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Report Looks to Schools To Revitalize the Arts

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After years of neglect and budget cutbacks, arts education could hold the key to reforming the school curriculum and restoring community support for the arts, a federal report suggests.

"It is precisely because these are the worst of times [for public education], with more pressure than ever before on our schools to pull themselves out of a prolonged downward spiral, that these are also potentially the best of times for arts education," says the report, released by the National Endowment for the Arts last week.

"Since nothing else has worked," the report continues, "the arts and humanities are poised to become leading contenders in the school reform sweepstakes and to re-establish themselves in the basic K-12 curriculum."

The report also points to arts education as an essential ingredient to restoring public confidence in the arts, which, it says, has eroded because of an elitist image.

For More Information

The American Canvas report is free from the Office of Public Information, National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20506; (202) 682-5400. The report can be found on the World Wide Web at http://arts.endow.gov/.

The arts' "tenuous" relationship with schools was a major topic of the privately financed discussions held over the past year among artists and business, education, and community leaders in six cities for the report, American Canvas. It is the last report to be released under the leadership of endowment Chairwoman Jane Alexander, who announced this month that she will step down after four years in the post.

Ms. Alexander, who visited some 200 communities in all 50 states during her term to gauge the status of the arts, puts part of the blame for the declining investment in the arts on artists themselves.

"The desire [for a strong arts presence] was there, but often, the long-range planning was not," Ms. Alexander, an actress, says in the introduction. Describing the arts community's misguided view, she writes: "'Let's build it, and they will come, and we will worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.' This philosophy, coupled with a declining public commitment to funding the arts, was a recipe for disaster."

The project aimed to re-examine the relationships Americans have with the arts. Panelists agreed that many Americans don't think the arts are relevant to their lives.

"The product of an educational system that at best enshrined the arts as the province of elite cultures and at worst ignored the arts altogether," the report says, "some people understandably view the arts as belonging to someone else."

The endowment itself has had to battle such perceptions in recent years. After threats from Republican leaders in Washington to close down the agency, it won a reprieve this month. A House-Senate conference committee voted to provide $98 million and to require that the agency focus more of its efforts on educational programs."Panel Votes To Fund Arts Agency," Oct. 8, 1997.)

Whetting the Appetite

Part of the 193-page report looks specifically at the arts and education. Pointing to increasing research evidence that arts education can boost student achievement in other areas and to the contributions of the arts to the country's "cultural legacy," the report suggests a critical role for schools in rejuvenating the nation's appetite for the arts. ("Piano Lessons Found To Enhance Reasoning," March 12, 1997.)

Yet, arts programs are still a low priority for districts struggling under budget constraints.

"The statistics on the number of arts specialists are appalling," Joan Boyett, a forum participant and the vice president for education at the Music Center of Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency that sponsors opera, theater, and chorale performances, is quoted as saying in the report. "The responsibility for reinforcing the teaching of the arts at the district level rests in the hands of [relatively few] music supervisors and art supervisors nationwide. ... Do we wonder why the arts are a low priority in the curriculum?"

In response, many in the arts community have created school partnerships. But sustaining the "hit and run" efforts has rarely yielded long-term commitments.

Among its recommendations, the report challenges artists to build stronger school partnerships in order to help students understand their world, to boost their achievement throughout the curriculum, and to create a larger and more committed audience for the future.

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