Arts In Schools Is Only Half The Battle

Over the last couple months, I have been enjoying Jon Silpayamanant’s series on the WPA Music Project. After reading his entries, I have begun to think that the push to put more arts in schools is may only be half the effort required to really spark an interest and sense of value in the arts.

The WPA projects involved a lot of direct and personal contact with concerts and free classes, each project involving hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of people in a single region each year.

According to the latest statistics released by the Federal Music Project, 2,399,446 students unable to pay for private musical instruction attended the free classes of the project in its 140 music centers throughout Greater New York during the year ending June 30. The number of classes held reached the enormous total of 145,133. (New York Times 1936)

When the federal will and funds were aligned behind the arts, a great deal of activity occurred. But my intent is not to get into the very politicized discussion of why there should be more federal support of the arts.

One thing that struck me from a post suggesting the Depression had a far more devastating effect on classical music and orchestras than seen in current times, is just how integrated into daily life live music performance once was.

Even if you manage to convince large swaths of people to take music lessons and put a piano in their living rooms, our current lifestyles almost guarantee that we will never have such as large proportion of the population that possesses some degree of musical training as we once did. Nor will we likely return to the frequency of exposure to live music people once enjoyed.

In the early 1900s musicians weren’t just performing in concert halls, they were providing music in movie theaters, restaurants, pubs, hotels and even funeral homes. As radio and recorded music become more available, (not to mention Prohibition closing down pubs) thousands of musicians were put out of work.

From the research Silpayamanant cites, it appears that even though live music was no longer as present in everyday life as before, during the 1930s the Federal Music Project brought live performance and practice back into people’s lives pretty personally and directly.

So people of my grandmother’s generation who were born in the early 1900s were exposed to live music on all sides and then had the Federal government validate the value of the arts through myriad WPA programs. They passed these values on to my mother’s generation. My parents passed these values on to my generation, though they were further diluted by the times.

You probably see where I am going with this: these first two generations are dying off as audiences right now.

I am not suggesting that returning arts to the schools won’t be helpful. When I was a kid, it reinforced the perception of value my parents and grandparents passed on to me. Reading Silpayamanant’s posts have just reminded me that not only do arts organizations need to change the way they operate in order to acknowledge changing times, arts education has to do the same.

It is so easy to say, if only we have more of a certain type of activity, things will turn around. It is easy to forget the larger social dynamics have changed. People are no longer surrounded by the same sort of artistic exemplars in their every day life to normalize the pursuit of an artistic discipline. Celebration of those who can create in an electronic medium is more prevalent and likely provides a more familiar touchstone for today’s fledgling creatives.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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3 thoughts on “Arts In Schools Is Only Half The Battle”

  1. I’m constantly amazed at what happened during that whole WPA period and the Great Depression. I think you’re “these first two generations are dying off as audiences right now” comment encapsulates the whole issue of what all the studies about audiences are showing us with regards to early exposure!

    Namely that due to all the government funded activity, and prior to that the Womens Music Clubs (which were also instrumental in shaping the Federal policies during the Depression era), we can’t overestimate how much impact the wide exposure created a broader community for all the arts (but especially Classical Music). One thing to be said about those who don’t think outreach by the individual organizations isn’t particularly useful and may not have the impact necessary to help the organizations is that they may be right because the outreach that happened due to the Womens Clubs and the Federal Funding hit on a much bigger scale than any individual organization could have.

    I don’t think its coincidental that the last generation of big classical music attendees just happens to be the one who last grew up with significant broadcast exposure (on Television) of orchestras, for example–but I think Seth Godin hit upon an insight, regarding Football’s dependance on Broadcast media for its success and how that could never be recreated in an environment where mass media is no longer the dominant form of media, that is just as applicable to the arts. I don’t think we can rely on the old models of successful audience building when those old models are no longer particularly relevant even for the so-called “popular entertainment” forms!

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