Today I got to go to my happy place for a few hours. The Holter Museum of Art is only five minutes away from my Helena-based office, and several times a year they host visiting artists through their Cultural Crossroads program. The Holter simultaneously hosts an exhibition while the artists teach on-site classes to 5th grade students from the Helena School District in the museum’s education space. During this two-week period they are hosting Brooklyn-based artists Arthur Simms and Lucy Fradkin. Jamaican-born Simms is primarily a sculptor, creating playful sculptures assembled from old toys and items most people would consider junk. Fradkin is a painter and collage artist who creates portraits with a folk-art feel. Both are experienced teaching artists who were a big hit with the 5th graders, who after a gallery tour created some remarkable pieces using assemblage. The inventiveness was inspiring.
When I visit programs like Cultural Crossroads, I am grateful that the students get the opportunity to interact with professional artists in a museum setting; however, I also feel a little twinge of frustration knowing that for too many students in Montana elementary schools, a visit to a museum or a one-hour artist workshop may be the extent of their visual arts education this year. A large number of Montana elementary schools have no visual arts specialist on staff, and visual art is left to be taught by the classroom teacher, who may or may not be comfortable or inclined to teach it. Fortunately for this group of students from Kessler Elementary, their teacher recently had them create a group art piece that integrated math and visual art, inspired by the work of American sculptor Louise Nevelson, and it’s actually hanging in the gallery at the Holter for the Youth Electrum exhibition. I applaud this classroom teacher for recognizing the importance of learning through art for her students. I suspect that her embrace of arts learning is the reason her students so quickly embraced today’s art making, and were so successful.
Still, imagine the creative skills that could be developed in these students if they were exposed to a sequential, sustained art curriculum, taught by a certified visual art specialist in their school?
Today in a blog post by Director of Arts Education Ayanna Hudson, the National Endowment for the Arts unveiled their new vision and strategic plan for arts education. The vision is simple: every student is engaged and empowered through an excellent arts education. The NEA’s mission for arts education is to position arts education as a driver for transforming students, schools and communities. It is exciting to read their strategic plan, a collective impact strategy that involves cross-sector collaboration toward the common vision–not just artists, arts educators and arts organizations, but also politicians, school board members, public safety officials, higher education officials, business leaders and philanthropists–in short, a bigger umbrella of people who invest in the belief that there is no first-class education without the arts.
After I read about the NEA’s new vision, I was also sent a 10-minute documentary about North Carolina’s A+ Schools. A+ Schools are a whole-school reform effort that fully embrace arts learning as a way to reach all learners and to transform school culture. I was struck by the way the students, parents and teachers talk about their schools in the film, and by how engaged each student seems to be in the learning process as they use drama, dance, music and visual art to learn math, reading and science. As a former teaching artist and classroom teacher, I am lucky to have experienced those moments of joy many times with my students–the trick is how to sustain it against the obstacles and competing demands that are keeping the arts out of some schools. A+ Schools seem to have found one answer.
I’ve decided watching a student deeply engaged in making art is the best antidote for the frustration associated with wanting all students to have access to excellent arts education, right now. A vision takes time and a great deal of effort. More trips to happy places are in order in the future . . .