Arts Educators Show Resilience against Economic Challenges

by Janet Eilber

February 26, 2009

The arts world, no surprise, is abuzz with concern about the economy. The news is full of canceled performances, salary cuts, layoffs and the collapse or near-collapse of about 10,000 arts organizations nationwide—10 percent of the total, according to Bob Lynch, president and CEO of the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts.

Looking ahead is not reassuring: governors and state legislatures have recently announced huge budget cuts to state arts agencies for the coming fiscal year, including, to date, 50 percent cuts in Colorado, Indiana and New Hampshire, and 100 percent cuts in South Dakota and Michigan.

The first sign of the financial free-fall caused arts-education advocates to release a collective groan and brace for the worst—again. It has become an unwritten rule of school budgets during the last 30 years that when times get tough, money for arts learning is the first to go. But along with the immediate painful adjustments and ongoing uncertainty, there is evidence of lessons learned and an encouraging resilience. So instead of hyperventilating or searching for panic reducers, consider some of the evidence of that resilience:

  • Growing momentum for securing arts education in the schools is unmistakable in several approaches developed in the past decade. Six of these, in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles County, New York City and the Oakland-Berkeley area of California, are examined in a study by RAND that was released last July.
  • The Glendale News Press article “Group Brings Arts to Class” updates the work of Arts for All, one of the RAND-studied projects launched in 2002 by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission (LACAC). In early February, LACAC released the Arts Education Performance Indicators Report, which concludes that much progress has been made since the last reporting of data in 2005. Organizers believe that most of the districts involved in the project will continue their commitment to arts education in spite of reduced budgets because of the strength of the foundation that is in place.
  • Similar strategies are in various stages of development in different communities around the country, from the arts resources audit just released in LaFayette, La., referred to in the Advocate article “City Receives Arts Audit” to the task force of educators and arts professionals in place in Wisconsin, described in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article “Report Calls for Re-energizing Arts Education.” This task force, supported in part by the Dana Foundation, is well past the audit stage and recommends a pilot program for six to ten school districts.
  • Other sources of optimism amid the gloom: Arts advocates stood up in unprecedented numbers—tens of thousands, according to the New York Times—to ensure that the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act include 50 million dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts and exclude an amendment that would have prohibited funds from going to museums, theaters and arts centers. Their efforts were rewarded—the bill passed on February 13. The “arts as economic force” argument behind this advocacy is detailed in the News-Herald article “Economics Painting Future.” Arts supporters have grown in number, volume, cohesion and effectiveness.
  • The Des Moines Register op-ed “Arts Education Is Key to Creative Thinkers” makes the case for another economy-based argument for arts learning: the workforce of the future. This approach has increasing impact by aligning arts education advocates with the education reform movement. Note how often the idea that creativity and innovation are key “21st century skills” is touched on in arts-related news articles.

We can’t let the fear factor of the financial problems cow us into playing it safe and stop thinking the big thoughts. The twice-annual Learning and the Brain conference scheduled in Washington, D.C., May 7-9 will focus on “using creativity and the arts research to improve learning and cognition,” and will be preceded on May 6 by “Learning, Arts and the Brain,” a summit hosted by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore. Sponsored by the new Neuro-Education Initiative of the JHU School of Education, the summit will bring together researchers and practitioners not only to review the recent scientific findings on how the arts affect cognition, but to prioritize next steps for possible research and for the development of innovative, brain-based teaching tools using the arts. 

Combining teaching methods that use the arts with what we now know about how the brain learns has breathtaking potential to impact how teachers teach and how teachers are taught to teach. This thinking is too valuable to be slowed by attempts to save mere money.

Inhospitable conditions are nothing new to a field that has been evolving courageously in the face of extinction for more than three decades. Arts education strategies have been seeded and carefully nurtured with efforts such as those mentioned above, and as disquieting as the financial news may be, the roots have taken hold. Arts educators have been practicing the art of survival for so long that we’re really getting the hang of it.