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Ohio Humanities Executive Director Rebecca Asmo

Guest Post: Arts and Humanities - Stronger Together

Growing up, I was always jealous of kids who came from “sports families.” I would fantasize about being like the popular kids who played soccer and watched football on the weekends, coming back to school on Monday to be picked first for games in gym class and at recess. To my chagrin, my family liked to go to museums—specifically art museums—which I found painfully boring except for the gift shops. I liked Degas’ ballerinas, mostly because the cool girls at school were ballerinas, but other than that, I found the arts mostly confusing. I distinctly remember seeing one of Robert Rauschenberg’s tire sculptures at age 12 and thinking, “I could do that.”

Coming from an “art family,” at some point, your disillusionment shifts, and you become hooked. My shift came at age 14 when my strict parents decreed that I could take the Metro by myself into Washington, DC, from our suburban home in Virginia—as long as I was going to a museum. Suddenly, I was a frequent traveler on the Orange Line to the Smithsonian station.

One of my trips to the Smithsonian was in 1996 to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt laid across the National Mall. That visit changed me. As a child in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how it was shattering communities—especially LGBTQ+ communities—across America. But, the visual representation of the quilt spanning the entire National Mall quantified the impact of the epidemic in a way that a news story never could. As I walked by each square, I saw the individual impact of this global tragedy in the squares lovingly designed to honor those who were lost. I cried, I was moved, I wanted to act.

When I returned to high school that winter, I convinced my French teacher to help me organize a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at our school. Soon, our entire class was immersed preparation for this event, from studying the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to involvement in community programs that served people impacted by the virus—which, at the time, meant an early death. We talked about HIV/AIDS, watched documentaries, debated how we could have an impact as teens. and invited our community to share in our learning. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was the first time I witnessed the power of the arts and humanities when they work together. Humanists call this the “civic effect.”

The arts are our greatest tool for human expression. Experiences are framed, emotions become tangible, perceptions are expressed and prejudices processed. The humanities allow us to interpret these human expressions and, through conversation, reading, and critical thinking, connect to one another about our shared yet varied human experience. The arts and the humanities can exist on their own. You can find pleasure in a work of art without understanding its meaning or study a historical event without images. But together, the arts and the humanities are the gateway to understanding our world and each other and addressing our most formidable challenges.

I’m still bad at sports, but every day of my life I lean on the arts and the humanities to help me understand my world, my community, and myself. As we celebrate Arts & Humanities Month this October, I encourage you to find moments of civic effect in your life when the amalgamation of the arts and the humanities help us reflect on our past, understand one another in the present, and envision a promising future.

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Rebecca Asmo, Executive Director—Ohio Humanities

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