Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Walmartization of Arts Education

I live in the Entertainment Capitol of the World, Los Angeles. Talented people from all over the country move her every day, in search of fame and fortune (that’s what I did 22 years ago. I found a fair amount of fame, but no fortune). Many of the talented musicians, actors, writers and visual artists who come here find part time gigs working with nonprofit arts education organizations, teaching and entertaining kids in schools - making the quality, diversity, and accessibility of the programs the best in the country.

Some of these nonprofit organizations, like theatres, orchestras and dance companies, can earn part of their income through ticket sales. But others, like the nonprofit that I started ten years ago, Arts in Education Aid Council, provide services to low income children at no cost to the schools or their families. We have no way of earning any income. That has made us pretty dependent on the generosity of others, especially local foundations. And they have been very generous, until the recession hit. Now they need to wait until their coffers are replenished before they can start giving again. In the meantime, nonprofits need to be even more creative in how they operate and raise funds.

Quality and excellence aren’t any insurance against the recession. These amazing organizations are all being threatened, and some may go out of business, as a consequence of the economic downturn. So much will be lost if LA loses them. If, when the recession is over, the smaller nonprofits don’t survive, LA schools may lose the most creative of its arts education programs, leaving kids with a one-size-fits-all-model, highly standardized, with little emphasis on imagination. It could end up being more of a cookie cutter approach, where kids are all given the same material and lesson, on the same day, throughout the district, with the same expected outcomes. It's better than nothing, but there isn't much creativity in this approach, which is the most important reason to teach the arts in the first place. This approach treats all kids in LA as if they were One Kid - completely discounting the many different cultural differences, learning styles, economic backgrounds, and personal histories of each student. A rich arts program considers and supports all of these unique differences.

Like Walmart moving into a community and running all of the small businesses out of business, the recession may force small nonprofit organizations to stop operations, These Mom and Pop arts ed businesses employ the brightest and the best, are deeply committed to the communities they serve, are driven by their missions (not money), while complimenting other arts organizations at the same time. Their collective failure could leave a huge void in what is supposed to be the Entertainment Capitol of the World. Even the tax based arts funders in LA (the LA County Arts Commission and the Department of Cultural Affairs Los Angeles) have turned their backs on the small arts education providers, making it a condition that they get matches for their grants through the Los Angeles Unified School District. The irony is: there is no match. Thus, there is no grant. These two organizations exist to support and promote the arts in the city and county of Los Angeles. They both support arts education in school districts, but they want to see the districts themselves implement and maintain sustainable arts education programs. A reasonable goal. But how does putting pressure on LAUSD to provide a match by putting pressure on small arts providers to put pressure on LAUSD make any difference? Small arts organizations have no political playing power. So they lose again.

So what will the fate of the small arts education providers be If they are forced out of business? Will they ever return to the creative market, or will they be lost forever? What will become of the talented artists, musicians, writers, actors, and supportive individuals who keep these organizations running, if they lose their jobs? Oh ya, and let’s not forget about the kids. Somehow, they always seem to get lost when money and power are in control.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Let My People Go

Sometimes I feel like Moses leading his people out of exile. Those right brained kids who have been forced into exile by Prop 13, No Child Left Behind, our self-involved American culture, and the lack of respect and understanding of what makes any civilization great.

As an artist and a mom, I want to make sure that my two kids receive a well rounded education that is rich in the arts. I also hope to educate the general public on what an arts education really means (it’s not just refrigerator art, pop music, or hand made Mother’s Day cards).

My two kids are very different from one another. One is biologically linked to my husband and I, the other one is not. One is Chinese and one is not. One is a right brained learner and does much better in an “out of the box educational setting”, while the other is the pride of the Status Quo, a left brained learner, who has earned her seat at the head of the class, “inside the box”. Yet, they both need the arts in school, and for very different reasons. The right brained learner needs the arts in order to be successful and happy learning. The left brained learner needs the arts because she needs the challenge of not relying on finding the one right answer, or being perfect every time.

When I was a kid attending public schools in the 70s, the right brained kids never felt like oddities or failures, as we were never singled out as such. We were just the kids who were good at art, music, drama and science. The exceptionally talented were just thought of as exceptionally talented. And now, 30 years later, with an entire generation of Californians who never had the arts in school, a new teaching force who didn’t have the arts in school, a culture that values the self and material things above all else, and federal mandates which pressures under-performing schools to work miracles without the necessary support or resources, we basically have a tragedy on our hands. This tragedy has had devastating effects on not only our educational systems, but also on our economy, our culture, and our relationships to one another and our selves. The United States is in a whole lot of trouble right now, and we need more right brained thinkers to get us out of it. Trouble is, right brained thinkers have been in exile for an entire generation – and some are living false or empty lives, all because our culture doesn’t value creativity and individuality. Now we need these people, but they aren’t equipped to rescue us.

I want to reverse this trend by bringing the arts back to schools. Because in so doing, we will be making sure that both sides of the brain are stimulated, used and educated. I want all kids to be given different ways to succeed in school. And I want our culture to reeducate itself on what arts education means. So I have dedicated myself to making sure that my kids and the kids of my community receive the same support, resources and respect that I did as a kid. I strive to give voice to the human beings impacted by the decisions and laws that are influenced by data, money, and personal agendas. The arts are valuable, not because they increases test scores or keeps kids in school, but because they create and develop well rounded human beings.

I want kids to not be judged by their standardized test scores alone. I want us, as a society, to see the most creative amongst us as the talented, brilliant, unique beings that they are, not as the freaks and under achievers that they have been led to believe they are. I don’t want to see one more kid get labeled and medicated because they don’t fit in, or are dragging their school’s API scores down. I want the creative and brightest to be freed from exile.

So mom says, “Let my people go!” And you don’t want to mess with Mom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Let's Put on a Show!

When I started the nonprofit, Arts in Education Aid Council (AEAC), ten years ago, I only had one thing in mind: to get the arts back into public schools of the San Fernando Valley. While brainstorming with my mom/artist friends (who all agreed to serve on the original board of directors), we thought it would be fun if we gave the kids their own art show. We didn't know what we were doing, so every idea that one of us had seemed like a good idea. So, like the Little Rascals, we set about puttin' on a show.

Since we didn't know what kind of turn out we could expect, we sent out invitations to the schools within the vicinity of Borders Books and Music in Canoga Park and the Canoga Park Youth Arts Center, who both agreed to host the show. To our surprise, we got a pretty big turn out. We had over 200 kids! So we decided to have two different shows and receptions, so as many kids as possible could participate. Albertson's, Noah's Bagels, Village Coffee Roasters, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Woodland Printing and Fast Frame in Woodland Hills were our first sponsors. Our budget was a couple of hundred dollars.

Fast forward nine years. The show is open to all 200 public schools in the San Fernando Valley. It has grown so much that we have turned it into an outdoor family arts festival, featuring 300 children from elementary schools for the visual art exhibition and another 300 children for the performing arts showcase (school bands, choirs, dance and theatrical groups, and individual performers). Arts education providers get a chance to promote their programs and attendants get to make art for free all day. Middle and high schools get their own, separate show, on a Friday night with a local, teen band that plays their own music (and since our mission is to support the arts and kids in the Valley, this is a paying gig for the musicians!). The budget now is over $25,000. Many, many local businesses, restaurants, city council members, neighborhood councils, school PTAs and PTOs sponsor this event. This event has evolved from a Little Rascals "Let's Put on a Show" into a highly anticipated, well attended event (over 3,000 people came out last year) the Valley! (The San Fernando Valley is not known for its support of arts and culture so we get a big kick out of the fact that our organization, and this event, is so successful in promoting not only arts education, but the arts in general). People are now coming out to this show who don't know any of the kids in it, and some of them come from "over the hill" (meaning Los Angeles, where people do support the arts). And just like the Little Rascals, a group of moms and artists were able to put this all together around a dining room table, with kids and dogs running about their feet. It's a good thing we didn't know what we were doing back then, or we may have over thought the whole thing and dared not do it. Every year, it's more work, but it's also that more rewarding. It's quite a show and we're really proud of it. The Tenth Annual Valley Wide Student Art Show and Performing Arts Festival will be on March 21 at the Chatsworth Train Depot so mark your calendar!

The show takes place every year in March, in honor of Youth Art Month. I'd like to see more art shows celebrating kids and arts education created around the country during the month of March. All you need are some rascals, a meeting place, a venue, and some locals who would like to help. So come on now and "Put on a show!"