The transformative power of art

How do we define our shared humanity? What role can the Smithsonian play in the exchange of world-changing ideas? How do we incorporate the creative arts into our vision? These are just a few of the questions we are considering as the Smithsonian moves forward on a new plan to define our future.


pieces of colored chalk on brown paper

Credit: Daniel Watson/Unsplash (via

The arts—visual, material, verbal, musical, performing, literary and culinary—define our humanity. They enable us to express and understand ideas, beliefs and feelings. Through our newest Grand Challenge—Magnifying the Transformative Power of Arts and Design—we expect to strengthen our reputation as a leader in the presentation and appreciation of the creative arts. At the same time, we will be exploring innovative, imaginative ways to incorporate the arts into the world-class activities and experiences we already offer to the public.

How to best incorporate the arts into our strategic direction, now and in the future, is just one of the discussion points being raised by members of the 2017−2022 Strategic Planning Committee. To gather input from throughout the Institution, committee members are meeting with groups of staff to discuss the “Smithsonian Experience,” the current Grand Challenges, future goals, activities and partnerships. A major, overarching objective—that the Smithsonian be “recognized as the leading catalyst for meaningful conversation on issues affecting our nation and the world”—is generating a lot of discussion.

The concept of bringing people together to learn and exchange ideas is inherent in our mission—we do this every day in all of our units through our research and the content we deliver online. But there is an even greater opportunity to shine a light on our research, exhibitions and educational activities by becoming more vocal on national and international stages.

One of my great joys as Secretary is to observe the exceptional breadth and diversity of Smithsonian activities. Whether I’m learning of a ground-breaking discovery that will affect millions or watching a single child light up when she grasps the significance of a centuries-old artifact, I am amazed and proud of all that we do to teach people and benefit our planet. Our current Grand Challenges address the scope of all the Smithsonian has to offer and, as technology evolves and we embrace a more global perspective, we may modify, enhance or adjust the existing framework in order to challenge ourselves in new ways.

If you have been asked to participate in a Strategic Planning session, thank you in advance for your contributions. If not, stay tuned: a draft of the plan will be circulated in early spring through unit directors for comments. I look forward to working with all of you as we think about what’s next for our Institution.


Posted: 8 December 2016
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.