Arts In America: Webisode Two

Here is the third in a series of five posts I’m creating for

On Thursday May 21st, 2009, the University of California Press in association with CORE: and Ovation TV hosted a panel discussion to consider the issues documented in Bill Ivey’s book, Arts Inc. Gaynor Stachan-Chun, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Ovation TV, moderated the discussion with Mr. Ivey, Agnes Gund and Robert Lynch. is posting video clips from the event, and discussing the issues raised. Read my intro blog post for the Arts In America series here.

In this clip Gaynor, Bill, and Agnes discuss arts education. Despite overwhelming research showing the positive impacts of arts education on student retention and achievement, arts education is very loosely mandated on the federal level. Each state oversees its own programming. The Arts Education State policy database details the paltry commitment we have – as a nation – to public arts education. Because there is no national mandate for arts education, efforts by governors, mayors, city council-members, and private individuals like Agnes Gund have tremendous impact.

In 1977 Agnes Gund founded New York City’s Studio in a School Association, in response to budget cuts that virtually eliminated arts classes from New York City public schools. For some, that would be a life’s work. Gund’s extended bio is a highlight reel of the development of modern arts programming. In interviewing Mrs. Gund, and thinking about arts education, I kept thinking about why we so desperately need her.

Here’s our interview:

Rob: In this clip you discuss the validity of arts education programming even for non-artists. Arts education programming has been linked to falling dropout rates and rising test scores, amongst other benefits. With No Child Left Behind there’s a major emphasis on standards of technical competency. How do you think we should measure success in the delivery of arts education?

Agnes: Measuring success in the delivery of arts education is, admittedly, a difficult task. It is much easier to use tests and compare scores in arithmetic, reading or writing; 2 + 2 will always equal 4, and grammatical rules dont change. It is harder to set a measure for art or music or dance, which are far more interpretive and subjective and personal.

One way to provide a measure is to evaluate schools that have arts programs against those that dont. There have been studies that show that schools with arts programs do, in fact, produce higher test scores and lower drop out rates and generate more parent involvement. These results are heartening, and while its impossible to know whether they are due to the arts programs alone, it surely is true that schools with music resounding from their rooms and innovative art on their walls create an atmosphere that stimulates curiosity and creativity. If you talk to the principals and teachers in schools like this, as I have, you learn how arts programs help their children thrive in other areas of study as well.

There are other ways of learning about the value of the arts – like watching Issac Sterns wonderful film, “From Mao to Mozart,” or speaking with working artists who have experienced the arts as students and as teachers. Chuck Close, Dorothea Rockburne, Richard Serra and the late Elizabeth Murray, to name only a very few, all benefited from both studying arts and from teaching it to others. Teachers and principals, artists, schoolchildren, all testify to the ways arts education broadens horizons, increases potential and self-worth . Taking an art class in school doesnt mean that a student will become an artist later in life. It does give that student a broader perspective, a keener sensitivity to the worlds realities, a way to express fears and hopes and dreams.

Rob: Over the course of your career you have worked tirelessly to support not only fine arts, but education, and arts education. Do you think public schools should be required to provide arts education for all students? If so, what kind of arts education programming should be required?

Agnes: I believe very strongly that every elementary school, junior high school and high school student should have a good, solid music and visual arts curriculum. From pre-kindergarden on, each child should experience these subjects. If we track children that are involved in solid, well-constructed and well-taught programs from the start of their school years, we will see that they gain skills and applications that transfer to other areas in their lives. When complaints arise that the arts are frivolous, they stem from the fact that art classes arent always taught as broad, deep and important subjects.

The excellent blueprints developed for music and art by the New York City Department of Education demonstrate how seriously and academically enhancing these subjects can and should be. Serious study of the arts allows children to master important principles and vocabulary, to experience creativity, to understand perspective, line, mass, color, dimensionality, sound, range – all the different mediums and methodologies of the arts. These understandings help children express themselves and gain depth in many subject areas.

The arts also teach children how to collaborate. Even when projects are not direct collaborations, children look at their neighbors painting or sculpture, listen to the instrument or voice of another, and they gain ideas and insights. They learn to share projects, to create work together. Art production often involves such teamwork and collaboration, habits of mind and activity which are incredibly useful throughout school and into adult life. Art is intellectually stimulating as well. Children should be taught about works of art within a context of words, images and histories, so that they can better see and comprehend the world through them.

The serious study of the arts, in short, can increase imagination and creativity, inspire communication with others, and increase foundational knowledge. But it has to be a serious study of the arts – sturdy, intelligent and continual.

To see the rest of the interview, click here.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.