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.