Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A rant - about arts education

I'm at a business conference for professionals in the field of performing arts. One of the sessions was about building future audiences, and a panel of college students were asked about what would attract them to an arts event or venue. That led to a discussion about their background and education in the arts.

So today we had a round-table session where one of the topics was arts education and outreach - what are our organizations' educational efforts to attract young audiences, especially students and children.

Many participants described creative, in-school programs their organizations are doing, putting performers in the classroom. One nationally prominent leader of a major classical music organization described a wonderful program that provided kids a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.

The discussion among the attendees, most of whom are my age, so-called "baby-boomers," went something like this:
  • We have to reach out to schools to bring kids to our symphonies, operas, drama productions and ballets.
  • It's a challenge because there are no longer arts programs in schools, so kids don't know anything about performing arts.
  • What can we do to educate kids and make them learn to appreciate the performing arts that are presented in our venues?
This topic really hit a nerve in the group, because even after we moved on to something else, people kept circling back to this. As I stood holding the mic, waiting for my turn to speak on Topic Number Two, I waited until a back-and-forth ad hoc exchange about arts education had concluded. Then I finally had the floor.

When I opened my mouth, I forgot about the other topic. Because a rant had been building up in me. Here it is:

"Everyone here in this room is trying to do wonderful things to reach out to young audiences. But as I listen I can't help but feeling we are making an erroneous assumption that the problem is that young people don't know anything about performing arts.

That's just not true. Right this minute, kids are singing, dancing and performing, and we don't know anything about it. Instead of trying to teach them about our symphonies and operas and ballets, we need to go see what they are doing. We need to learn about their music and dance, their performance and spoken word, so that we can appreciate it, put that on our stages, and give them more of it. That's what will bring them into our venues.

For us to assume that they don't know anything and we're the ones who should teach them is, frankly, a little arrogant of us. We need to learn from them, if we want them to be our future audiences."
- end of rant -

When I was done I felt a little trembly and sat back down, worried I might have offended someone. Plus, who am I to lecture them? After all, I'm not an arts educator, and my organization doesn't even do arts education directly - at least, not yet.

All of these arts professionals love their chosen fields with a passion. No one can deny that. But as they talked, everyone seemed to be missing something.

When I think about teaching kids to appreciate classical art forms, I remember something I experienced when my son was little.

I am a passionate gardener. I love gardening, flowers, the intricacies of nature; the beauty of the plant and insect world, the exquisite textures, colors, shapes and smells of plants. I used to bring my toddler son into the garden and say, "Look - see the beautiful flower, look how it's shaped. Look at the shoot coming out of the soil, look at the sprout rising up from the split avocado seed."

He was totally uninterested.

It hurt, I admit. I had so looked forward to teaching my child about the natural world I loved so much. How could my child be so incurious, so unobservant?

But then I stood back a little and watched what he was doing in the garden.

The hose trickled onto the sloping walkway as I dug in bedding plants. Water ran down the concrete, the stream forked and ridged as it met grains of sand and pebbles, obstacles that changed its route. It pooled in place until the surface tension overflowed the piled debris that bound the puddle, carrying leaves and bits of chaf with it.

For him, that was fascinating. He watched a twig travel in the water. He dammed the stream, until it burst free. He touched his finger to the concrete and felt the water flow around it. The power of water, the forces of gravity, the affects of geology - that was what caught his imagination.

He's 20 years old now, and has his own interests, many that he doesn't share with me. But I can see that there are things he loves, things that drive him and fascinate him. Just like gardens and flowers fascinate me.

In arts education, we can't build future audiences by only showing them what we love and asking them to love it too. We have to watch them, see what kind of art they make, and love, and consume. And then we have to help them seek the best of it, and hunger for it, and demand it.

If we are the ones they demand it from, then we will have achieved success.


Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

KIDS THESE DAYS... rotten to the core.
Was it Socrates who ranted the same thing about 2000 years ago? I learn so much from the youthful creative energy at CU it just makes me so happy.

Beverly said...

Kudos to you Glennis. I love this post, and it makes me think of one of my favorites of Kahlil Gibran.

On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Mingus said...


blognut said...

I think you are dead on with your assessment. We can't assume to know what will interest kids without at least consulting them.

phd in yogurtry said...

Are you for hire?

cactus petunia said...

You are SO right about this! I am an arts educator of sorts (I teach art at a multicultural art camp) and it's always a challenge to present traditional arts and culture in a way that captures the interest of kids who are used to instant gratification and being observers rather than participants.
I remember seeing Romeo and Juliet for the first time in its traditional Shakespearean form, then watching the movie made in the 1990s with my son, who totally identified with the updated visuals set to the same dialogue.
It worked, and without being dumbed down or destroyed.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Oh my gawd, you are right on the money.

We have to meet them where they are.

I swear to you that is why I ventured into text messaging, Facebook, and even blogging. To be available to communicate with my older children in the manner in which they like to communicate.

And when I have a vision for Laura, even a simple one like when I think she should do her homework, I try to remember to honor where she is in that moment. Sometimes the simple act of listening and considering moves mountains. And the homework always is done.

Queenly Things said...

I think there needs to be an exchange - elders need to pass on a culture to young people especially in the arts - music, food, traditions. And we old fogies must listen and accept and encourage new ideas. This curiously coincides with something I have been writing this morning and hope to post this evening. Funny, that. I applaud your moxie.

KathyR said...

I hope at least one of the people who heard your rant thanked you for it. I hope more than one of them took it to heart.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Great post!

I love opera and tried to introduce it to my children. My daughter enjoyed it immediately but my son was bored. Now that he is an adult he told me he is so happy I took the time to take him to the opera.

He was immersed in rap music in his high school years and I tried hard to understand and like it. I can't say I'd want to listen to it all the time but I did find some I enjoyed.