Arts Learning – Week 3 synthesis of readings

I leave this week’s four readings and the two powerpoints feeling frustrated by the way the conundrum that those of us who believe in the value of arts learning find ourselves in. Most on point was the point made in Lori’s piece about how linking arts learning to social problems has put the arts in a no-win situation in terms of arguing against reductions in funding. In terms of policy arguments, the entire sector seems as if it’s hit a dead end. The RAND reports all came out before the financial crisis, and so I can only imagine the cuts that were faced by the SAAs in the past few years. The picture painted by the RAND reports was already grim with several SAAs on the brink of elimination in the early 2000s. Do we still have SAAs in all fifty states?

I found the description of how the SAAs undercut their own lobbying potential by seeking to distribute funds more equitably. To me, this indicated how the political and the policy arguments are an integral part of the entire system. I think confronting this problem squarely with something like the Wallace Foundation initiative is healthy, and I’m curious what the results were of the initiative.

I still don’t know where I stand in terms of justifying arts education in a policy discussion. The folks who want to argue arts for art’s sake disagree with those who want to argue for the economic benefit of arts learning and then there are those who argue for its cognitive benefits and its role in supporting students’ acquisition of the rest of the curriculum. This all exists within a frame where the arts and humanities have no standing. What would society be like if the best poets were paid like CEOs? If that was the value set, what would arts learning look like? It seems to me there is a more fundamental argument that needs to be won about essential, core nature of art in society generally. Without at least this argument out there, engaging in a discussion about the value of arts learning feels like a losing battle. The readings to me suggest that the larger argument has already been lost and so it’s all about survival and keeping arts learning from disappearing altogether rather than growing the budget of the NEA, SAAs and LAAs.

I’m also frustrated by the focus in what we’ve read about context-free discussion of arts learning that separates out individual students from their communities. I’ll accept that the key to turning the tide is cultivating demand and that arts education for youth strongly correlates with adult participation. But if arts administrators want people to advocate for more funding for state and local arts organization, I think the story has to be that XYZ arts program really made a difference in our neighborhood/community/city and that program required public money to do what it did. People in communities have to make the connection that their money made something positive happen, they have to feel they made something magical happen for young people. To me, this means arts learning programs have to have a vital connection to the social and economic issues within particular neighborhoods and communities. If the arts program, becomes a source of community identity and means for community expression and dialogue, then the arts sector will have a strong coalition to lobby for arts funding. I guess, for me, this means really understanding the community’s history and psychology and basing your arts program off of that.

This means arts programs that can last for 20, 30, or 40 years and really change the trajectories of communities. One off special workshops, residencies, etc. are great but the transformation is then limited to the individual participants and to some extent their friends and family as opposed to something that becomes a community institution. Arts learning has to have a vital connection to the soul of a community and arts administrators have to make the connection for people between that ballet class and the state’s budgeting decisions. I suppose one thing this week’s readings tell me is that arts administrators have to be able to understand how to advocate effectively to lawmakers themselves and how to organize the advocacy and lobbying of others.

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