You Say You Want a Revolution: Notes on Arts, Education, and Crisis

December 14, 2011

“To this day, the arts in America, when pressed, define themselves in opposition to society.” – Alex Ross, Listen to This, page 236

Turning through the pages of Alex Ross essay on education – “Learning the Score: The Crisis in Music Education” – in his book Listen to This, I was struck by his attention to the plurality of outcomes that music education may realize. It got me thinking about the necessity for re-evaluating how we measure the importance of integrating arts training into our educational system. But as Sir Ken Robinson has already proposed, do we need educational evolution, or revolution?

This is perhaps good timing as well, as just a few weeks ago I attended the National Conference of the National Guild of Community Arts Educators in Boston, MA, where one of the underlying threads of discourse focused on connecting community arts education with professional and personal sustainability. Here I’m pointing towards the tasks of staying relevant as artists while developing a path that is unique, authentic, and financially viable.

Ross makes valid points on the isolation effect of classical music that enters the canon; he recognizes that too-often the impact of our greatest music is limited to those who are already familiar with it. But simply drawing people in to Symphony Hall who have never before seen a symphony, concerto, or choral concert is not enough to turn the tide. Art must be contextual. And we, as art’s agents, must find creative ways to make music enriching, engaging, and irresistible again for the next generation.

Some of our leading thinkers on education – including Sir Ken, Bill Ivey, and lately Diane Ravitch – have been professing the cultural and economic importance of re-thinking how arts play into curricula for quite some time. What Ross identifies is the powerful truth that we don’t need to wait out the political battles over curriculum design to engage with art. In fact, addressing this challenge is already at the heart of some of our finest arts organizations’ latest community initiatives, exemplified by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Artists for Humanity in Boston, and at many lower-profile ventures who are making waves without million-dollar budgets.

One of the best examples of this, and a highlight of the Guild Conference, is the Providence Youth Arts Collaborative (PYAC), a partnership of six non-profit community-based arts organizations in Providence, Rhode Island. They strive to “improve the effectiveness and build the capacity of our arts education programs,” and currently provide over 8,000 hours of free arts education to over 1,600 youth each year.

One of their constituent organizations, Community MusicWorks, is featured in Ross’ essay, described as “an authentically revolutionary outfit in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.” Founded in 1997 and built around the Providence String Quartet (in residence), the organization teaches music to young people through interactive programming. Community MusicWorks has grown to reach over 100 urban youth annually through intensive and varied programming that combines the tuition of classical music with field trips, community-centered events that are intergenerational, and hands-on leadership training for teens.

Their student retention is near 90%. Funding also continues to grow, thanks to three-year Mellon Foundation grant, and they’ve recently added a two-year Fellowship Program that has doubled enrollment while “providing resources for musicians seeking to create careers that combine artistic and civic goals.”

These programs are defining a new model for community arts education – one that is driven by youth, and where we accept young people as cultural citizens who can make a real impact on their communities. I would argue that this is also an unwitting answer to the criticisms of the Occupy Movement. There is at present a silent majority of young artists in this country who are beginning to stir, not opposing for opposition’s sake, rather in response to the economic and social hurdles that have tripped up artists for too long.

It leads me to the conclusion that there must be greater terms by which we measure art as part of our educational experience. It is our task to define them to reflect a greater image of society’s potential. As John Dewey described, and as Ross wisely noted, if we embrace arts education as a vehicle for creative and democratic thinking, it will continue to serve as a vital beacon for the artists of tomorrow in their quest to find meaning in our dysfunctional and often disheartening world.


2 Responses to “You Say You Want a Revolution: Notes on Arts, Education, and Crisis”

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