Advocate: It is essential that students experience Shakespeare.
School Leader: I never really liked Shakespeare.
Anne Midgette is always a good read. First, she’s a cracker jack writer. Second, she isn’t shy about her opinions. Third, you should hear her talk about food!!
When she was writing for The New York Times, she had more than a few very pissed off performers complaining about her tough customer reviews.It was an extremely entertaining time for arts journalism in New York City.
Anne posted a particularly interesting piece earlier this week in The Washington Post: Back to School: On Orchestras and Outreach.
The conventional wisdom these days is that music education in the
schools has declined, and therefore we’ve lost audiences, and therefore
we have to put lots of energy into school music programs so that we can
build up our audiences again. A lot of the emphasis is on teaching
instruments. Some 74% of the orchestra audience, according to a Knight Foundation study
based on six selected orchestras, has experience playing a musical
instrument; therefore, let’s get instruments in the hands of schoolkids
who will grow up to be the audience of the future.
As far as conventional wisdom goes, it’s not exactly right. There are plenty of kids, in high performing schools, in wealthy districts, in private schools, in enlightened districts, who are receiving music (and arts) instruction. Precisely how much of it is sequential, how much is quality, and how many are given opportunities for advanced programs in high school is hard to say. It varies dramatically.
But, if you’re a kid in an urban district, particularly in a low performing school, well, you have more than a fair chance of getting a very raw deal indeed.
Now, I’ve written on this topic before, and I am quite sure it won’t be the last time.
Okay, I understand well the impetus to create education programs for reasons of audience development. Let’s say you’re at x orchestra, or x theater company, or x opera company. All concerned are looking at the audience data and hear about the declines in arts education, and well, voila, you have an instant demand for arts education programs.
What is it that they say? Let’s try this: “Where will the audiences of the future come from?”
And, let’s just say this: I’ve heard that phrase from people who should know better, including some people on my board of directors.
So, you’re probably wondering why I take issue with creating education programs to help support the future of x orchestra, etc. Some might find such a position perverse.
And of course, there’s not only the butts in the seats propellant, but the matter of the heart. When you realize that the kids who get the arts the least in the home, also get it the least in the schools, well, it’s something deeply troubling. And you want to do something about it.
So, what is the answer? Do you invest in such programming because you hope that it will help build your audience one day, some how, some way, even if when you really, really think about the issue, you realize that a connecting of those two dots is unlikely to happen? To be clear, the two dots are providing a music/arts education program that leads to ticket sales sometime in the reasonable future. It’s the arts + education = butts in the seats equation.
For me, kids need the arts. They need the arts in order to be healthy. The arts are built into our DNA and power the imagination, self expression, and all sorts of other capacities from cognition to emotion. The kids have it in them and it’s our job to provide pathways to explore what is theirs by right, and if their parents cannot afford it, then the public schools must supply it, for the kids will never be whole without it. Student achievement is more than just test scores in ELA and math.
Will providing the arts lead to butts in the seats? At best, its a head-scratcher, but I really don’t think we have any real data to prove the equation, whatever might be done to correlate audience data with the provision of arts education.
Moreover, viewing children as a commodity through the lens of education is really not really very cool.
To the contrary, the question that really needs to be addressed, on the most fundamental level, is how can we help ensure that all children have a quality arts education, whether or not it leads to butts in the seats, because it is what is right for our children and ultimately our society.
Is the arts field willing to educate through the arts, whether or not it has any measurable impact on audience development?
It is the answer to that question that will reveal quite a lot about the role the arts field can really play in education.