Creative Life in the Gateway Arts District
For several years, a struggling economy has translated into a reduction in arts education across our nation and particularly in economically challenged regions. Prince George’s County is one such region. The result: Most children in Prince George’s Public Schools are experiencing visual arts education taught by certified art educators a maximum of four times per school year, with an average class time of forty-five minutes.
If you want to understand this better, start a timer, then go to your shelves and get paper, pencils, some paint and brushes and set them up. Now, sit down and paint a picture of your family, making sure you stop after 35 minutes have elapsed (you have to leave time for cleanup!). How’d you do? Did you have time to think about meaning? Did you have the chance to look at reference photos or think of context? Did you finish your picture? What impact did those 45 minutes have on your mind or your heart? Do you feel frustrated? I’m guessing you do. Now think about doing that four times – spread out over nine months.
After those nine months, do you think you’d believe those experiences impacted your life? Do you think you could report that you actually learned something about art or art history? Oh right! We didn’t even talk about looking at examples of artists in history who painted family portraits! If you’d done that, you’d have had zero time to actually make your painting!
This is the scenario in most Prince George’s County Public Schools today.
As an artist and educator for four decades, I founded Art Works Now in an effort to add more creative opportunities to the lives of area children. Because I believe art is a transformative tool. Studies conducted by and for some of our leading national arts organizations like Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts continually point out that the very skills and behaviors taught in arts (visual and performing) classes are crucial to the development of our children. These disciplines teach skills including the ability to analyze and synthesize information and emotions, infer and interpret information (images, text, movement), to evaluate and assess data (comparing intended outcomes with results), and to support arguments by citing specific elements of meaning (while interpreting works of art, students argue their position by pointing to specific elements in a work of art). In a holistic sense, students learn to create – and to understand – meaning in their own work and the works of artist exemplars.
This is why arts education is important. This is how art education transforms. This is how art works.
The good news is that just a year ago, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, formerly the Principal of Northwestern High School, returned as Superintendent of our schools, thanks to the wisdom of County Executive Rushern Baker. Dr. Maxwell believes in the transformative power of arts education and has wasted no time creating very real change for the children of our county. By hiring more art educators and appointing Mr. John Ceschini as the Arts Integration officer for our schools, and creating the only dedicated Arts Integration Office in the country, Dr. Maxwell, named as a Champion of Change by the White House and the Maryland Superintendent of the Year in 2014 (also one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year), is putting our money where his vision is. And we must support this vision without hesitation because it translates into increased graduation rates, reduced discipline problems, higher test scores, and more fun at school for our children.
As an artist, I believe in the value of art for art’s sake (that creating and viewing art forms has inherent value), and as an art educator, I also believe in the value of art for the sake of learning, integrating information and emotions, and so much more. So I need no convincing. If you find that you are needing more evidence before jumping on the arts education bandwagon, you might want to check out this website with links to a variety of studies on the importance of arts education: http://www.americansforthearts.org/by-program/reports-and-data/research-studies-publications/americans-for-the-arts-publications/research-reports#education. Then consider these words of Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, “The arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools. This is absolutely an equity issue and a civil rights issue.”
Shouldn’t the children of the Gateway Arts District and all of Prince George’s County experience such equity and civil rights?