Arts Learning Week 2 – Reflection on Readings

The primary focus of this week’s readings is the correlation between arts education and adult participation in “benchmark” art activities in music, visual arts, theater, and dance. Visual arts includes museum visits and participation includes both attendance and making one’s own art work. Wesler (2003) provided a useful history of the development of the field of art education and steps for someone to plan an arts education program. Wesler was more of a cheerleader for arts educators; Zacaras and Lowell (2008) more grim in the face of declining arts participation and support for arts education. Rabkin and Hedberg (2011) were hesitant to do more than report their analysis of four NEA arts participation surveys stretching back to 1982.

The basic message is stark: participation in these benchmark arts activities will continue to decrease unless there is a new influx of money and political support for arts learning in schools. Even with more investment in arts education, arts participation faces demographic challenges in terms of the age of participants, the lack of cultural diversity of current audiences, the cost of attendance, and continual shrinking of public sector budgets. These structural barriers are not going away any time soon.

This blockade to creating an artistically-engaged community suggests that arts administrators need to back up and try to re-frame the problem. I’m not sure how to do this, yet, but this would be my first step because while the arguments for the benefits of aesthetic experience articulated by both Wesler and in the RAND report are real, they are vague and not compelling enough to persuade the public or politicians.

A few cracks in the wall of opposition…

There is a focus in the RAND report on generating demand from individuals. This might be the wrong scale to focus on. They say perceptual barriers inhibit arts participation. Their answer is more and better arts education for individuals. But the perceptual sense of whether someone thinks the arts are for them depends upon the broader perception of the arts in society, within a peer group, within a family or neighborhood. Asking how can we educate specific families, groups, and communities rather atomizing individuals might be more effective at overcoming perceptual barriers.

The general sense of the arts being important, and perhaps a keystone, to success in the “ideas economy” is a way to give arts education greater currency in the debates about public education. If the arts proves essential to raising math and science scores, more support will likely be forthcoming. This suggests a more instrumental argument about the value of the arts. But this argument does not preclude also making the case for the intrinsic benefits of the arts.

I like the basic vision of the arts world in terms of supply, access, and demand. Thinking about arts as a production-consumption system, rather than being demeaning toward art, gives policy makers and practitioners something to work with. We need some accounting about how much is spent on arts and media consumption. Can this consumption being channeled toward local arts producers? In the background of these articles is basic economic insecurity–both people’s personal finances and the shrinking school budgets. This is what’s driving the situation. How can the economics of the arts system be re-structured to create more economic security at a community level. This one large question that comes from my research interest.

In terms of what art education seeks to do, I think there is a powerful argument that arts education can be the means for individuals to find their place in the world. Our society lauds the entrepreneur and valorizes the idea of following your dreams. This makes me think that an argument based in the arts role in helping young people discover their career direction could have traction. This means arts programming that uses intensive personal reflection–perhaps in partnership with other class such as English and social studies–to help students identify what’s compelling (or not) for them about a particular arts experience and tying this back to career exploration. In the description of the general benefits of the arts in the RAND report, I kept thinking that the creative process that transfer to other activities, such as starting a business or leading a community initiative. I think more attention to the specific creative processes taught within art education and parallels with creative activities in other fields is warranted.

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