Knowing these correlations exist, it gives us great hope and great inspiration to continue on this journey of using the arts to create a more vibrant and stronger community for everyone in the region.