What is the value of performing arts in society?

  “It’s well and good that arts — and performing arts especially — are part of our society, but they’re not the vital part of our society.” ~Board President Daniel Gomes 
Do you think performing arts are vital to society?
This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington’s blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

Jan. 16:

Just a little over a week after newly-sworn in Contra Costa County Superintendent Karen Sakata proudly performed with a Taiko drum group at her inauguration ceremony, the president of the county board of education has questioned the value of performing arts in society.

Board President Daniel Gomes angered a crowd of arts advocates at a board meeting earlier this week by suggesting that pursuing the idea of a countywide performing arts charter school might be “wasting money and wasting time — and we might be wasting lives by supporting this.”

This prompted Rob Seitelman, a local teacher and professional actor, to yell back: “That’s how I want to waste my life — by supporting the arts!”

In a long and rambling monologue, Gomes said it would be better to pursue a countywide charter focused on robotics or environmental science than performing arts.

“These are programs that are vital to our survival as a society,” he said. “It’s well and good that arts — and performing arts especially — are part of our society, but they’re not the vital part of our society.”

When the crowd erupted with gasps of disbelief, Gomes said those who disagreed with him could vote against him in the next election.

“But until then,” he said, “you should listen to what I have to say because I listened to what you have to say.”

Many people left after the board unanimously denied the proposed Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, based on staff findings that the petition did not meet state requirements for approval.

But Gomes’ comments set off a larger debate, causing some people to question his characterization of the arts as less important than science. In education, arts have suffered severe cuts and have been considered “extras” by some, in part because of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on math and English language arts, coupled with years of budget cuts.

As the economy has recovered and studies have shown the value of the arts in education, there has been a renaissance of arts in many schools. Even the Contra Costa County Office of Education emphasizes the value of arts alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — known as STEM — by hosting a STEAM Colloquium that integrates the arts into STEM.

And earlier this year, representatives from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence visited Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord to praise its integration of the arts into its curriculum. John Abodeely, deputy director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said the arts are a vital part of a well-rounded education and are especially powerful in efforts to engage underperforming students.

“The arts are not something you provide to students when you’ve fixed all the other problems,” he said. “Just like music is not something that’s been a part of humanities after we’ve figured out all of our other problems. It’s been a part of our soul and heart forever. So, the arts are a critical element in reform strategies.”

Outside the county board meeting, performing arts teacher Jason Miller said he disagreed with Gomes.

“Arts education is essential to our society,” he said. “The sentiment expressed tonight (by Gomes) was alarming — the idea that arts education isn’t valuable or that arts students are wasting their lives.”

After my story about the meeting was published, retired arts teacher Suzanne Cerny called to express her dismay about Gomes’ comments.

“How did this guy get to be president (of the board)?” she asked. “Studies show how arts are important. This reminds me of people in power who demean the people whom they are supposed to be helping.”

I also spoke to Richard Asadoorian, a former Contra Costa County trustee who lost his seat in the November election, who said he didn’t believe the arts should be considered as secondary behind other subjects.

“So often, the arts have been cut in schools,” he said. “They’re usually the first to go, along with librarians and counselors.”

Do you think performing arts are vital to society?

Testimonial #41: Joseph Crawford, Creative Producer/Artist

“The reality of the Arts as an industry is that you will be made to work hard, adapt to foreign situations, work for free (for a bit), and take your fair share of rejections… but it’s worth every minute when you see YOUR idea turn into a reality. “

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

Mark, my English Literature teacher at Birkenhead Sixth Form College, taught me more than just an appreciation of history’s greatest written works – he also taught me that creativity is a choice, and it needs tending to if it is to blossom. Mark was a spell-binding individual; pony-tailed, long-bearded, and walked with the aid of his tree-branch staff (taken from the tree Wordsworth liked to sit under) – the definition of a romanticist. He would finish lessons 30 minutes before their time, and invite us to spend the rest of the time writing poetry. It was my own choice, and pleasure, to stay behind constructing sonnets while most of the classroom left. Through Mark’s lessons, I realized that I was not going to follow the same path as the majority. Nowadays I am surrounded by inspirational figures; Charlotte Corrie/Christina Grogan – Open Culture, Chris/Kaya Carney – Threshold, Alex McCorkindale, Director of Flux Liverpool (to name just a few) – Liverpool’s cultural icons who invest their time and energy into making the Arts a sustainable industry, and to inspire the next generation of Creatives. If I have a creative idea, I know where to begin in order to set the wheels in motion – never forgetting the realities, the costs, and the rewards of this harmonious community. Without mentors, young people in the arts will simply make the same mistakes as their predecessors, and in an increasingly difficult economic environment, we need all the help we can get. Cultural education starts in the Arts, and leads to bigger things than you can imagine.

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

 Since recognizing that the Arts is a nurturing community, I have encountered a body of wonderful people, discovered mind-blowing talent, and found true purpose. At the start of my third year of university after wading miserably through another “student-night” in a cesspool of night-clubs, I cried out ‘There has to be more than this!’ Two terms later I dusted off my guitar and began practicing again, eventually performing in the SU bar. By the end the following year, Lancaster had shown me a whole family of musicians, artists, actors, (and bar-staff) who genuinely cared about each other, and who helped me forge the tools for a career in the arts. Thanks to their tuition and support, I now perform across Merseyside – expressing my irrepressible creativity, and even getting paid for it. Now in Liverpool, I’ve found the same formula applies – a new family of supportive people who simply love to create. And it’s nowhere near as breezy, pie-in-the-sky as some people told me – it’s a commercially viable industry: the difference is that you are never left to fend for yourself! I have since learned the value of communications, marketing & PR, recognizing what a real team looks like, relationship-building, and so many more transferable skills! Like any industry though, there still exist odd barriers. Young people in the arts tend to be viewed as expendable commodities – an ornament used only for image, and rubber stamping ‘young’ ideas. Again, it all depends on who you’re working with; but the reality of the Arts as an industry is that you will be made to work hard, adapt to foreign situations, work for free (for a bit), and take your fair share of rejections… but it’s worth every minute when you see YOUR idea turn into a reality. Keep the Arts in schools – the future of the next generation of Creatives depends on it!

A Work Based Learning Program at Vital Theatre

“What I learned is I can’t go through my life silent. Everybody has something in them.”
Caitlin Perkins, Grade 11
Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School

[Read more…]

Remembering those Dog Days of Summer . . . or What I Did Over My Summer Vacation

They say that when one doorcloses, another opens.  Read about mypersonal predicament of joining the ranks of the unemployed in an articlepublished in the November 2011 issue of Incite/Insight. 

I hope it will provide alittle inspiration for anyone facing challenges in this [non-existent] jobmarket and that there is light at the end of the tunnel:

As an educator, summers were always a time to leisurely pursueprofessional enrichment, read junk novels, and capture the calm breezes of theseason. Not unlike T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock whose life was “measured in coffeespoons,” my teacher’s existence was structured into 42-minute segments, 5 daysa week, 10 months a year, carefully pacing myself to the next day off tore-boot my energy. This inner balance worked for me for over 30 years.When I left teaching behind to pursue other goals, it was challenging, yetthrilling. How would I monitor the next 30 years of my life?
Using the lyrics from the Spice Girls’“Wannabe” tune as a source of inspiration, I sought to reinvent myself witheach new endeavor with the query: So, tell me what you want, what you reallyreally want? With every new day, I wanted …
To be acollege professor!
To devise a newcurriculum!
To serve as aneducation director for arts organizations!
To presentworkshops at conferences!
To teachteachers!
To work withyoung people and promote their voices throughplaywriting!
As I successfully transitioned from onecreative pursuit to the next, I finally landed a job as an education director;no sooner did I begin to savor the challenges of this career phase when theposition was eliminated due to budget constraints in March of 2011. I shouldhave seen it coming; the handwriting was on the wall: continued budget cuts,declining arts funding, selectively competitive grant awards. Schools, thoughsupportive, were unable to allot monies and relinquish class time for artsprogramming. Despite acknowledging its merits, schoolsperceive such programs as “extras” and they easily become targeted to reduceexpenses with the rationale that donations from philanthropic patrons wouldreplace any losses. Sounds like a feasible compromise until you begin to thinkabout the long-term effects. I’ll come back to that dilemma, later. Stay withme.
So, here I was, at age 60, unemployedwith a Ph.D. and over 30 years teaching experience, with no prospects, or so itfelt at the time—after all, this was during the highest unemployment rate inour nation’s recent history. In this economic downturn, who would hire me atthis stage of my life? I sulked … for an entire week lapsing into a regimen ofeating Mallomars with a quart of milk. After glutting myself with such internal pleasures, I took astep back and asked: So tell me what you want, what you really really want?
Within the soul of every teacher lies adeep commitment to making our world a better place to live in by educating ourfuture citizens—those young minds whose imagination and talent shape the nextgeneration. It has always been my strong belief that the arts define ourhumanity, and that they are an empowering supernatural gift givento us in order to make our world a richer better place to live.

So. Now. What. Are. You. Going. To. Do?

It was time to put my [unemployment]money where my mouth was and take charge. Subverting all fears aside, “Whatmakes you think you can make a difference?” echoed in my psyche. I was remindedhow I used it as a mantra for all my students—why not for me?
After an acting stint in an Off-Broadwayproduction of The Vagina Monologues, I realized the only way to moveforward and effectively utilize my time and talent would be through thecreation of a professional website. Thus began an arduous two-month examinationof the scope and scale of my career arc. As a result of this self-reflection, Iwas able to define my next challenge: to authenticate the arts and alter its perception as an amenity. I started tocollect stories of artists “in the trenches,” so to speak, who were makingthings work and garnering amazing outcomes: 12-year-old Olivia Bouler of Islip,Long Island, who raised more than $175,000 for the Audubon Society; an Artspaceloft to energize Patchogue, Long Island; the Airmid Theatre Company working withNew York Assemblyman Steven Englebright to create a permanent theatre space on the sprawlingformer grounds of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center.
On a national scale, I was horrified andoutraged by a particular story related by Erika Nelson, an artist in Lucas, KS who makes miniature models ofgiant pieces of Americana, puts them in a van, and drives around the country toshow people. She called her mobile museum “The World’s Largest Collection ofthe World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.” But this year,Kansas, which has one of the country’s smallest state artsbudgets, decided to shrink it even further, to zero, cutting off all ofNelson’s state support. This was just one story among many. While nationaladvocacy groups fight to keep the arts as a core mission of the government, therising sentiment is that it’s an optional staple of sustenance. Instead oftaking polite nibbles to offset this spiraling trend, I decided to bite back!
Since the launch of my website in lateAugust, I’ve initiated The First 100 Stories Campaign, entered blogs onsubjects ranging from literacy, CORE standards, and professional development,and proposed an education program for class field trips to the 9-11 memorial.Additionally, I conducted two interviews for First Online With Fran: atalk show solely dedicated to honoring ordinary people doing extraordinarythings in the arts to make our world a deeper, better place to live. Soundslofty, doesn’t it?

Alas, it’s the stuff that dreams are madeof.
And THAT is what I did over my summervacation.
More to come. Stay tuned.
Frances McGarry, Ph.D. has been teachingtheatre for more than 30 years. The Young Playwrights Festivalin New York City became the subject of her doctoral dissertationin the Program of Educational Theater at New York University. She haspresented Young Playwrights Inc.’s Write A Play! curriculum at local,regional, and national conferences. Her new website, http://www.francesmcgarry.com offers discussions on how practitionersare utilizing the arts to make our world a richer, deeper better place to live.