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Even Great Artists Need Recess

I may be beating a long dead horse here but last week the National Endowment for the Arts linked to a NY Times article from their Twitter account asking what people thought. The article in question was about how public schools in NYC were having arts classes during recess. I tweeted in response that I thought it was great, but that when I was a kid, I had art, music AND recess. The title of the article touts the school as being highly rated.

While I am happy these kids are getting some arts exposure, I wonder how it can really be seen as an improvement and a credit to their high rating that they had to do it during recess. It’s a shame that that the only time students can have the experience. It is with some chagrin that I tell the story of my first day in high school where I was trying to figure out when we would be allowed outside for recess. The memory of realizing I wouldn’t be having recess any more still causes a little ache.

I have to wonder, is there really so much more to learn these days that they have to squeeze arts classes and recess out? I know arts get cut for financial reasons, but if a school has the resources to offer it during recess, then they could offer classes as well, right? It has been 30 years since I was in elementary school, but I don’t think there have been that many developments in history, reading, mathematics and science in that time that can’t be covered in the course of all the elementary years of school.

If they have to spend so much additional time teaching and testing material for kids, that must mean those of us in the previous generations fell short of learning all that was required of us, correct? I quake in fear for what it will mean for me when these kids grow up and bring their superior knowledge capacity to bear, pushing me out of my job.

Okay, while it may indeed happen one day that my knowledge will be obsolete compared to younger people, I am fairly certain it won’t all hinge on the differences between what we learned in elementary school. In fact, I may retain my superiority over them simply because of the freedom of recess I enjoyed in elementary school.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan recently had a piece on the Creativity Post about this very topic. (my emphasis)

If you want children to do well in school, give them dedicated time to play, sing, dance, build something out of wood, or whatever their fancy. There is a myth that time spent in these activities is time better spent cramming in more information for all important high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. We each have a finite amount of willpower and when this willpower is exhausted, carrots and sticks are not going to change this fact. Our brains need time for restoration and replenishment. Discover what kids are passionate about and set them free to pursue it. Let me repeat that, set them free. Do not overly structure their recess. Do not overly structure their play time. This is a time for them to recharge their batteries. In return, you will get a greater frequency of creative, curious, critically thinking youngsters. You will get attentive, engaged students.

There is a great NY Times magazine article on the science behind the finite nature of willpower. There is a shorter version of the information on NPR if you don’t have the willpower to read the article. ;) (Though as you will learn, you might be able to get some will power by eating a cookie!)

The more I read about the importance of allowing kids free time, the more I appreciate that my elementary school emphasized self-directed learning. (Albeit under the withering gaze of nuns which I am sure counteracted some of the benefits the freedom afforded.)

It occurs to me that arts people shouldn’t just be advocating for arts in the schools, but the free time to explore and express it. I am sure artistic and creative people are well aware of examples from their own disciplines in which a strict teaching environment has had a stultifying effect on the development and joy of young students. The advocacy can’t simply be about providing arts education if it is bereft of an opportunity to play. If students choose to spend their free time peering down at a cell phone texting their friends, it may be in part because they were never provided the opportunity and encouragement to spend it any way else.

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Funding The In Between Places

Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas has been looking at how the National Endowment for the Arts distributed funds for its “Our Town” grant program. In the last three posts on the topic, he has been critical of the way the granting process is structured and executed, perceiving a surprising bias against rural communities given that it takes its name from Thornton Wilder’s play set in a rural location.

Scott’s initial criticism sort of deflated my sails when, by his criteria, the award to the Wallkill River School, Inc. in Orange County, NY where I grew up was not being made to a rural arts organization given the population of the county. I was excited to see that their project whose purpose is “To support the development of economic strategies for long-term, sustainable partnerships between the arts and agriculture in Orange County,” was funded.

I have to concede that the population has increased quite a bit since I was growing up and its psychological distance from New York City has diminished since then. (Though it still qualifies as “way upstate” in minds of NYC residents.)

I was also happy to see that the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), headquartered in Boise, ID had gotten a grant. (Full disclosure, we will be presenting the dance company in Spring 2012.) Though it isn’t rural per se, Boise qualifies as fly over country in many people’s minds. I have found Trey McIntyre’s decision to locate there rather than NY, Chicago or L.A. to be commendable—and so has the population of Boise who treat them like celebrities. The group has made great efforts to expand the concept of a dance company’s place in the community by appearing anywhere and everywhere from flash mob like performances to dancing at the local NBA farm team games to creating their own art installation in a hotel room (forward to 3:30 to hear McIntyre talk about the installation)

I was also very happy to see a local burgeoning effort in support of Hawaiian culture was funded as well. I can probably devote an entry explaining how valuable this award is going to be in planting seeds for greater things.

All this being said, I felt Walters did a credible job in his entry today arguing that many elements of the application and review process placed rural arts organizations at a disadvantage.

As Walters acknowledge in his analysis on Monday, the NEA did make an attempt to enlist the participation of arts centers in rural areas and didn’t receive a very strong response. However, in reviewing the comments on his failed grant application, Walter notes that the criteria being used to evaluate his application wasn’t appropriate for the project he was proposing.

“When I consulted the NEA as to why my own “Our Town” grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported “professionals” from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.”

He also notes that since rural arts organizations don’t have large staffs, the three weeks notice they were given between being invited to apply and the deadline was barely enough time to compose a proposal. When they made it past the first stage, they were given only a month to assemble a complete proposal, an immense task given the length of the application and the limited staff with which to do it. These small staffs may also lack the experience and advisers to guide them in infusing the grants with the polish that granters like the NEA have come to expect.

I actually faced a similar situation here. A grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities specifically focused on community colleges was announced in June with a deadline in August. One of the things they are looking for is involving up to 12 other colleges in a partnership. So not only do you need to try to assemble a work group of professors and administrators on your own campus during the summer after everyone has scattered to the winds, you have to get buy in from the same nearly non-existent groups on other campuses as well!

Via the citation of a comment by Ian David Moss, Walters wonders if the NEA is suited and equipt to directly pursue its mandate of geographically diverse funding. He discards Moss’ idea of directing more funding to trusted partners in rural states and letting them make decisions in favor of asking the NEA to become more accountable by cultivating stronger relationships with organization that work closely with rural arts groups and making a better effort to recruit people with an understanding of rural arts operations to serve on grant review panels.

While I disagree with Walters’ criteria about what constitutes rural, I am generally with him about the need to make the grant process more accessible to arts organizations in small communities. A decade ago, heck, even 5 years ago, I would have said the NEA faced an immense task trying to identify and reach out to rural organizations. But with email and social media, it is fairly easy to create focused email lists and Twitter feeds with which to deliver information to these groups.

It is just a matter of enlisting the rural arts service organizations that provide support to these groups to assist them in making them aware of the channels the NEA will be using to communicate with them. As Walters suggests, a time table and structure that recognizes both the limitations and different array of opportunities specific to rural arts organizations. Given how few organizations applied, even an increase of participation by a handful of groups will allow the NEA to claim a many fold percent growth in rural program support.

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Making ‘Em Want To Sing, One Seventh Grader At A Time

I spent the morning talking to 7th and 8th graders about careers in the arts. The assistant theatre manager (ATM) and I sort of tag-teamed the presentation which included slides on some of shows to help communicate the need for good skills in research, reading, writing, communication, collaboration, math, technology and dedication alongside the specific skills you need for each discipline. Since the ATM and I had different career paths that brought us to our current jobs, we talked a little bit about that while quizzing the students on their knowledge and involvement in the arts.

On the drive over today, I couldn’t help feeling I might be selling the students a flawed bill of goods. The radio was full of stories about proposals to liquidate the National Endowments and the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores. Against a backdrop of news that arts and literature were not valued in the country, are students going to believe that the arts have something to offer them? Now granted, many 7th and 8th graders don’t listen to NPR every morning, but the message is still out there, each story contributing to students’ general outlooks and attitudes.

The only bit of sunshine was a story about Portland, OR which discussed that people keep moving to Portland even though there aren’t enough jobs. What keeps drawing them there? The overall culture and atmosphere of the city, including a mention of the music scene. I knew I had heard this sentiment before so I did a Google search before sitting down to write and sure enough, I found stories from 2010, 2009 and even earlier where people talked about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene. You can find plenty of blog entries on the subject as well. I was pleased to continually hear a story where the arts were mentioned as an attractive element of a city.

When I got to the school, we discovered we were assigned to choral room. That seemed like a good environment in which to talk about the performing arts. We spoke to the music teacher there and he told us because of the high stakes testing, they no longer had a drama program in the school. This was rather disappointing to us, of course. However, we also discovered that he has over 200 students auditioning for 65 slots in his choral classes. He said it used to be 100 students until American Idol first aired and he got a surge of interest. Then when Glee started airing, he got another surge. Now he has to turn away twice as many students as he can accept. The choral director actually used to teach band at the high school down the street from me, but moved when he started a family because he wasn’t getting home until 10:00 pm and then had to get back up at 5:00 to return to work.

Next door was the band room where the son of one of our college’s retired music professors teaches music. According to the principal, both the professor and his wife come in pretty much daily to help their son teach the class. If music gets cut in their school, (and the choral teacher is getting a masters in another subject area to hedge against that), not only will the school lose its music teachers, but the efforts of two parents as well. If the arts programs get cut from these schools, it won’t be because of lack of interest from students or lack of dedication from teachers.

This school does not serve zip codes where the education reflects the values of an affluent community either. This isn’t to suggest that the parents aren’t pushing their students to do well, merely that the school isn’t in a place where people automatically assume the students will excel and succeed based wholly on the neighborhood. I was pleased to see that the arts didn’t face an entirely uphill battle in relation to communicating the value of the arts in one’s life to their students. There were some good role models and practices in front of the students.

Americans for the Arts has set up an easy way for you to write your representatives in Congress about continuing to fund the NEA and arts education. I like the format because it is much more flexible about allowing you to mix your own thoughts with pre-written text than most email campaigns allow. I have had it bookmarked for a couple days because I didn’t really want to go with a lot of the pre-generated text, but hadn’t quite thought of a way to make what I had to say personal for my representatives. Thinking about what I saw today, I think I finally have something that will create the connection I want them to make.

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Death To Funding Arts Related Acromyns!

There are a lot of people calling for the end of federal funding of the arts this past week. Only it isn’t coming from politicians or groups opposed to having tax dollars devoted to the arts. It is coming from people within arts disciplines. Last week fellow Inside the Arts blogger Bill Eddins posted an entry calling for the end of the National Endowment of the Arts. Leonard Jacobs at the Clyde Fitch Report expanded on Eddins’ theme. On Friday the NPR show On The Media had an interview with the editor of Reason.com, Nick Gillespie, who suggested ending funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as a means of denying politicians a perennial bugbear needing to be slain.

Gillespie’s interview was in reaction to an editorial, Steve Coll wrote in the Washington Post suggesting the big networks like Fox News should be charged more to broadcast and the proceeds directed to the support of the CPB. Coll’s editorial was in response to one that South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint wrote calling for NPR to support itself.

Common to both Eddins and Gillespie was the idea that the funding support to individual arts organizations and broadcasters that trickled down from the NEA and CPB was such a small portion of the total funding, it might be better to lose the money altogether and be free of the recriminations and accusations about how poorly the money was being used. Nevermind that it is only about 42 cents per taxpayer, the perceived rate is so much greater and so ingrained in people consciousness that contradictory evidence finds no purchase.

Some who commented on Eddins’ post point out that the indirect impact of NEA funding actually provides more support than is immediately perceived. State art foundations pass along funding and may actually owe some of their continued existence to NEA funds as states cut back funding in that area more and more. I know that many in my state wonder if our foundation would still be in operation if not for administration of stimulus funding that necessitates it existence.

Gillespie felt that the cut in funding to radio stations wouldn’t impact them that much and they could either thrive without it or might find an increase in funding from other sources. I was a little skeptical at that since I wondered what sources have been holding their dollars back in reaction to federal funding.

For all the resistance part of me feels toward the idea of spurning federal funding, there is another part of me that wonders if the current situation isn’t a little like that faced by 20somethings living with their parents after graduating college. The support the parents provide isn’t a whole lot, but they keep complaining about the resources being diverted toward supporting their generally responsible adult children (as opposed to those slacker kids). Most of those bills they would have to pay even if you weren’t living in the house but they keep talk as if it is all due to you! At the same time, moving out and giving up that little support is pretty scary first step to take.

For some arts organizations, not receiving federal monies may actually open their programming up and embolden them. All that money flying around during political campaigns may end up directed their way as political action groups hire groups to paint murals and organize flash mobs to either support their view or embarrass the opposition. Though most arts groups’ aversion to being perceived as selling out might preclude that sort of thing. And of course this is based on the assumption that the dearth of funding from both public and private sources will make non profit status and the attendant restrictions on political activities less desirable to have.

Even if they aren’t engaged in politicking, knowing that they won’t have to rein in controversy could result in more experimental fare once people move past the “we can’t do that” mindset that the culture wars surrounding NEA funding has created. As the song says, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That might result in the creation of things that will really scandalize politicians, only they won’t have a carrot or stick to wield any longer.

While money does equal access and control in the world of politics, it tends to be a little divisive in the arts scene -> who has it – who doesn’t = who has sold out – who does “pure art.” Maybe if there was more money available on a dependable basis this wouldn’t be the view. But right now the best thing to do to keep the arts community divided may be to give out a lot of money. Because in an environment where there is no money, the seeds of a unified vision seem to be sprouting.

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