NCSL Podcasts

The Power of Art | LTIS Episode 16

Episode Summary

Art has a remarkable ability to heal trauma, whether it’s a servicemember returning from war or people traumatized by years of a pandemic, according to Nolen Bivens, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts and a retired Army brigadier general. Bivens is the guest on this episode of “Legislatures: The Inside Storey.” Storey talks with Bivens about his journey from a small town in South Carolina to the pinnacle of the U.S. military. Bivens discussed how he first became interested in creativity and art as a way to help veterans heal from their military experience. That led him to running Americans for the Arts and coming to see the cultural life of the country as a national asset.

Episode Notes


Episode Transcription

TS:      This is “Legislatures: The Inside Storey.”  Thank you for listening. I’m the host Tim Storey, CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures. My guest is Nolen Bivins, president and CEO of the highly respected organization Americans for the Arts. Nolen built an impressive career in the United States Army attaining the rank of General and retiring after 32 years serving our nation. Given his background in the armed forces, he began to explore how to help veterans heal from trauma and one approach kept coming up the arts. He saw what a difference the arts made for service members suffering from PTSD. He became more committed to ensuring that veterans, their families, their caregivers had access to this kind of help. After retirement, he consulted with the National Endowment for the Arts and won an initiative to foster collaboration between the military veterans, health providers and arts agencies. That led to being hired as the CEO of Americans for the Arts during a time of transition a couple of years ago. We are going to learn how a chemistry major in college from little South Carolina developed his passion for service, the people serving this nation in uniform and the arts.


            CEO and president of Americans for the Arts Nolen Bivins, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation for quite a while, so thank you for joining our podcast today.


NB:     Thank you so very much also because you know there is a long relationship here that we are stepping into. And as the I can’t say new anymore, but certainly newish CEO here, I know that I’m stepping into a relationship that has been long valued by this organization. Certainly, along with the NCSL and I’m very proud to have that opportunity. I’m excited to have this conversation. It’s so important in the moments and times of what we are living now. But it’s also important in terms of the value of what the arts has demonstrated through a very tough time of the nation. We know everything is state, everything is local. I truly understand the value of the state and how it plays because all fifty plus territories are different. That’s the uniqueness of it all so in the strength of this.


TS:      Really a pleasure and you are right on target. I mean it is, we have a very diverse nation which is reflected in the states and the territories and then of course the legislatures. They all look very much the same in any ways and they all look very different and operate very differently. But at the end of the proverbial day, we are all Americans right. So, I love that that is you know part of the name of your organization. It’s Americans for the Arts. So, we are going to talk about that, but I really am delighted so I appreciate you Nolen. I appreciate what you are doing. Let me ask you this. I want to just hear more about you. Your background. Where are you from and where do you think of as home home?


NB:     I call the Carolinas home. I specifically grew up in South Carolina, but that’s a nuance story too because I went to school in South Carolina. I went to church in North Carolina so go figure. I was one of those border towns there, but I think even at that early age of having to cross the border as they say, you begin to see differences in terms of states even high school and I did you know my undergraduate work there at one of those universities in South Carolina, South Carolina State University. That’s kind of the foundation of locations geography that I landed on. When I was there in college, I studied and this is going to really kind of say wow, what’s this in term of the military, but while I was in college, I studied chemistry. My second area of study was in mathematics and with an idea that I would go into service somehow in the world of maybe medicine or care or something like that. Got a little detour on that for all the right reasons I think so. 


TS:      What town in South Carolina because most of my listeners know--I drop it in just about every episode--I grew up in North Carolina and it still is a big part of my identity I suppose so I know most of those small towns around Charlotte. Where were you in South Carolina?


NB:     Mine was Chesterfield. 


TS:      Now when I grew up in Asheville, outside of Asheville, and you know we would do these church trips to Myrtle Beach, to Garden City. There was a church a camp there and it felt like every year we would drive five hours down to Myrtle Beach and we’d come through Columbia, and it would be 112 degrees you know in my mind. That’s my memory. So, then you wind up you have a, you know, a long career in military in the U.S. Army. What took you from Chesterfield to the United States Army?


            (TM):  04:52


NB:     Yeah, I would say for your listeners, it seemed like most of us when we graduated from college, we don’t really have I mean graduated from high school really don’t kind of know what we are going to do. So, I went into college with the idea I think which was most resonating into me. I didn’t know the exact place that I’d end, but I knew inside of me there was this clock ticking that I would serve others right. My life would be spent trying to give back. And so largely I liked chemistry and science in high school and so I declared that as a little bit of a starting major. And after the first year, I wondered what foolish idea I had in getting into so many chemistry courses, but I stuck with it. But I think the idea was to maybe serve in some area like I said of medicine. 


But halfway through there, I had a sister behind that was getting ready to go to school and my mother was a single parent. My father died of natural causes at an early age. And so, I was trying to figure out how do I get off the payroll and make an opportunity for her to come in. And the ROTC professor said hey Nolen. I got this great thing for you. You can come into the military and get commissioned and only have to spend three years. I said I can stand on my head for three years. But I would also then get a stipend of resource which I thought would help and then my sister could come in. And so that’s how I took the stamp maybe to be in for three years or so. I didn’t know for sure. But the carrots kept coming like we can help you with your med school if that’s what you want to do. But really the cool moment was I got in and I realized that it was a great place to serve. Great Americans. Families that are serving our Country and it just clicked with that that high school connection of serving others and three years led to seven years. Seven years led to ten and then carrots got being offered about this is the value about staying around. And 32 years later and I was very blessed and fortunate I think to realize the value to our nation through that experience. And then hopefully give back at the same time so that’s how I got from Chesterfield to the military. In the military, I served in every hemisphere of the world. I started primarily up in the great State of Washington and then I went to Asia. Asia came back to America and went to Europe and spent time there. Middle East obviously those areas of the country and then I kind of concluded in Latin and Central South America. I was the Chief of Staff of U.S. Southern Command. 


TS:      Oh gosh I was going to ask you what your job was. Obviously, you wound up in command. You wound up in the general ranks and that is not a small job. In the army, there are a lot of big jobs. That’s a big one. 


NB:     Well very grateful I think again to the audience that we are speaking to you know legislation at the state level, legislation at the federal level, but opportunity that we have in this country the opportunity that I saw and ability it’s forged out of that great, good legislation it happens. Even in the State of South Carolina, I mean a lot of things I was going along and the opportunities that were made available ah educational opportunities. Whatever it may be. It still has that connection to all of our lives and so now at this level, understanding the power of that legislative capacity to change and build communities and strengthen those lives of everyone there is so important. I would you know if you this was 1963, if you’d kind of put the trajectory of my life so to speak in growing up in South Carolina, you might not have actually wrote the script that we just talked about. But I was very fortunate and blessed to be able to have that written, but it was written because of a lot of effort that you know legislation enabled over my lifetime and certainly those after it as well. 


TS:      Yeah, I hear you and understand that you are saying. But I also suspect there is a fair amount of hard work to be as successful as you were in that field. You know you had to work really hard right. I mean it didn’t you know I know enough about Chesterfield, South Carolina to know that’s not the silver spoon part of America. You know you didn’t exactly grow up around a lot of wealth and privilege I’m just guessing. I don’t want to make any assumptions, but ah.


            (TM):  08:49


NB:     You’re right. You’re right. My mom’s expression oftentimes when I was growing up and she would always remind me son, I’ll give you a nickel and you’ve got to turn it into a dime. And so that ethic of creating and knowing you know what we can make and how we can make a difference and I had the opportunity I think to come out of high school at a pretty reasonable time in the country’s history and that allowed me to step into other areas. But you are exactly right. I mean at the end of the day, you got to work, and you got to understand the value of that work and that allows you to serve others. But again, I always go back to the ethic that I think really was present with me is this idea I want to give something to help the lives of others you know be better and so. But it is hard work. I think the military gives us an opportunity to make that contribution. That’s a lot of what military service members look for when they actually leave – where can I go further serve. 


            I follow this notion you know if service is beneath you then leadership is beyond you. And so, this idea that I’m serving so that if I have the capacity to lead, it’s about serving. It’s not about just being out front. And I got that early on because I was the oldest at the time that my father passed, I was the oldest of four and some others that were older than me so I had into a little bit of a leadership aspect there and not make it all about me as you can imagine growing up. You know when you’re young you want to you know it can be easily about me, but I saw a need and a service that I could even give right in my family to start with and it just kind of perpetuated. And I know being the CEO of Americans for the Arts now and really having ability to be around a lot of service organizations that are still doing good really is invigorating every day. I think that you can see a lot of stuff around us, but when I see nonprofits and other organizations many like yours as well that’s working to still make it better, that’s inspiring. It’s not just what my organization only is doing, but how we do it collectively. And a lot of what I think I can offer most at the state legislative level is to be that voice alongside of those in the states that are advocating for things that are important for their state. 


            I learned that very profoundly. I had just gotten out of the military, and I was invited to go out to California, and I was participating in some of the state legislative work for increasing the value of the arts to veterans within the various state locations. And each state I went to again was a teaching moment because California was California. Kentucky was something and the state was there. But the common thread there was understanding the value of the state legislative process to impact and improve the lives of people. Clearly, I was talking about art, but it’s in so many other areas. 


TS:      So, you wind up just a few years ago coming into this role. There’s a whole lot of you know again this is just engaging in stereotypes hey what’s this successful Army officer wind up in this arts organization and then also you throw in that this is a guy with a chemistry/mathematics background. Not exactly the, you know, the classic arts as we think of it in that sort of Greek classical terms. What led you to this gig and what attracted you to it?


NB:     You know I’ll try to give the short version. I would say that when I kind of started the art road here, I had come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and served there and when I was coming back, I was a Deputy Commanding General at Ft. Hood Texas. We were training up to go back and I went in for a regular hearing test as a part of the physical process and at the end of it, the young technologist asked me if she could ask me a question. And she began to tell me the kind of the following story. She said oftentimes when she would be doing a hearing test for a lot of servicemen and women, she’d get into the middle of it, and she would stop getting responses from the sound booth and she’d think it was a technical problem so to speak. She’d look in the sound booth and what she would see in there oftentimes is young men and women crying and weeping. And so, her thought was at first it disturbed her in the sense of why and she said the reason that it is oftentimes happening is that quietness of the sound booth forces them to internalize a lot of the trauma and experiences they had, and they just had never dealt with it. You know they came back home, and they walked through the airports, and everybody said thank you for your service. They had the parades. They were very appreciated in many ways the opposite of what a lot of our Vietnam veterans experienced. And so, I’m very appreciative and thankful of that, but as she was telling that story, I realized as a deputy commanding general primary responsible for maneuvering training that we possibly had young servicemen and women going back into multiple locations of combat while outside they look physical; inside there was some stuff we need to do to work with. And so, I started looking for solutions and not all of them were directly in my military kit bag and so what I discovered was a lot of servicemen and women were taking advantage of the arts as a way to express and write and kind of deal with some of that trauma without having to disclose it publicly by going to you know the psych or the shrink as most of them would say. And culturally they do not want to be seen as weak or a weak leader. They wanted to go back, and they didn’t want to be seen as that. But that led to the bigger understanding that you know as a force we needed to understand how to deal with that. And so later on then in retiring, the National Endowment for the Arts wanted to look at how to bring creative therapy into the clinical environment of a lot of our military installations and that leads back to the states again because that whole idea of that program was to make that connection of around about 11 states across the country from Alaska down to the border. They asked me to come in and be a bit of a consultant pro-bona however you want to call it to help understand how to make that connection with the military communities. 


            The short story now is that that experience over a decade and a half really brought me into the infrastructure and understanding of the arts and cultural field as we talk about it. Because in that experience, I got to understand all of the local arts agency value to this country as well. It’s at that community level, that local level where someone is doing something of art and artistic and creativity value that’s changing and bringing you know our country alive in a whole way. And then you look at the state level organizations that support it. Now you can make that connection over to the state legislature again that they are advocating for and also advancing the power of the arts. That’s where the work is. We are a national service organization, but honestly that is the emphasis of what we are trying to make sure everybody understands is that work from that grassroot level all the way up that allows us to have the constituent voice to share with legislatures about this is why funding this is important because of the constituent aspect of it. This is the value you bring back to the community whether it’s educational, economic, social or cultural from the arts perspective, but this is why it’s important to have that grassroots connection there. And so, through that experience, I got exposed to quite of their folks and so when the ask was here to serve, I again I’m a sucker for service so ah that’s how I kind of ended up. But it’s been a truly amazing experience because as I shared with you, it’s now allowing me to see the rest of that ecosystem that makes the value of arts important to state legislatures and the role that you are playing in your organization is a part of that ecosystem and that’s why we are excited to partner with you all. 


            (TM):  16:24


TS:      What was your biggest surprise? I mean you must have walked in with some sense of I understand the arts. What really like wait a minute. I didn’t expect this when I started to understand this world, this new world of connecting Americans Arts.


NB:     That is a good question and I’m going to parlay it over to my experience on the military side. Now I’ll use this expression to kind of introduce the idea that surprised but also really glad to learn this notion of what I often talk about is that the arts are a national asset. And I use that corollary because when I came from the military it’s very easy for most Americans to understand how the military is a valued national asset. It’s just what’s to defend us. But as I got more and more into this, I truly believe the arts are a national asset and to the point, every American for the Arts point of what we try to share starts with this premise right is that the arts make our communities healthier and stronger. And so, if that’s the kind of starting point of everything we do, we’ve seen the tremendous value that our arts have made in our larger culture in our country. You know if you think about the economic impact right. I mean huge multibillion dollar impact in our economy every year. And when Covid happened, we saw really the impact of that saving our stages. The stage operations from the people standing doing the tickets all of that. That’s economic rejuvenation, but it’s also a social impact. You know the stuff we ran through in 2020 began to show how the arts could be powerful in keeping the social conscious of our country alive. The cultural aspect goes without saying. I mean the culture across this country and all the different states is just amazing. I love that aspect of the job. I kind of feel I’m getting spoiled because you see so much greatness of that. And then clearly the educational piece of it. I mean without the arts you know. In fact, as a student of the science, I will tell you I love the theatre. Every moment I got, I was overreaching into the theatre and looking at what was going on and I was fascinated there because of the notion of seeing different leadership styles and I think that was kind of my indication that I’d be in the military and didn’t know it at that time. But the whole notion there is that I’ve seen that connection. An itty bitty of my military experience a lot of folks may not realize it when you go overseas or you are traveling quite a bit, a lot of the work that we do in military diplomacy as a part of it centers in arts and culture. You will go to a philharmonic orchestra event. You will go to some cultural festival. We use those as mediums to build relationships with other services around the country. And that again goes back to that so the arts really are making a wider and deeper contribution and I think that leads me to say to you a point about surprises is that I can say now very comfortably that the arts are a national asset. And now as we come out of Covid from a health perspective, we see how it has contributed to everybody getting out of their Covid cage as I often say. You know it brought us back and it is coming back slowly and I’m really grateful for state and federal legislatures that saw that and put the money there to help those states alive because as we come out of this now, it gives us a sense of reconnecting. And again, it may seem small, but as a nation the fabric of art that allows us to come together and do that is so, so important at this moment in history when we are experiencing something that is a 100-year-old kind of a reality.


TS:      So, what happens next? Where do you go? What’s your vision now for arts in the United States as well as the organization itself? 


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NB:     As a nation, what we really need to do is kind of step back and kind of recognize just like science, technology, engineering all these other components of what goes to make the country great in a very desperate time of our country. It’s not like you know some of the major wars and conflicts we’ve had, but we did see the ability of our arts and service in cultural sector to help us at a very critical time. I would hope that we would not lose that awareness. This is sort of like to me like a 100-year-old kind of lesson. We know that now it is so impactful for us to consider the arts as a way to help us heal men and get out of some very difficult situations. But also, to sustain us in a good quality well-being way of life. I wouldn’t want us to kind of lose that generic cultural reality that I think has been brought out of this. I think there is another aspect that and it is in very kind of legislative related, but I have really been able to see how from a bipartisan way the country has kind of come together and I’d like to see that moving forward when it comes to the arts. You know a lot of the legislative success that we had in getting the funding and the resources to help the artists and the organizations just like everybody else was suffering, we got that only because of bipartisan work right. And it was a fundamental lesson to me that in this time we were able to come together to see the value of that. And state legislatures did that really in a lot of great ways and I think if we can keep that as well, I think it would be a great opportunity going forward. 


            For the organization in terms of vision and strategy, I think the term that you will hear me well first of all I think the vision is to continue to strengthen the power of the arts at the community level because the value of the arts is truly at the community level. To do that it is very critical that we do what I call equitable advocacy. So, to me the key driving way of what Americans for the Arts wants to do is to make sure we strengthen the value of the arts in our local communities, but we want to do that through an equitable advocacy. And that starts all the way from federal all the way down to the local level. And core to that foundation cornerstone of that is the engagement with our local arts agencies that are at that community level making them a more viable part and component of that infrastructure at the community level that’s changing you know economic realities, the social, the cultural and the education. I keep coming back to that as well. And so, we want to be focused to help those local organizations and then as we do that, we keep that grassroots that helped the state advocacy, that helps the state level and then we kind of continue to do it at the federal level. And I don’t want to forget the, you know, the territories as well because that’s another that’s a visionary aspect of what I have because as an organization, we need to continue to grow and expand in those equitably because that’s a component of equity. If you are not looking at everybody’s part of the nation and that’s not as equitable as it could be. 


            But I think a key aspect of the future. This is kind of a thought, leadership idea, but mine is that when creativity is at the center of what we are talking about whether it is art, whether it is science, whether it is even business right. Creativity is that engine out of which all of those things really, really become better for us. The whole idea you hear about early on people often talk about the whole endeavor of going to the moon. The moon-shot idea. It unleased creativity in so many sectors. 


TS:      I was thinking about the fact that the arts, creativity, Americans for. I mean these are such giant concepts. Let’s bring it down to a story because that is what people connect to. I mean can you think have you got any good examples of where you saw arts be transformative in someone’s life, a soldier’s life, something like that. You know what I’m saying and what comes to mind when you think of the stories?


NB:     I will tell you the story the one that comes to mind as you asked the question was I was in Alaska and it was a part of that work I was doing with the National Endowment for the Arts and we were looking and participating in one of the local arts agencies that was doing work in the community there and they had a particular program that they were using veterans for example who had come back and they were part of the community. And they had a program there that they would come in and they’d give them an opportunity to learn how to bend steel right. Forging the high heat and metallurgical realities. One of the veterans there was working in the lab and he and I stuck up a conversation. And I said what makes this interesting to you. Why are you here like you know the question of why is it of value. And he looked at me and he said you know sir I come out of my conflict experience and a lot of times you know when I looked at my hands because that’s what we use mostly in our lives he said I begin to have this feeling that my hands were tools of destruction. And he said I knew I was part of an organization that was defending democracy and I get all of that. He said but just at a personal level, I still have that connection. He said but when I come to this high heated metallurgical experience here and I come back, and I bend something, and I shape it into something. He said what I get to do when I look at my hands then is I see myself as having created something. And he said that is very helpful with me in balancing that. You know I can see my hands as tools to create. So, I talk about that as an example of transformative, but I want to picture it to the future. I think we can be transformative even more as we go forward. Because when I think about that, I think about Sandy Hook. I think about places where we’ve had significant experiences of trauma and those kids who were in the first grade now are in the 12th grade graduating going to college. And what we know about trauma, and I know this from my combat experience is that trauma is triggered at times of change right. We are going from a familiar to an unfamiliar. And a lot of the young six-year-olds that experienced trauma, they went back to a home of hugs and loss unfortunately for those who may have lost their lives my respect for that. But those who did survive, the families hugged them even tighter because they recognized the dangers associated with it. But as they start going to college and they get into these new points of separation, that might trigger trauma, so our communities need to be available to use art again as well as the clinical to support that transition for civilians in general. Military was my conduit into it, but I see it now as much more broader because trauma is all over. It’s the second thing we know is that the next pandemic in our country will not be obesity. It’s going to be loneliness. You know we are living longer. That’s the good news. But we are living longer alone and so that loneliness now is a great avenue for art because people are getting second careers sometimes. Learning how to write. It’s changing that in terms of our lives. And so, I think that same triggering for the opportunity towards the future so from a legislative perspective we can continue to make that investment. And that’s the way I like to think of it is that just like we are making investments at so many things, it has to be prioritized. I get that. I’m a whole military guy. I know you don’t ever have enough of resource. So, you prioritize. But in this, this is a fundamental area where I think it is a national asset that can help us be better and help us grow into the nation that we’re still happening. 


            (TM):  27:47


TS:      Such terrific words and lessons and this notion of creation which you anchored it back to with this fellow in Alaska you know sort of creating something with the same hands that could do all kinds of things that maybe were not creating that were destructive. Which again, understand all of the background of that and what’s that about. If you try it back into our legislative folks, be they the legislative staff, legislatures and how they are creating the future in many ways and thinking about how it extends beyond in this transformation aspect and maybe bringing some art into that the actual day to day of legislatures because of it’s the transformative power. That’s what I’m getting at. And you know you said the trauma and I have a friend who is a neuroscientist of some regard, and he says we are coming. They are starting to understand the pandemic was in many ways a mass trauma at the greatest scale. You reference Sandy Hook and of course there are the traumas that we are familiar with because they make the headlines. But what you know we also know is that the 335 million Americans and the 8 billion people in the world trauma is much closer and it seems more prevalent than certainly any of us have known in our lifetimes except for people who have really been in these situations like being on the frontlines in Baghdad, Afghanistan and that kind of thing. What I’m getting at the whole nation has been through trauma right. And this is a time where the arts can just really you know be elevated in a way that sort of brings us back to a new future.


NB:     Your words are the words of wisdom there because it is the collective. That’s why I really talk about community because that’s the common unity that we have. There’s two words in community right. The common unity that we have is within our communities and I think to your point is that that’s where we look around for those things that make us feel common with each other. And art is certainly one of those areas that we do that. And I think to the legislative aspect of it is they are creating the future right. I know sometimes you know you can when I was in the pentagon, you could walk the hallways and in the day-to-day work, you could kind of think of it’s just mundane. But every time you could squeeze a little bit of resource to go be able to help this, you are also creating that future that we need, and we say the need of that so fundamentally. You know it might sound trite, but I think that we are so awash in trauma as a certainly a country really as a world now that we don’t even know it is trauma anymore right because it is so common to us. And so that’s where I think we need that same ingredient in our culture that is so present with us that is the counterbalance to that right. And that’s what you know art whether it’s a musical piece or whether it is just sitting with a six-year-old grade kid, and they are scratching something on a piece of paper, but for them that’s art because it is creating. It’s causing them to be in a space away from the trauma which is so important I think in what we do. And it’s so natural and organic. That’s one of the things of the experience in the military taught me is that folks want to be kind of thoughtful about how they are healing. They don't want to surrender this necessarily over to some clinical aspect only. They know the value of that, and I certainly compliment that. It’s really critical. From a military perspective, young men and women want to trying to feel like they are in charge. Well, you’re 60, 70 or 80 years old you still want to feel like you are kind of in charge like I can do this by my own choice or my own you know effort. And that’s still a part of the American way. You know we like to do that in our own ways.


TS:      Well, something we talk a lot about at NCSL and I on this podcast with folks what brings us together. You know there are so many forces of aid including the prevalence of smartphones and social media and apps and all of this stuff. They are just putting us in a box. Putting us into our independent lanes and our echo chambers so we are always talking about bringing things together. Common unity. And what I know is that it is still very prevalent you know. But we better be on guard about it because you can see it fraying and so your message is as valuable as any I’ve heard in this format. I’m incredibly grateful. What a joy to have this conversation with you Nolen. True pleasure.


NB:     Thank you. And again, to those great legislators out there, keep tolling in what might seem to be the salt pits, but you are doing great work and I value you each and every one of you and I’m thankful so much for what your organization does. And I’m excited about the continued partnership. Thank you so very much. 


TS:      I’ve been talking with Nolen Bivens, CEO of Americans for the Arts. Thank you for joining me and Nolen on this episode of “Legislatures: The Inside Storey” brought to you by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 


Ed:      You can check out all of the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO hosts “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The "Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislatures. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelly Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also, check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures. 


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