I’ll Settle For Arts Education Helping People Recognize Their Creative Capacity

I am in the process of moving so I am shifting in to “throwback” mode for a week or so.

I thought I would look back at a post I made about one of Ian David Moss’ contributions of a blog salon.

In his contribution Moss wrote took the view that arts education put children on the track to careers that the socioeconomic environment couldn’t support. (my emphasis)

Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?

In my post at the time, I disagreed with the view writing,

Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated.

In a comment on my post, Scott Walters wrote,

Your analogy to Little League sports is a good one. Sure, some of the participants dream of being professional football players, but most simply enjoy playing and the experiences they have with friends. For some reason, artists don’t recognize that this is the case for the arts as well. There are other reasons to do it than going pro — reasons that are just as fulfilling (I’d venture to say, in the current arts climate, oftentimes MORE fulfilling)… what an arts education promotes is a rich life that includes the possibility of creative expression as an end in itself, not a means to an end. This was the message of the “Gifts of the Muse” report, for instance: the INTRINSIC value of the arts. Lets not get lost in arts education as existing solely for the creation of professional artists or the creation of paying audience members. There is a more active and vibrant alternative to those roads.

In the intervening years, as I have begun to really think about the intrinsic value of art vs. the instrumental value, I have grown to appreciate Scott’s comments all the more.  Reading this old post, I feel like this might have been a formative moment when I started thinking about arts education and making people aware of their capacity for creativity.

However, there is a lot of validity in Moss’ argument that universities and conservatories are taking the money of a lot of people with mediocre ability and preparing them for a traditional career path in the arts. This problem has been recognized for quite awhile now.

But also note my intentional use of “traditional career path” because there are an ever broadening array of ways in which creative abilities can be applied. Training programs aren’t doing the best job of preparing students to pursue those options.

Where They Use Pom-Poms Rather Than Pens To Fill Out The Audience Survey

Another month, another helpful webinar from our friends at Arts Midwest where different venues around the country talk about how they are integrating the Creating Connection practice into their operations.  This time around people from San Jose’s Teatro Vision and Red Wing, MN’s Sheldon Theatre.

Teatro Vision talked about an interesting project they conducted in conjunction with Day of the Dead activities. They had audiences respond to a number of prompts and then took the responses and used them to create poems which they posted in the lobby. Then they surveyed audiences about whether the poems helped to enhance the experience of the performance.

I had been looking forward to the Sheldon Theatre’s portion of the program for nearly a year. Anne Romens, the Creating Connection program coordinator, had been referencing their work in webinars and the professional development conference session we worked on last year so I really wanted a deeper dive into what they were doing.

If you have been reading up or hearing about Creating Connection over the last year or so, you know one of the basic, but crucial concepts is a focus on the audience and experience. The Sheldon has gone whole hog on that. Check out their website and you can see that plainly. Tell me you don’t want to be there.

Starting at about the 28 minute mark in the webinar, they talk about how there were no humans in any of the archival pictures of their building. Everything had been focused on the architectural beauty of the building. The 16-17 brochure was the first time an audience member attending a show was depicted in any of their promotional materials. If you watch their before and after pictures, you can see what a difference “populating” the building makes.

Executive Director Bonnie Schock talks about the concern her board and community members had that this shift in focus would undermine the value of the organization. But when they talked to their audience, themes of togetherness and shared experiences emerged as primary measures of value over the quality of performances and artistry.

They started to develop experiences surrounding performances- everything from meet and greets with artists to tea parties for performances of Alice in Wonderland. During a celebratory event at the start of a season, they handed out “emergency confetti” packets as people left for use when they were feeling down.

One technique I have seen nearly every group presenting a Creative Connection use is a white board/post-it note board for audience feedback. Not only did the Sheldon use this, they also “surveyed” audiences by having them drop little pom-poms in jars labeled with different sentiments (~40:45 mark).

A lot of great ideas presented by both groups, don’t let my prior interest in learning about one of them keep you from watching the whole thing.

 

When Fantasy Morphs Into Reality

You just have to read this recent piece on the ArtsPlace America website about a fictitious marketing campaign created as a graduate school thesis project that became reality.

Peter Svarzbein’s thesis project had residents of El Paso, TX excited about the return of a trolley system that went defunct about 45 years ago.

….part performance art, part guerrilla marketing, part visual art installation, and part fake advertising campaign. The project began with a series of wheatpaste posters advertising the return of the El Paso-Juárez streetcar, and continued with the deployment of Alex the Trolley Conductor, a new mascot and spokesperson for the alleged new service. Alex appeared at Comic Cons, public parks, conferences, and other public spaces to promote the return of the streetcar, while additional advertisements appeared across El Paso, sparking curiosity and excitement for the assumed real project.

Eventually, Svarzbein admitted that the project was a graduate thesis masquerading as a streetcar launch,…

But when Svarzbein heard the city of El Paso was preparing to sell the art deco trolley cars, he rallied community support for the restoration of the trolley cars and passenger service. His initiative gained the support of both the city and state department of transportation, garnering a $97 million grant to help get the cars running again.

I love what happened next,

In one of the most surprising twists in this long tale, shortly after this funding was awarded, he rode the wave of public support for the once-fictional project to win a seat on El Paso’s City Council. He is now the City Representative for District 1, and an artist is now at the table.

In his remarks about the creativity he employed to rally support for the restoration, Svarzbein reflected on the role of an artist in the community,

“there is a sort of responsibility that artists have to imagine and speak about a future that may not be able to be voiced by a large amount of people in the present. I felt that sort of responsibility. If I couldn’t change the debate, at least I could sort of write a love letter to the place that raised me.”

Who Will Play You In The Opera?

I frequently write about how people often don’t feel arts and cultural events are for them is because they aren’t seeing themselves and their stories portrayed. So it was with some interest that I read about Opera Philadelphia’s effort to provide a free high definition broadcast of their 2017 opera, We Shall Not Be Moved,  which uses the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound by the city of Philadelphia as a starting point.

Opera Philadelphia has a history of providing free opera broadcasts on Independence Mall. They are particularly interested in presenting this broadcast because so many people were unable to see the live performance. I was surprised to learn the public broadcast will cost as much as $160,000. Right now they are running a crowdfunding campaign for the last $25,000.

What I was most interested in learning was the details of the original production which involved music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the direction and choreography of Bill T. Jones, all luminaries in their respective fields. It is no surprise to me that they would be involved with the project because they each have a history of working with communities to help them tell their stories.

The students from Art Sanctuary had the opportunity to work with these artists as the piece was developed. We Shall Not Be Moved had its world premiere during O17 at the Wilma Theater, then moved on to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, it was presented by Dutch National Opera; as noted on the crowdfunding page, the reception there “proved that this timely, Philadelphia-based work could also find relevance with the wider international community.”

Readers may be aware via the Adaptistration blog/Drew McManus that Rob Deemer has been leading an effort to create the Composer Diversity Database in order to make it easier to more broadly program concerts and create music for any sort of artistic projects, including films, video games and of course, operas.

The success We Shall Not Be Moved has had is just another small piece of evidence that there is an audience and interest in projects that don’t appear in or confirm closely to characteristics of the traditional canon.  It bears noting that often these projects aren’t developed and promoted in a traditional manner and that may factor largely into the breadth of their appeal.

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