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.

Traditional Canon Still Brave New World For Many

Today was the presentation of final projects for the Semester of Shakespeare the literature classes participate in. (It is also the observation of Shakespeare’s birthday!) I have a little bit of a personal investment in the event because I encouraged the literature people to engage in interdisciplinary events with some performances we were presenting a few years back. The literature professors ran with it and have done something on a different Shakespearean play since then. This has included public viewings of films, stage combat classes and interaction with period music. It all ends with an event like tonight’s. The students present projects in the theatre courtyard and then everyone comes inside to watch performances of excerpts from the script and period music. This year’s play was The Tempest. Some of the projects were pretty clever and included trivia games where you advanced on a board laid out on the ground and wore some costume pieces. Others looked like they stole action figurines from younger brothers that morning to glue on poster board. Actually, there was one group that used action figures to make their own movie version of the play. Another group used the old vortex in a soda bottle science experiment in order to create a sort of literal representation of a tempest. Shakespeare may seem like a poor choice as a recurring theme since his works are essentially the default people envision when they think of plays. The NEA’s Shakespeare Initiative was seen by many as an attempt to appease critics because his works were seen as generally non-offensive. (There is plenty fodder for controversy, but it is a known quantity.) While the language is perceived as challenging, the ubiquitous presence of the plays and their influence on culture means they aren’t really seen as pushing any boundaries. The number of times I have seen The Tempest alone…. Hard as it is to believe, there are quite a few people for whom the plays are completely new and represent virgin horizons. What has been analyzed, interpreted and reimagined to death for some of us, comprises the pinnacle of cultural mastery to many with little experience with the works. No small number observed that tonight was their first time in a theatre as I helped hand out playbills. For that alone, the literature department’s efforts tastes a little of victory to me. (Also, a lot of the students baked cookies for their displays. I had been tied up with work into the evening so it also tasted like dinner.) The hope I think we all share is that the students find the experience of this past semester an enriching one that cultivates an appreciation for Shakespeare and theatre. They certainly had to delve into the themes and language to produce their projects. One student rendered a scene into the local creole which meant he had to understand the original text fairly well. Now if the professors really want to get their students’ interested, they will choose Titus Andronicus. It has ludicrous amounts of blood and gore to hold everyone’s attention and except for Julie Taymor’s film version, I have never seen it.

Sharing The Same Hat

So the head of the drama program started the sow what may either be the seeds of destruction or bountiful harvest today. He decided the show he would produce next Fall will be a world premiere written by a former student. Involving a playwright in the rehearsal process is tricky business. I worked for a theatre that ran a playwright competition and was involved in the process of mounting world premieres. Even if there isn’t tension over a request to cut what the playwright wants to retain, there are generally issues over receiving rewrites in a timely manner.

I was supposed to see a new version March 15 so I had some concerns in this repsect. To be fair, there were rumors that we were entertaining other scripts so perhaps we can’t blame him for being under motivated to do rewrites.

But to add icing to the cake, the director wants to make the playwright co-director on the production. The playwright has had some directorial duties in conjunction with the director, including with shows he has written, so there is history and precedent for this. This former student just has never had a theoretically co-equal role with the director before and the productions were on a much smaller scale.

I say theoretically because the technical director, show director and I discussed the ideal scope of the alumnus’ authority and duties. Ultimately, the director has responsibilities by virtue of his position with the school which he can not cede or shirk regardless of the titles bestowed on anyone. Many of those responsibilities are in relation to me so verification will be sought for even the most minor request the alumnus makes.

So there is the totality of the situation. The playwright is placed in a position where he theoretically exerts equal artistic control over his product but in practice will not. There may come a point where this situation is tested when he is asked to rehearse a segment interpreted in a manner with which he does not agree. What will be his actual ability to insist on his vision of things given his position as playwright and co-interpreter of the work?

Conversely, if the drama director accedes to the playwright’s vision, he could be called on the carpet neglecting his responsibilities. (Though rather unlikely given the current version of the script. Still, a caution for any pondering a similar arrangement.)

Among the reasons why I did not immediately object to this arrangement given all these possibilities is that the playwright is aware of his limitations as a director. He knows he is good at staging certain aspects of a production but weaker at envisioning and executing others. While everyone in theatre tends to have huge egos which emerge at some point during the rehearsal process, I believe that realization will temper the situation overall.

While there is potential for all sorts of anxiety and problems to arise, there also exists great opportunities. A large cast of people will have the experience working with a playwright. The director potentially has another resource with which to accomplish the production goals. The script represents a departure from the type of shows we have done in the past and has the potential of attracting a large, young audience.

In many respects, this is the sort of endeavor we should be undertaking. Setting up the parameters of the relationship now hopefully avoids problems in the future. It isn’t likely I will be writing too much more on this topic in the near term but keep an eye open come Fall to learn how things are progressing.

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