Building the Arts: No Red Pens!

Over the past fifteen years, I have been actively studying and participating in the arts administration field as an independent artist, curator, gallery owner and activist. I do this work and research first and foremost because it is something that I am passionate about. To me, the arts portray those elements of our nature that make us human.

Education is my second passion. The MEd in Arts and Learning program at Endicott College gave me a well rounded view into the many different art forms and how they can be used in education. I advocate strongly for the use of the arts not only as a tool to enhance the core subjects, but for their own sake.

Years ago, I participated in a weekend long retreat at UMass Amherst through Americans for the arts. We took a nice field trip to Mass MOCA and listened to a number of lectures on how to bring the arts into communities as a source of economic rejuvenation. One of the things I learned while there was that sometimes the greatest opposition to economic recovery through the arts is the people who have lived in the community for generations and saw the downward spiral of economic infrastructure of their hometown.

One of the key components of the hesitation was a lack of exposure to the arts. When a community struggles fiscally, the arts are often the first to go in the schools as they are mistakenly not seen as critical to the historic public education model based on the Essentialism philosophy and approach to education, which was based on the Greek philosophers, who we all know were very much involved with arts. They lived and breathed in communities where the arts flourished. When you have even one generation missing out on an arts education, the effects can last for generations.

I continually hear, or shall I say read, that Lynn is not an "artsy-fartsy" town. Lynn enjoyed a booming time when theaters were flourishing, shops were full, and the city itself was a destination. I think people forget sometimes that the arts are not just about paintings hanging on a wall, or kids playing with color. The arts encompass a myriad of creative expressions, including dance, music, storytelling, theater, writing, architecture, the visual arts, and more. Lynn, historically, was indeed an "artsy-fartsy' town.

Normally, during the annual Lynn Public School's All City exhibition that is held at LynnArts, all three of the galleries overflow with art. This year, while two of the galleries were full, I noticed what can only be perceived as a limited access to materials, time and quantity. The art work itself was beautiful. The teachers are to be commended for what they are doing with the students in lean times. However, I am concerned about the shrinking number of pieces that were exhibited and whether that reflects a diminishing support for the arts in the schools.

While I want to see the arts in Lynn take off right now, right this instant, I also understand that building a base of art enthusiasts and supporters for the future is also vitally important. The schools are key in that development. We need to support arts education in the public schools of Lynn for multiple reasons, not just for the art community.

Did You Know?
Young people who participate in the arts for at least three hours on three days each week through at least one full year are:

* 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
* 3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
* 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
* 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
* 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem

Young artists, as compared with their peers, are likely to:

* Attend music, art, and dance classes nearly three times as frequently
* Participate in youth groups nearly four times as frequently
* Read for pleasure nearly twice as often
* Perform community service more than four times as often

("Living the Arts through Language + Learning: A Report on Community-based Youth Organizations," Shirley Brice Heath, Stanford University and Carnegie Foundation For the Advancement of Teaching, Americans for the Arts Monograph, November 1998)

The facts are that arts education...

* makes a tremendous impact on the developmental growth of every child and has been proven to help level the "learning field" across socio-economic boundaries
(Involvement in the Arts and Success in Secondary School, James S. Catterall, The UCLA Imagination Project, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, UCLA, Americans for the Arts Monograph, January 1998)

* has a measurable impact on at-risk youth in deterring delinquent behavior and truancy problems while also increasing overall academic performance among those youth engaged in afterschool and summer arts programs targeted toward delinquency prevention

(YouthARTS Development Project, 1996, U.S. Department of Justice, National Endowment for the Arts, and Americans for the Arts)

Businesses understand that arts education...

* builds a school climate of high expectation, discipline, and academic rigor that attracts businesses relocating to your community
* strengthens student problem-solving and critical thinking skills, adding to overall academic achievement and school success
* helps students develop a sense of craftsmanship, quality task performance, and goal-setting—skills needed to succeed in the classroom and beyond
* can help troubled youth, providing an alternative to destructive behavior and another way for students to approach learning
* provides another opportunity for parental, community, and business involvement with schools, including arts and humanities organizations
* helps all students develop more appreciation and understanding of the world around them
* helps students develop a positive work ethic and pride in a job well done

(Business Circle for Arts Education in Oklahoma, "Arts at the Core of Learning 1999 Initiative")

To make the arts Renaissance work in downtown Lynn, amongst other things, there need to be points of accessibility for those who are unfamiliar with the creative economy to enter the conversation comfortably. That means making price points for paid venues accessible to families who survive within the economic median of the community. It also means that the quality of the offerings and a welcoming atmosphere should also be key considerations.

LynnArts, RAW Art Works, The Lynn Museum and Historical Society and The Little Gallery under the Stairs* all offer free access to the arts, and to high quality arts programming. Not every program or event is free, understandably, because there are bills that accompany programming, staff that needs to be paid to pull it all together, and buildings that need to be maintained. Most programs that are fee based are very affordable, and often negotiable for those who want to participate but need a break.

The next step would be to design programs that are relevant to the community. The Museum and RAW, of course, do this by nature. The LynnArts galleries have annual exhibitions for members and the Lynn Public Schools, which are relevant to the local community directly as they celebrate the arts of local community members and children. The contemporary art exhibitions hosted by LynnArts and The Little Gallery under the Stairs are not necessarily always aimed specifically at local interests, but are relevant to all in that they are accessible and address contemporary ideas and sensibilities through subject, medium, ingenuity, etc.

The bones are here to have a thriving cultural center, as the downtown of Lynn was in the past, we just need to keep putting some muscle on those bones, starting with awareness and support from the top. I encourage the school committee, and city hall, during this time of budget crisis and cuts, to be aware of the importance of the arts and take it easy on those few culture related lines when they bring out the red pens. The children need the arts to receive whole educations, and if what we are building here in downtown is to have a future, we need the children to grow up in a culturally enriched environment that includes proper arts education.

*These are just a few of the arts orgs in the city, more on others to come soon....