What Value The Arts In Prison?

I was surprised to see my home town newspaper mentioned on the Americans for the Arts blog recently. Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Manager, John Abodeely, was responding to a story about how inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility were being blocked from performing at Eastern Correctional Facility by the corrections guard union. (Eastern Correctional Facility apparently inspires a lot of art. I once wrote a short story based *cough* on my time spent there.)

Abodeely responds to the union’s central argument that there is no value in the experience. “How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” One answer is Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes–six Tony nominations, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award. Another is Charles Dutton. These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are other examples.

Abodeely discusses the economic value of the arts in terms of jobs, revenue and taxes generated. I think Abodeely misses the mark on two counts. First, regardless of the economic impact statistics, it is difficult for people with arts backgrounds to gain employment in their field, whether it be on Broadway or not. An ex-con probably has just as good a chance of being employed as anyone. (So on second thought, I guess Abodeely’s numbers are valid when applied to the convicts.)

But the second point is the real issue. The subtext of the question the corrections officer posed was all about low regard for the convicts’ personal value and had little to do with economics at all. Perhaps it is clearer to me because I have been in NY prisons, but the guards’ power to deny positive experiences for inmates is a big factor here. Given the union spokesman’s assertion that “prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside,” a more compelling argument would be based on evidence of how engaging in any sort of disciplined program is beneficial to future employment and behavior in the present. There is also public speaking skills, writing skills (since the inmates wrote the play) and development of empathy that can be gained. (Construction and other organizational skills if they are building sets and costumes.)

Abodeely wouldn’t likely have the research or numbers on hand to cite, but there may be some evidence that it reduces recidivism, especially given that is the sponsoring organization, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, goal. The San Quentin Drama Workshop has been active since 1958 so even if there is no clear evidence arts in prison does not reduce recidivism, there must be some value to sustaining the program for 51 years. There is also group, Theatre in Prisons which runs similar programs internationally.

What really makes me believe that the union’s objections on the grounds theatre involvement doesn’t cultivate valuable skills is the fact that Rehabilitation Through the Arts not only does shows at the maximum security NY State run prison, Sing-Sing, but has been based out of there since 1996 and apparently has proven valuable enough to satisfy the corrections officers who I am pretty sure belong to the same union. Pinero wrote Short Eyes while incarcerated in Sing-Sing in 1972 and there was apparently a drama program of some sort there at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a big advocate for convict rights. I didn’t particularly enjoy being dragged on visits as part of my mother’s effort to redeem these guys. (Though I does allow me to truthfully say I was in and out of prison for 9 years.) Like most of us, I am not about to allow someone to dismiss the value of participation in the arts out of hand without some rebuttal.

I suppose no discussion of performing arts in prison can be complete without citing the 1500 Filipino prisoners in Cebu doing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Arts and Science Make The Whole Person

I love it when themes come together for me. Apropos to yesterday’s entry about the place of arts in the classroom, I saw that the TED site released a talk by Mae Jemison where she discusses how being analytical and creative are not mutually exclusive. In college, her studies left her about equally likely to become a doctor as a dancer. She says her mother essentially made the decision for her. While she ended up going into space, she brought an Alvin Ailey poster along for the ride on the space shuttle.

One of her observations is when she turns the common assumptions that one is either creative or analytic around. She notes that people will often joke about not being able to grasp math and science or lack creative and artistic abilities. She suggests that given the choice of jobs where you either had to be uncreative or illogical, people would seek out jobs that allowed them to do both. Granted, for many jobs these are de facto status of employees and people willingly place themselves in that situation but they still have the freedom to encounter complementary experiences.

I think her point is that people sell themselves short in relation to their analytic and creative abilities in a way that becomes self-reinforcing and gradually colors our self perception.

If arts people are truly invested in promoting arts and creativity as necessary to become a whole person, I believe that cause is best served by also promoting the idea that analytic capabilities are important and contribute toward the whole person goal as well.

Analysis and creativity can’t be divorced from one another. I think I have mentioned before that the lectures that occur in our tech theatre classes sound a lot like my high school physics class. The backstage of a theatre is one big practical physics lab. And without an analytic mind, I would have never figured out why our ticket office reports weren’t quite resolving themselves for a show last month.

Arts (Not In) Education

Dewey21C guest blogger Jane Remer makes a provocative statement I have always wondered/suspected.

The Arts Just Don’t Fit in Most of Our Schools

The arts community – arts educators, arts organizations, artists who work with schools, other friends of the arts–has tried and failed for years to make the case for the arts in every student’s life and learning environment. Claims abound for the arts as important intellectual and experiential domains as well as exceedingly effective instrumental bridges to other usually non-arts ends. These claims are rarely backed up by solid empirical research and when they are, the evidence is overwhelmingly correlational, not causal. These claims are almost never made by school people, K-20 and beyond, and only occasionally uttered by policy makers, whether top down legislators or bottom up teachers, leaders and district superintendents.

Because the concept is so depressing, one may attempt to discredit her by wondering if she truly has a basis for making this claim. If you read her bio at the bottom of the entry, you see that her background makes it very difficult to dismiss her. She has both practical and theoretical experience attempting to cultivate arts programs in some of the toughest educational environments around. One of her previous entries as guest blogger asked, “What Can We Do to Make the Arts Count As Education?” In that entry, she lays out some of the reasons the arts aren’t gaining traction in those schools which it is present.

Other than suggesting local action, Ms. Remer feels she doesn’t have any real strategies for getting the arts into schools.

Over this past weekend I tried working from the premise the arts would find no place in our schools. What were alternative outlets that could be developed? Schools would appear to be best medium for disseminating instruction and exposure but if that option is out, what is left? There are after school programs and summer camps. Unless the arts community can develop a compelling argument for parents about why their children should be allowed to participate, it is likely the groups currently being served in this way will continue to be the only ones.

We can look to the example of early educators in the United States who patiently approached people to convince them to let their children attend school. That might work but, don’t forget that the real progress in enrollment came when education became compulsory by force of law, and sometimes, at the end of a gun barrel. Tirelessly approaching people is one thing, but I am not sure the arts world is ready to lobby for martial enforcement quite yet.

Technology would appear to be the medium possessing the greatest potential for replacing schools as the method of arts education. I confess though that I suffer from a lack of imagination in this respect. I am currently only imagining progress in terms of the tools that already exist – People learning to paint or play bass from online sources. Perhaps they got the brushes, easels and instrument from a local arts organization seeking to make materials more available.

That’s all well and good except there is also the problem of a disconnect of what happens between the situation today and the one in my imagination to make young people excited and interested in the arts that they claim the free art tools and instruments and go home to practice? In essence, what makes 250,000 Venezuelan kids commit to El Sistema, and how do we get that to happen here? Smarter minds than mine have asked that very question.

More Economic Alfalfa

Back in March I linked to a story about how Philadelphia was trying to revitalize its South Street district by arranging for artists to temporarily take over empty storefronts.

Artsjournal featured a story from The Guardian today about a similar effort in London which seemed to be designed a little more constructively for artists. My concern about the Philadelphia initiative was that the artists’ tenure in the spaces was rather tenuous. In London’s case, the project is arranged by the South London Gallery who has secured a three year lease and will place artists in the stores for six month residencies. While this may ultimately be a much shorter time than the participants in the Philadelphia program will enjoy, at least the parameters are known from the start.

In fact, The Guardian piece acknowledges just how unstable such an arrangement can be. Referring to arrangements like the one in Philadelphia where landlords are persuaded to offer storefronts for free or low cost, Stroud Valleys Artspace director Jo Leahy notes,

“The downside for the artist is that they’re welcomed with open arms during the recession, they help to regenerate an area – and then they get tossed out when they’re no longer needed, because the economy picks up and the rents go up. So it’s worth having eye on the future, and trying to insure yourself for when times improve.”

And the good the artists’ residencies did for the city of Gloucestershire was measurable. Leahy notes that the 25 storefronts her program utilized in 13 years rented easily when her organization moved out. Even more importantly, it warded against the encroachment of negative influences.

“Leahy adds that the estate agent she works with has reported lower rates of vandalism in shops used by artists, as opposed to those that are left empty. Art in shops puts the feelgood factor back, she argues. “It’s another way of judging a town. We’re used to measuring a place by how busy the cash tills are. This is about measuring somewhere by its ideas, by the things that people are making happen here.”

What I thought was most constructive about the project South London Gallery is spearheading is that they are not merely content to plant artists in the storefronts and hope something grows. South London Gallery, which has an outreach manager, is hoping to bring arts exposure to the neighborhood in which they are located but whose residents they rarely see enter their doors. While they hope the people do one day come to the gallery, their immediate goal is to “demystify the process of creating art, taking it away from the private studio” and locating working artists in the familiar space of a business people used to patronize.

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