The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is close to the center of a nation's purpose and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization.
John F. Kennedy
Financial support for, and participation in, the arts in our country has decreased over recent years while schools attempt to allocate sparse resources. Whether it's a symphony orchestra struggling for survival, a beloved theater closing its doors or a lack of dollars to support arts education in our schools, the trends are not only eye-opening but alarming. We all must ask ourselves, especially teachers and leaders in arts education, what is our response and how do we stem the eroding tides?
Add to that parents facing a plethora of competing choices for enriching activities for their children, which leads to the often asked question, "Why should my child be involved in the arts?" Educators and researchers have looked to statistics and studies to try to convince the larger population of the validity of the arts and help change those trends. Whether it's the "Mozart Effect," demonstrating that listening to music can "actually make you smarter" or art therapy being used to treat brain injury, Alzheimer's or autism, numbers and tangible measurements justify the importance of arts in our lives.
The Importance of Arts in Our Lives
There certainly is expansive research that supports this relationship. As Fran Smith wrote in a 2009 Edutopia essay, Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who's Doing It Best, "Years of research show that [the arts are] closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity. Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skills. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence and teamwork." But are those the most conclusive and important reasons your child should be involved in the arts?
The Relevance of Arts
Recently, I spoke to a local high school honors music fraternity and asked, "Why are you participating in your band, orchestra or choir? What is it that your involvement with music brings to your lives?" To my utter dismay, one girl answered without hesitation, "Because my parents think it will look good on my college application." At the time I was not prepared to deal with this response. But, after having time to digest and struggle with this seemingly shallow answer, I asked myself some very real and hard questions about arts education. I spent the first 22 years of my career teaching classical voice instruction at the college level. I realize how much of that time was focused on "making beautiful sounds" and how little was spent in conversation with my students about why the subject we were so focused on was important and relevant, especially to the world around us, and how important it is for us as artists to be able to communicate and advocate for the arts we are so passionately pursuing. In my role as director of George Mason University's Potomac Arts Academy, I have grappled further with those questions and have started to find direction and answers that could be sustainable and impactful.
Enriching Connections With the Community
We have made a strong commitment to find paths for substantive and enriching connections between our talented faculty, students and the community. The Potomac Arts Academy was established to help build the needed structures for community engagement through classes, private lessons, summer programs and in-school service programs in the areas of music, theater, visual arts and computer game design. Higher education in general has done a terrific job of training and producing some of the finest visual and performing artists in the world. But we have not done a comparatively good job teaching these artists how to engage and advocate for the arts we love.
We are working to change these patterns by providing programs that not only serve the community in significant and enriching ways, but also provide an outlet for our own students majoring in an arts disciplinesto actively engage with the public. Wonderful initiatives are popping up nationally, as well. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony reach out to both school-age children and older adults, and Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan (and Los Angeles Philharmonic) conductor, has encouraged the spread of his country's "El Sistema Program" in the United States, expanding the opportunities for as many children and communities as possible to experience the power of music. These programs are not designed to serve only a selected population of "gifted" young artists, but to reach all spectrums of our society, including all ages, skill levels and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As more universities, conservatories and other arts organizations dedicate themselves to the mission of educating artists as advocates, we hope that organizations like Potomac Arts Academy can continue to help answer the original question of why the arts are important to our lives-and why we, as educators, should encourage, foster and nurture widespread participation.