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Advocating for Arts Education

By Joe Nathan — June 02, 2015 5 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss the value of, and advocacy for, education in the arts. Joe begins and Deb responds.

Dear Deb:

Before making budget decisions for the coming year, I hope every school board member sees the movies “Woman in Gold,” now in theaters, and “Bessie,” playing on HBO.

Sometimes art and history come together in wonderful ways. That’s what happened in these marvelous movies and a terrific musical that I saw recently. Although they described vastly different people, each illustrated art’s immense ability to enrich our lives, and stir us as nothing else can.

The musical, “River Road Boogie: The Augie Garcia Story”, presented by the History Theatre located in St Paul, Minnesota has just finished playing for months to packed houses.

The movies and musical depict real people. “Woman in Gold” is the story of an almost decade-long struggle by Maria Altmann, who left Austria because of the Nazis. In the mid-1990s Austria changed its policies about returning art stolen in World War II. She insisted that the Nazis had stolen these pictures from her family, as they had done with so many others. So she asked the Austrian government to return a portrait of her beloved aunt and other pictures. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and then mediation in Austria. The movie mixes together history, passion and brilliant acting by Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. As Reynold’s character explains, “This is a case of one woman wanting justice!”

Bessie” is the powerful, passionate story of Bessie Smith, a hugely popular American singer who performed primarily in the 1920s and 1930s. Queen Latifah gives an incredible performance about the struggles and success of this remarkable woman. Her story also helps illustrate challenging, complicated relationships not only between black and white but also among African-Americans.

Finally, in one of the finest musical performances I’ve ever seen, Ricardo Vázquez strutted, slid and sung across the Minnesota History Theater stage in “River Road Boogie.” He portrayed Augie Garcia, a hugely popular St. Paul singe from the 1950s and 1960s. Music helped him deal with horrible memories from service in the Korean War. He was so talented that he was asked to open for Elvis Presley when “the king” visited Minnesota. He was so dynamic that Presley’s manager stopped his performance, afraid that Garcia would upstage Presley.

The History Theatre, located in St Paul, is a 35 year old gem. Its leaders often involve people in the events their plays depict. The performance I watched included a discussion with Garcia’s widow and sister.

Bessie Smith was African-American, Augie Garcia was Hispanic-American, and Maria Altmann was Austrian-American and Jewish. They were dramatically different people.

But each of their stories, and the art with which they were involved, features incredible insight and inspiration. They help illuminate American strengths and shortcomings.

These performances help explain why schools need to encourage and honor artistic expression. There is immense value both for the artist and the audience.

Dear Joe:

I’m afraid they are no differences to bridge.

But maybe we can find them.

There are many signs that we are retreating to the age when “the arts” were only for the wealthy leisured class. They are not disappearing at NYC’s private schools. And donors don’t expect to make a profit off the Metropolitan Opera Company when they give it money and have their names on plaques celebrating the importance of art.

I was reminded of this today when I had lunch with two new friends: Elizabeth Rose who wrote a book you should read (Yo Miz!)--about her experiences as an ATR. That’s the name invented to describe experienced excessed teachers who roam around from school to school to avoid being laid off.) She and her husband Don Castellow, who recently retired as a NYC elementary music teacher since the program he had developed was being replaced by more test-prep, had sad stories to tell and also great ideas for what “might” be done. They both managed to use their discouraging situations to gain insight and invent new ideas.

It may not be so easy to squash art and music--and story telling. These are the oldest distinguishing features of human societies, resting upon our relentless desire to make sense of our world and infuse it with our imagination. We seem to have lost the desire to pass it on to...all...children. It seems as though in the rush to compete with everyone else to be first in the world we can’t afford to waste time honoring these deeply seated capacities for the children being left behind..

Teachers (and parents) are no longer encouraged to “tell stories,” to “make-up” invented worlds-but pounded and pounded to read read read with deadly serious regard for every world--interrupted on every page for some didactic lessons in literacy. Common Core is concerned with cutting back on novels and increasing nonfiction texts. Memoir writing (popular in the real world) is a form of writing that the new “elite” make fun of when done by 10 year olds.

How many schools are left with libraries, fulltime art and music teachers, drama? We had them all at CPE as late as the 90s. The three East Harlem CPE schools (CPE I, II and River East) had maybe 600 students between them and 4 fulltime music teachers, 2 art teachers, 2 dance teachers and 1 drama/story telling teacher. And our kids thrived.

Physical education does a bit better than the arts--but mostly if “disguised” as competitive sports. There are high schools in Boston (plus no doubt many other places) who start school at 7:30am so that their gifted athletes can have a full two hours devoted to team sports in the afternoon!

We will not and cannot use our minds well if we deprive it of the arts.

Joe Responds:

A recent national survey found widespread support among both families and educators for music and arts education. 77 percent of teachers and 64 percent of parents reported that this is either “extremely important” or “very important. "

I think it’s important for educators and parents to continue to make their views known on this to people making decisions and to the news media. I also think it’s important to push for more site-decisions about how dollars are spent. While I don’t believe all problems will be solved by more site level decision-making, I think most people working day to day with students recognize the enormous value of the arts.

There’s a false distinction that’s sometimes made between academic and artistic success. Some of the district and charter public schools that are most effective with students from low income families that I’ve visited over the last decade see arts as a vital part of their program. Anthony Smith, principal of the national Blue Ribbon Award Taft High School, and Sharon Johnson, principal of the very successful Withrow High School, both Cincinnati district schools, were huge arts advocates. So are people involved with Yes Prep and KIPP charters.

Finally, we need more widespread discussion about the value of the arts in schools. As noted above, arts enrich the lives both of the performer and the audience.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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