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Barry Hessenius is conducting a massive six week conversation about the future of the National Endowment over at Barry’s Art Blog. When I say massive, I mean it. This week’s entry is so large (and won’t be complete until tomorrow’s Q&A) that I feel guilty about addressing such a comparatively small section of it.
Truthfully, it may be too large an entry for its own good. Few that could benefit from it may take the time to read it. There were many people whose thoughts I value contributing to the entry, (even with Andrew Taylor’s absence), so I did take the time to digest it.
On the topic of arts education, Ian David Moss who blogs at Createquity.com fleshed out the recently oft repeated question about the long term value of an arts education in a way that seemed very compelling to me. (my emphasis)
Before you call me out as the Grinch who stole music classes, let me explain. I think that the conversation about arts education is inseparable from the conversation about the professional arts infrastructure in America. The reason is simple: the kids who fall in love with learning to play the tuba or do a pirouette today are the adults who are going to be competing with each other for gigs and grant money tomorrow. If we are successful in our efforts and ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience all the arts they want to during their formative years, what happens to them once they get to college? The arts are a powerful drug, as addictive as nicotine for some. The arts encourage people to dream big, and we’ve developed a post-Baby Boomer culture in America that tells children to follow their dreams no matter what obstacles they encounter. That’s fine so far as it goes, but there needs to be a pot of gold on the other side of that rainbow. When music conservatories, playwriting programs, schools of art—institutions whose ranks and capital budgets have been swelling apace in recent years—blithely charge marginal students tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and fail to offer them even the pretense of “real life” entrepreneurship skills, that’s as close to third-sector malpractice as it gets in my opinion.
Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?
N.B. Upon visiting Ian’s blog, I happily found that he posted the above material with supporting links not available on Barry’s Blog.
I have discussed the idea of arts training programs graduating students into a glut market before. I certainly have to acknowledge Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin, theatre professors who often question their part contributing to this state. Scott Walters was part of the conversation on Barry’s Blog and alluded to Tony Kushner’s 1998 “Modest Proposal” to eliminate undergraduate arts degrees which he included at some length in a 2006 entry on his blog.
What I never really thought about was what the arts world would do if they realized their ambitions to engender an appreciation of the arts in a large number of young people. I don’t think his suggestion that the push for arts education is motivated by a desire to have more consumers rather than artists is completely fair.
Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated. And in fact, as Ian points out, lacking large scholarships to keep their debt down, artists have it worse if they leave college without any “real” skills to fall back upon. The purpose of all these youth athletic activities is to cultivate an appreciation of the various sports which translates into audiences for athletic teams throughout life. (Not to mention a lot of athletic apparel purchases if the national sponsorships by sneaker companies are any indication.)
Still, if we have trouble employing artists now with really crappy arts education, what will happen when we ignite kids’ imaginations and convince them the arts have value in their lives. Yes, there may be an increase in arts consumers if more people grow up valuing the arts, but young artists will be graduating and trying to practice their craft long before their fellow graduates acquire enough disposable income to support them. The one saving grace might be if the economy is moving toward creativity. In that case, the graduates would likely need much different training than they are receiving right now.
Not that it is okay, but the arts are not alone in misrepresenting opportunities. In the last year, I read an article that cautioned people about believing ads that say things like there are plenty of jobs in nursing*, computer programming, tractor trailer driving, etc. The piece evoked the Grapes of Wrath in noting that it was in the best interest of many industries to flood the market with many qualified applicants so they can keep wages low due to competition.
I am not suggesting that this is a situation the arts attempt to cultivate. Other than Hollywood or some of the old Broadway syndicates, I can’t think of any entities who would have both the perspective to recognize this and the influence to bring the situation about. If lower costs were a goal, regional theatres would try to attract more people to their areas instead of casting out of NYC and having to pay to house people locally. Though I suppose high concentrations of actors in NYC does keep prices down in its own way. In any case, given that Baumol’s Cost Disease makes producing art increasingly more expensive, the arts do benefit from having a surplus of talented people.
*Don’t mean to imply nursing doesn’t have the need given all the aging baby boomers. It is just one of those areas for which you hear there will be a lot of demand.