What If They DO End Up Loving The Arts?

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.

Continuing Mystery Gets Me Chocolate

Okay, some updates on recent posts!

I posted about the state furloughing teachers 17 Fridays over the next year. I was happy to see a local theatre immediately jumped on the opportunity to offer a Furlough Fridays program teaching kids about musical theatre. One of the things I liked was that they require you to attend all the classes emphasizing that student commitment to their classes was just as important as commitment to the classes they were missing.

Parents have actually started a movement to pay the teachers themselves on the furlough days. This raises a number of issues about the use of the school facilities, workman’s comp coverage and insurance. It also raises the question about why people are resistant to having their taxes raised a little bit to support the schools for the whole year but okay with paying a lot more to have their children taught on a few days out of the year. Is this going to reveal the gap between the haves and the have nots if parents in more affluent neighborhoods are able to pay to have their kids taught while the schools in poorer neighborhoods stay empty on those days for lack of the same funds?

One of the biggest impediments actually is a decade old ethics rule that prevents teachers from being paid privately to teach their students. The rule was enacted to prevent basic concerns like whether a teacher skimped on the instruction during the day in order to guarantee the need for additional instruction after hours.

The other update I have is to the situation I covered in my entry titled The No Sell Sales Pitch. Recent events, I am afraid, have done nothing but renew my curiosity about the approach being employed by the two dancers who visited in late August. Today I received a package with a 1 lb bar of Trader Joe’s Belgian Bittersweet Chocolate with Almonds, a bag of Trader Joe’s Trek Mix and a tea candle in a blue holder. There was a card thanking me for meeting with them, praising the work we are doing and hoping our paths will cross again. Still no material about their company which I am assured by others does indeed exist.

Maybe they just aren’t that into my theatre.

Furloughs, Arts Education and A Silly Song About Schubert

In somewhat depressing news, the state teachers’ union approved a proposal which will require them to take 17 furlough days a year as part of a plan to make up a projected state deficit. This will translate into schools being closed two or three Fridays every month. Teachers are even more concerned about being able to meet required instructional standards than before. I can’t imagine this will be any good for what remains of arts education instruction in schools.

At the moment, a school outreach we have scheduled on a Friday won’t be pre-empted by a furlough day. Hopefully the school won’t decide they won’t have time to have our program when the time rolls around. The one thing about this situation that chafes a bit is that sports events are not canceled on the furlough days but plays, concerts and dances (not to mention instruction) will be.

At the moment, things look pretty good for us. We have been giving a lot of building tours to high school teachers and counselors the past few weeks and many of them are interested in our shows and outreach possibilities. We have also been asked to speak about arts related professions at two career days this Fall which is a good sign. One of the invitations came at the recommendation of a donor and the other as a result of a tour we gave last week.

I was listening to the first podcast of Inside the Arts comrade, Ron Spigelman’s Audience Connections class and he suggested that conversations about the arts in needed to happen in grocery stores and other public places. You expect these discussions in performing arts centers, when they happen spontaneously in public places the influence spreads beyond the choir (as in “preaching to”).

He uses the example of shopping and having people compliment him on a concert they recently heard so this isn’t the case of people breaking into song for no reason whatsoever. (I love Schubert! Joseph Schubert! Actor Heinz Schubert! And that Schubert named Franz!)

I will admit that having a captive audience of students at a career day lacks a little spontaneity, but now more than ever it seems to be important to have conversations about the arts in alternative venues.

Learning Chinese To Sing In English

Busy, busy, busy, busy these days but I learned something interesting today that I thought I would share.

I met a guy who is in the local university’s production of the Lady White Snake Chinese opera. The show is in February but they are starting rehearsals now because the group is learning the opera in Chinese first and then in English. Apparently, it is easier to learn the proper delivery if you learn it in Chinese first. Then they have three different English translations to choose from. Each person will be assigned the English version that suits their abilities best. One person may be singing translation one and the person responding may be using translation three.

I saw the last Chinese opera they performed and I have to confess that it took me ten minutes to realize they were singing in English because they were employing Chinese opera’s characteristic style of drawing everything out in a very high pitch. I knew the cast had an extended rehearsal period because they were learning an unfamiliar technique, but I had no idea how involved it really was.

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