An earlier version of this piece was published as part of Americans for the Arts’ “Broadening and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline” blog salon for National Arts in Education Week 2018.

Mentor Perspective: Dennie Palmer Wolf

I have half a century of work in the arts field behind me: successes, publications, and big, noticed projects, right along with my full share of mistakes, disasters, and misjudgments. When I speak nowadays, I claim my white hair as a badge of office and call myself a “crone emeritus.” Frankly, it is the moment when the temptation is great to serve on committees or publish your collected essays about pressing issues that have long since changed. I started down that “remembrance road” and then thought, “For what?” Better to pass it on actively—why not mentor the next generation of leaders? I began to fantasize: I would take on three to four people in each of the upcoming five years to help them think about their work, careers, and place in the world. Maybe I would add a stipend so we could meet face-to-face.

The more I thought about it, the more that plan felt paternal or even colonial. How did I know that I had the kinds of expertise younger people really needed for the world they actually faced? Instead, I began working more squarely on hard issues like inequalities in opportunities to learn, the intersection of social justice and the arts, and diversity, inclusion, and equity in cultural institutions where I could meet a next generation of arts leaders drawn to these questions. I started going to different conferences—as a listener, not a speaker. I practiced the fine art of holding my tongue and learning.

This work put me shoulder-to-shoulder with younger colleagues whose work, cultural identities, and outlooks are different from my own. As a result, I now work closely on live projects with individuals whose skills, knowledge, perspectives, experience, and tools are very different from my own. (One of them is Sanuja Goonetilleke, who shares her thoughts below.) That experience is leaving no detail untouched: how carefully do I pronounce their last names, how do I acknowledge their cultural expertise without reducing their expertise to their origins, how do I ask them to teach me the tools they know and I don’t? And, if I am honest, the experience goes much deeper: how do I learn from how unsettled and inexperienced (or even outmoded) I sometimes feel? Do I bury what I don’t know or ask to learn? Do I gloss over my mistakes or speak about them openly? Do I talk out loud about the intersection of research and values and admit that consulting can shape how you see and interpret data?

These days I am aware of how rarely we acknowledge the emotions involved in mentoring. When people write and talk about what it takes to be a good mentor, they rarely mention the mixture of delight and uncertainty I feel; the excitement and cold water of humility that are a part of turning over your life’s work. There is even less discussion about the social and emotional skills of being a good mentee—how generous, how patient, and how curious you have to be about extracting what’s worthwhile from work done in older times, with different tools, with other assumptions.

The world is coming around to acknowledge how powerfully emotions shape and inform all that we do as humans. So if we think that mentoring is a powerful strategy for strengthening and diversifying the arts and culture in the contemporary US—it is long since time to talk, think, and teach about the feelings and mutual understandings both young and old need to make this so.

Mentee Perspective: Sanuja Goonetilleke

I am lucky to have had multiple mentors in my life. Each is a double reminder: first, I am not alone and second, I have a responsibility to the world to pass the torch on. This is not only the torch of mentorship, it is also the torch of doing the work that my mentors have done and continue to do. It is more than knowledge; it encompasses showing up (with a smile), making an effort, pushing oneself to do one’s best, and keeping faith with what gradually becomes our shared work.

All the mentors I am fortunate to call “mine”—although they belong to myriad young and new professionals within and outside of the arts—have passed on three traits: perseverance, flexibility, and humility. The perseverance is about continuing to be open to the possibilities of engaging in and enhancing our work in and understanding of the arts; it invites flexibility and humility in.

Let me share an example: Dennie and I traveled to New York for a project only a few months after we began working together. When asked to contribute my own observations, I was puzzled: “What can I possibly contribute?” But the humility and flexibility of the request said, “We don’t know everything. Help us discover and understand.” What I realized is that being new was, by definition, a contribution.

In retrospect, I sense that what was most important was that I was asked to have observations. Being pushed is one of the best invitations that can happen to a new employee or a younger researcher. It certainly urged me to ask what I can do—and how to do justice to the work. It also taught me that by doing justice to the work you have what may be the most powerful way of expressing gratitude and acknowledging the worth of the shared work.

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By now most people in the nonprofit sector may be aware of the recent set of changes for nonprofit financial reporting that were put in place by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). If you are not aware of these changes, perhaps this short article will help. This Accounting Standards Update (ASU) was issued in August of 2016. It is the first major revision for nonprofits since 1993 (phew)! If you have a calendar end fiscal year (12/31/18), your organization should be putting the new reporting standards into place now. For the rest of you, the standards must be in place by the end of your fiscal year that falls during 2019.

What do these changes require you to do? Your accounting processes do not have to change. However, your financial reporting (especially at year end) and what you must disclose has changed. This is all intended to make financial statements clearer and more revealing of an organization’s financial position. Here is what I understand the changes require (and I am not an auditor, so please be in touch with your auditor if you have one – if they have not already been in touch with you):

Net Asset Categories:

You know the challenge of unrestricted, temporarily restricted, and permanently restricted assets as reported on the bottom of your balance sheet (Statement of Financial Position)? Well, now there are only two categories that are fairly self-explanatory: “with donor restrictions” and “without donor restrictions.” You are encouraged to provide more detail within each of those categories (although it is not required).

Has your board designated cash reserves? You can indicate that as a subcategory of “without donor restrictions” (assuming that reserves have been built over time through unrestricted revenue).

Do you have an endowment funded with restricted donations? You can indicate that as a subcategory of “with donor restrictions”. Providing a narrative explanation is strongly encouraged.

Liquidity and Availability of Financial Assets:

You must now provide information about how you make sure you have enough cash for general expenditures that fall within one year of the balance sheet date. This should be done with numbers and narrative. This is a chance for you to tell a story about what you do to make sure your organization can survive a tough time. It is a fairly rare organization that has a year’s worth of unrestricted cash set aside, so do not worry if you look like you are “underwater” – just think about what you might do to improve that situation! This section is designed to encourage financial planning for the future beyond simply approving your regular operating budget.

Functional Expenses:

Most nonprofits already do this reporting as it is requested on the Form 990 that must be filed. It is also a useful way to track program expenditures on a regular basis. However, functional expenses must now be part of your annual reporting. It provides an analysis of expenses by line item and by functional classification (program, management, fundraising, etc.).

While the third requirement may be less difficult since many of you are already doing it, the first two are perhaps more challenging. There are tools and resources that are being made available to help you with these new reporting standards. Here are some of them:

Good luck with this transition! And may we all be better informed about our organization’s financial position as a result.

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I was in a meeting recently with a client that runs STEM- and STEAM-based programs for middle- and high-school students. One of the purposes of these programs is to prepare students for the careers of the future, and therefore the conversation turned to the topic of 21st century skills. Although the precise definition of this term varies, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning defines them as “the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.” The designation of these skills as 21st century skills, rather than essential human skills has always struck me as odd, given their ubiquity and applicability to most human endeavors. I do not know, for example, that the ability to collaborate is any more relevant now than it was when our early ancestors were trying to hunt creatures many times their size.

In any event, the client ultimately decided that the skills they want to inculcate in their students are the skills that will prepare them for careers that will be resistant to automation. We long ago passed the point at which manual tasks – many of which required hard-won and exacting skill – could be performed more efficiently by machines than people. In the ensuing years, many jobs that required considerable education have become automated – statistical and mathematical calculations that used to occupy rooms full of college graduates can now be performed by computers in moments. This trend is likely to continue with the automation of “white collar” careers such as accounting, law, and even medicine.

So what careers are left for people? Perhaps those that require certain types of creative and critical thinking, thinking that is practiced in the arts and related fields such as design. Technology provides the tools to undertake ever more projects, but it requires human intuition and discernment to know which projects are worth pursuing, and design thinking to organize the efforts of oneself and others towards project completion. While the internet places a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, it requires contextual knowledge and critical thinking to differentiate good information from bad. To the extent an education in the arts fosters these skills it constitutes another argument for arts education.

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It seems like a good time to think about regeneration. By regeneration, I mean a conscious effort to re-imagine, re-design, re-structure or re-orient yourself or your organization so as to achieve greater alignment between work and desired outcomes. It is a journey, for sure, not a destination; the pursuit of it is its own reward. In fact, our entire field is regenerating in many ways, as my colleagues note in their respective blogs.

As consultants, we are constantly seeking renewal in the quest to solve old problems in new ways, generate deeper insights, and bring more diverse voices and contexts to the table. We regenerate when we are challenged to think beyond our frame of reference, and when old ideas take on new meanings.

People regenerate, and organizations regenerate. But organizations can’t regenerate without visionary people with diverging viewpoints about what the future looks like.

The boardroom drive to quickly reach consensus and have cocktails is strong. Exceptional leadership at both the board and staff levels is required to create the space for real dialogue about alternative pathways – a space where diverging views are not just tolerated but welcomed. I’d go out on a limb and say that a strategic planning process that doesn’t allow for discussion of alternative pathways to mission fulfillment isn’t really strategic at all, but rather a tactical exercise in organizational maintenance. Are we mistaking certainty for leadership?

So long as everything is going well, there is little impetus to reimagine all or part of a nonprofit arts organization. Yet, this is precisely the time to ask uncomfortable questions about strategy. I realize that regeneration at the organizational level is extremely difficult to engineer. It requires simultaneously squeezing harder on the current business model while thinking about new ways of doing business. Yet, it is somehow still shocking to me how many boards allow CEOs to operate on structural deficits year after year without honest talk of downsizing if not wholesale regeneration. If we ever expect our audiences to regenerate, our organizations must lead the way.

Then there is regeneration on a personal level.

We are an industry in need of regeneration – plagued by high turnover and debilitated by loss of institutional memory. Productivity standards are so high that day after day I observe that nonprofit managers are just plain tapped out, routinely working beyond their capacity, particularly people working in mid-level positions.

People sign up for things and then opt out. On important conference calls, people are answering private text messages. It seems that we’ve been running on fumes for a long time now, in a sort of shadow economy of volunteerism.

The next big push in our field really needs to be a holistic focus on nurturing our human capital. Without thoughtful, dedicated, motivated people who are appropriately compensated and not chronically overworked, our field is unsustainable.

The biggest leaps I’ve made as a professional came when someone I admired bothered to challenge me in a way that was both direct and constructive. Those pivotal moments in our lives – and we all have them – may arise from hardship or confrontation, but they may also spring from an instinct to nurture – to take a chance on someone whose talents are not yet in full view.

Organizational regeneration is a long and arduous course, but the resolve to ask hard questions is a precious human trait that springs forth in a moment.

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When International Women’s Day rolled around this spring, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) did much more than move the Louise Bourgeois postcards front and center or open Nan Goldin’s photo books for display. Instead, the ICA rejuvenated the usual nods to women artists by inviting any and all members of the community to help close the gender gap in who authors and edits Wikipedia pages on the female artists included in their collection and exhibitions. The Museum provided computers, wi-fi, and reference materials in addition to digital and research training. In exchange for their contribution, participating researchers and writers got free admission.

The March efforts at the ICA and other museums were part of Art & Feminism; a campaign that has been working since 2005 to “improve the coverage of cis and transgendered women, feminism, and the arts on Wikipedia.” The organization was founded in response to the fact that only 10% of the editors of Wikipedia are female and the researched accounts of all but a few women artists are sparse, at best. The organization is having an impact, in 2018 alone, 22,000 pages were created or improved by over 4,000 participants at more than 275 events around the world.

This is not a blockbuster exhibit with banners and press that will open, host crowds and then close. It is “just” rapt attention to re-wiring how much people know about women as artists – for years to come.

We might – at last — have a big picture discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion in arts and culture in the U. S.: how musicians of color are missing in orchestras; how theaters and directors have to confront color conscious casting; how ballet companies need to invest in earlier and more equitable pathways for young dancers; how archivists have to know their holding in Black oral history and early photography of Native American communities.

But what we don’t have is a commitment to re-wiring the entire DEI house. Taking off from the ICA’s edit-a-thon, what if cultural institutions took on “No choice too small” campaigns, asking about the daily, nearly invisible, practices that comprise their institutional DNA:

  • Who edits the web page? Whose picture is up there? What are they doing?
  • Who makes the list of on-call photographers and videographers?
  • Who heads the ticket office?
  • How are auditions conducted? What feedback do applicants get?
  • Who is on the sound crew? How are individuals promoted? What are the apprenticeship opportunities?
  • Who gets prime time slots as a docent? Who listens to the narratives they tell? Whose questions they answer?

“One should consider equity a process, not a thing. It is an ongoing and sustained course of reflection, discussion, and inquiry of courage, compassion, and creativity to seek out and act on blind spots due to power, privilege, and bias.”[1]

[1] Don Long, National Association of State Boards of Education & Ace Parsi, National Center for Learning Disabilities, in Student Self-Advocacy Requires Deeper Policymaking” EdWeek, May 15, 2018.
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When I originally wrote my nonprofit textbook in 1979, it was in the form of a series of mimeographed chapters duplicated and shared with a class of Harvard University students.  There was no book that included what I wanted to teach, so I wrote my own material.  In 1983, when Prentice Hall published these chapters in book form, I assumed that I and others would use it for the few years the volume stayed in print.  Now in 2018, as I contemplate whether I might need to come out with a fifth edition to supplant the one from 2012, I marvel at how the field of nonprofits has had to reinvent itself over and over again and I have had to keep up.

There are countless examples over those 35 years, but let me share a few:

  • The most obvious is technology.  The original edition of the book had a chapter on the use of computers in nonprofits.  I soon realized that it made no sense to include such material in a book that would be used for many years. Can you even remember when punch cards were used for recording information or when a word processing machine came with its own built-in chair? Changes in technology have outstripped the pace of rewriting textbooks. Perhaps my favorite change is that administrators no longer have to worry about a systems crash denying them access to critical data files the night before that important board meeting.  Now, instead of storing data in a giant server in the office, files sit safely in something called a “cloud” that is exponentially more reliable.
  • Of the chapters that did survive, none went through more revisions than the marketing chapter.  From outlining how to place press releases in print media in the 1983 edition to discussing how to gain attention through social media in the 2012 edition, every facet of marketing has evolved.  While these changes have democratized the process of reaching the public, they have also exponentially increased the “noise” above which a nonprofit’s message must reach.
  • Institutional funders like foundations have changed over the decades as has the way nonprofits interact with them. Remember the good old days of “responsive grant-making” when foundation published guidelines and welcomed proposals from anyone. Today that has given way in many cases to “initiative grant-making,” where much of a foundation’s giving portfolio is pre-assigned to organizations that can carry out an initiative on the funder’s behalf.
  • Many funders have also shifted their emphasis from ensuring the health and “excellence” of nonprofit organizations to placing greater emphasis on analyzing the constituents these organizations serve. Organizations’ value is increasingly measured by its effectiveness in reaching a broad constituency.  Some have described this shift as moving from supply-side to demand-oriented grant-making.
  • A related development is the changing approach to community-based programming.  In the 1983 edition, I reflected what the field referred to as “outreach” – a benevolent image of nonprofits providing largesse to disenfranchised populations – a kind of charitable act of giving on the one hand and taking on the other.  Today, the field talks about “connecting” with communities – a transaction in which both parties gain.

Do you have more examples of reinvention to share? Please share your examples in the comments below.

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As a nation of immigrants, much of the arts and culture offerings of interest to U.S. audiences have been based on the cultural heritage of their ancestral homelands. It is human nature to find comfort in what is familiar. In the last third of the 20th century, the expansion of the nonprofit arts and culture sector was fueled by the increasing appetite of white European descendants for Eurocentric arts experiences. With inexorable U.S. demographic changes on the horizon, these Eurocentric arts and cultural organizations are now struggling to find ways to serve many communities in which people of color will soon be in the majority.[1]

The major arts service organizations have devoted considerable energy to trying to motivate their members to develop diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. The League of American Orchestras has an extensive Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center and recently formed an audition preparatory partnership with the Sphinx Organization and the New World Symphony to increase diversity in American orchestras. A key focus of OPERA America’s recent annual conference was a forum on “Recognizing and Undoing Racism.” And, Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute is a multi-year effort to transform the national theatre field into a more equitable, inclusive and diverse community.

These are all laudable initiatives to help mainstream organizations serve more diverse audiences, by becoming more diverse and inclusive themselves. What is not clear, however, is whether these efforts can overcome the root cause of low participation rates among people of color in traditional arts and culture organizations. According to Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), “having the intention to be welcoming is not enough…If you want to be for everyone in your community…the most effective way to do that is to be representative of them and co-created by them.”[2]

While many mainstream arts and culture organizations have embraced initiatives to be more representative of their communities, very few have taken the leap to allow community participation in the creation process, except perhaps in the ghettoized sphere of community engagement activities. The authority and control for what happens on the mainstage still rests almost exclusively with professional artists, who may be disdainful of even the occasional involvement of untrained amateurs.  As in a real democracy, however, an arts organization’s stakeholders will feel real ownership only when they have meaningful power and influence.

At MAH, Nina Simon realized that the democratization of her arts organization – to be of, by and for the community it sought to serve – was not only the right thing to do, it was the only viable way to turn around its financial fortunes.  In the 7 years since Simon took over MAH, the annual operating budget has increased from $700K to $3M, the number of staff has increased from 7 to 32 and the number of annual visitors has increased from 17K to 140K.

The success of MAH’s micro-organizational efforts led Nina Simon to spearhead the launch of a nationwide OFBYFOR ALL initiative, the goal of which is “to engage 200 organizations serving 10 million community members by the end of 2020” by adopting new practices based on the belief that:

  • The more an organization is reflective OF its community, the more people feel represented.
  • The more programming is created BY the community, the more people feel ownership.
  • The more programming is FOR the community, the more everyone will want to participate.

To learn more about the OFBYFOR ALL initiative, check out the video of the launch announcement or use the free online organizational self-assessment tool.


[2] “Nina Simon: OFBYFOR ALL” from MuseumNext on Vimeo at 10:58, June, 2018.
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Leap by Lawrence Argent (Photo: Ed Asmus Photography)

We’re all familiar with the public art installations and exhibits that line concourses in airports around the world. San Francisco International (SFO) actually has an American Alliance of Museums accredited art museum with exhibitions and collections throughout its terminals. Airports have iconic works that create recognized landmarks functioning as wayfinders while providing unexpected moments of discovery for the weary traveler. Think of Sacramento International’s (SMF) Leap by Lawrence Argent (left). Known to frequent SMF travelers as the Red Rabbit, it not only provides a visual cue that directs passengers to the escalators but can delight, create a memorable moment, and provide a landmark for meeter-greeters.

At one time, public art programs in airports were a new and innovative way to support the airport’s goals for ambiance and superior customer service. It’s no secret that airports can be stressful places – security checkpoints, long layovers, tired kids, unfamiliar terminals – and public art programs are one way airports help travelers relax and shift their focus to something that brings them pleasure. San Antonio International Airport’s Art, Music and Culture Specialist, Matt Evans was recently quoted as saying “Flying is famously not an experience we look forward to, but we’re working to reframe that narrative with art.

At my home airport, San Diego International (SAN), where I’ve been on a team developing a new master plan for the SAN Arts Program, there are already live performances of music and dance as well as a Performing Arts Residency Program that provides opportunities for artists to create a new site-specific work over a six-month period. Airport customers can watch the artists in rehearsal and see them perform both pre- and post-security. Most recently Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (below) took full advantage of the double high ceilings so often found in airports.

Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (Photo: Alan Hess, San Diego International Airport )

While researching airport art for the SAN Arts Master Plan, I’ve become very aware that airports are closed environments with limited space for art installations. Furthermore, airport art programs must work to connect with customers in different ways as audiences’ arts engagement desires change. As a result, airport art programs are reimagining what’s possible. Want interactivity? Singapore’s Changi Airport has an Art Rubbing Station for children. Take your experience home with Asheville Regional’s Music on the Fly pop up concerts – some of which are also accessible via podcast. My SFO favorite is the Peephole Cinema where silent film shorts are screened through dime-sized peepholes.

All of this is not without challenges. The airport’s target audience is airport customers who want to get to their gate to wait for departure or go directly to baggage claim and the exit upon arrival. Plus, there is TSA to consider. But what if there were performances pre-security that residents could attend even if they aren’t traveling? How does an airport with an art collection that has many pieces exhibited post-security make that collection accessible to more than the traveling public? And finally, why would an airport want to do this when their primary mission is to provide a safe and efficient environment for air travelers?  The quick answer – today people expect more than superior customer service, they expect a superior customer experience and airports operate in a competitive environment. Imagine choosing your connecting airport based on the arts experience you can have while you wait? Thankfully, I believe that day is not so far away.

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The impact of arts experiences is back on my mind in a big way, this time provoked by a partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts to develop an impact framework that the agency will use to accumulate evidence of the impact of its investments in artists and organizations. Taking stock of impact measurement efforts worldwide has caused us to ask some difficult questions about the plausibility and usefulness of measuring impact in reference to specific experiences versus impact as a cumulative asset that accrues, dissipates and recombines over many years. I hope to share more of those thoughts soon.

Occasionally, all the theorizing about impact becomes astonishingly manifest in an instant, and one such occasion was last night when several friends accompanied me to a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. One of them was Marvin, a retired city worker and life-long resident of Detroit who’s become an indispensable member of my household support team and chosen family. Although he lives only a few miles from Orchestra Hall, Marvin hadn’t been to a DSO concert. Nevertheless, he was primed for the occasion, which was abundantly clear in his choice of attire.

The program was fantastic – a new piece by a young composer, Chopin’s first piano concerto played by Seong-Jin Cho, the 24-year old Korean pianist, and Stravinsky’s riotous Rite of Spring, all conducted by Robert Spano. By the end of the program, Marvin was beside himself, as if he’d witnessed a championship sports game decided in the last seconds of overtime. The rest of the audience applauded heartily, but Marvin stood in a prolonged sort of stupor, trying to make sense of what had just happened. At a complete loss for words, he was, quite literally and uncontrollably, vibrating. His biometric data, I thought, would be off the charts. He’d had what I would term a “peak experience” – something he’ll remember for the rest of his life – the kind of thing that happens maybe five or six times in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

Beyond the joy of knowing I had something to do with this combustion of art and self was the poignant frustration that we, as a field, have yet to figure out how to harness the power of a social invitation to draw people into arts experiences they’d not choose for themselves. Study after study points to the transcendent power of a social invitation to circumvent a host of barriers and unlock participation. We’ve been talking about “Initiators” and “Responders” for almost 20 years now. Yet, the arts marketing playbook does not yet have a page for activating, rewarding and celebrating the audience members who act as personal arts shoppers for their friends. It seems clearer and clearer by the day that taste is socially transmitted, and that people will go to just about anything if the right person invites them. Could it be that the audience itself is our greatest hope for building public participation?

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A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a symposium hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center entitled “Music and the Brain: Research Across the Lifespan.” Over the course of two days, a panel of experts discussed the therapeutic and educational implications of recent scientific research on music and the brain. A summary of that discussion was recently published in the journal Neuron, and I thought a brief recapitulation of three points in particular might be of interest to our readers, whether they are leaders of music organizations, musicians, or music educators (or perhaps most likely, all three).

The first of these is the potential for musical experience to “foster the development of non-musical skills” among children, from language development to executive function. Much of the discussion focused on topics that may be familiar to anyone who has run a music program, such as the length and intensity (or “dosage”) of musical experience required to yield improvements in a certain domain. The second point is the value of music as a therapeutic intervention for children (and in particular, children with autism or cancer) and adults struggling with mental illness or chronic pain. This work is at the heart of the burgeoning field of music therapy, and as someone most familiar with the educational applications of music, I was gratified to learn about the demonstrable benefits of music for a range of serious conditions. The third and final point concerned the potential for music to sustain cognitive function as we age, and even to restore function that was lost as a result of neurodegenerative disease.

If readers are interested, I would encourage them to read the full article or to go online to learn more about the initiative that grew out of the symposium called “Sound Health.”

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