Arts in Education: Renaissance or The Dark Ages?

Greetings, Friends!

If you’re interested in what we’ve been doing to create new and exciting things for your school, library or camp, please skip to the end of this article.

When you’re through, perhaps you’ll return for a little guided tour of the state of arts-in-education (according to me).

Today, I asked myself, “Are we in the middle of the Dark Ages or a Renaissance for Teaching Artists?” I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but let’s take a look at some facts and possible conclusions…

The Dark Age of Arts in Education

“Science will… produce the data… but never the full meaning. For perceiving real significance, we shall need… most of all the brains of poets, (and) also those of artists, musicians, philosophers, historians, writers in general.” Lewis Thomas, Scientist

First, over the last twenty years, there has been a steady decrease in what we call “art for art’s sake”, meaning assembly programs in schools are almost always connected to the academic curriculum or to social emotional learning (SEL). It’s well-accepted – at least by the artists and school principals I know – that a program has to pass the “why should I take my kids out of the classroom” test. Like it or not, an assembly program must have a strong, obvious connection to the reason kids are in schools – learning.

Second, we have endured a few decades of high expectations that a school should focus on getting kids to score better on tests. It may be changing slightly, but our general trend has been to develop STEM programs so that our children might gain entrance to a prestigious college and eventually get a well-paying job in a growing field like medicine or technology. Therefore, when public school dollars are tight – and they usually are – music and art programs are marginalized or eliminated.

Third, the economic crisis has gotten worse due to coronavirus. Schools were closed in early March of 2020 and will not open again before August or September of this year. Even then, it’s expected that staggered attendance and enforced social distancing will eliminate opportunities for children to gather in the lunchroom or auditorium in large groups. Likely, arts assemblies will not take place under these conditions.

Our Response

“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.” George Washington

It’s always been a heroic battle to be a Teaching Artist, but from March 13th through the end of the school year in June, there was nothing to fight for anymore. All at once, everything stopped and our income – and the incomes of my peers - evaporated.  

(On a personal note: thanks to a combination of unemployment insurance, government loans and grants and Beth’s online yoga classes we’ve been able to survive. Her students have been wonderful – generously donating sums of money that recognized not only Beth’s prowess as a teacher, but their knowledge that our main means of income had been eliminated.)

Almost immediately, Teaching Artists began thinking about and taking steps towards performing online. Many began offering Facebook Live or YouTube shows daily or weekly. I was able to help some of them transition thanks to my experience with Zoom and I still offer some consulting services for teachers and performers who want to use Zoom. So, let me know if I can help you.

More on our online business, later.

Why I believe a Renaissance is Coming

“Art and Music are the drugs of choice for thousands of kids. If we expect them to just say no to a chemical high, we must recognize the healing alternative, their own creativity. Demand and support the real anti-drug program – Arts in education.” Fred Babb in “What is Art?”

As I said above, arts-in-education programs and assemblies were on a downward trajectory long before COVID-19 due to dubious (IMHO) educational initiatives like the Core Curriculum and STEM. At the same time, Beth and I have also seen a steady decrease in the number of Teaching Artists entering our field. Thus, the signs were present for a change. Coronavirus just accelerated it.

Some might call this shift the beginning of The Dark Ages of Arts-in-Education. I think this opinion is partially right. Like so many things, we are not going to back to “the way we were”, but let's not forget - this decrease in arts education has been happening for nearly twenty years. You could say - it was already in motion.

Rather than spend time grieving over what was, I think we should express gratitude for the years we enjoyed school assemblies and acknowledge that we may or may not get to do so again. Like the townspeople who have seen their homes burn to the ground, though, we need to get busy working on rebuilding our town. In other words, it's time to begin the Renaissance of the Arts.

We are creators.

We thrive when there’s a blank page, a piece of stone or stillness.

From those places, we create poems, sculptures and dance.

As we observe, we see connections and then we stir up the molecules in front of us...

...and VOILA – a piece of art comes into being!

An era ending, then, can be seen as an opportunity for artists.

From the young girl's sadness and grief might come tears that nurture something new to grow in her artist heart.

From a young boy's anger and frustration, his artist side might move steel into new shapes never seen before.

And from our collective hope and love, angelic chords may lead to a new collaboration of melody, harmony, and movement. Ahhh.

Life eventually leads to Death and then back to Life, again, in a perpetual cycle.

Where We’ve Been Doing – The Big Picture

“An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.” Charles Horton Cooley, Sociologist

In March, I started working harder than ever on our business. In 2 ½ months, I’ve revamped our website to feature these two elements:

  1. A page dedicated to Online Concerts, allowing visitors like you to make online reservations; and
  2. A page called Beth & Scott TV that features embedded live streaming concerts filmed from our home.

Technologically-speaking, we’ve turned our basement into a TV studio and we’ve been very busy filming and editing:

  1. Beth & Scott Shows and Videos. In March, we filmed 27 Videos and you can see them by going to our Videos Page;
  2. We began live streaming on a variety of platforms. In addition to standard Zoom Meeting (great for workshops), Beth has become proficient at Zoom Webinar for her classes while I’ve been building out the capacity to reach hundreds (if not thousands) of screens using upgraded cameras, lights and other broadcast-quality equipment.

Concurrently, we redoubled our efforts to make Beth’s yoga business more viable. That included:

  1. Creating seven (7) mat and chair yoga classes geared towards lessening stress during these difficult times. Individuals and libraries have signed up and she’s currently teaching more than 100 people per week; and
  2. Creating a new Facebook presence for her business, Beth Bierko Yoga & Reiki.

Ongoing projects and existing programs include:

  1. The John Lennon Real Love Songwriting Project. We were all set to transition this songwriting workshop from Gilda’s Club to schools, but the two programs we had funded were postponed. Accordingly, we’re now working on an online version;
  2. Speaking of songwriting, we had a very successful six-week. online residency of Sing About Learning with fifteen children from the Freeport, NY school system. We created three songs and proved that online learning can be very effective for students willing to show up and focus; and
  3. The Biggest Ever FREE Library Show was streamed to the patrons of 85 libraries in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. We plan on doing many more of these freebie concerts as a way of reaching out to new fans.

Lastly, I’ve been working on a new CD of my music called “Create Without Caution” with my producer, Marshall Toppo. It’s a big undertaking, but one I’m enjoying immensely. My plan is to have it finished in a few months, hopefully by the end of the summer.

Some Thoughts

“If we are to empower our youth. If we are to prepare them for a dynamic future – we must help them develop their creativity. As the essence of the human experience – it shapes the future… it is the building block that connects our human experience to life itself, a core discipline for developing human potential.” Bob Bates, Inner-City Arts

There’s no end to learning and creating. And when one project or era is complete – another one begins. As we look ahead, way may feel afraid, but we can also muster courage and hope. Singing does that for us. And Beth and I look forward to singing with you as we all move into what’s next – whatever that might be.

One thing I know that we'll be doing is providing more music and yoga to more people. We are expanding our reach to include those who could not afford our fees or were too far away for us to reach by car. That makes us both happy. Here's something we created for rural libraries, today!

I’ll leave you with this final piece of history and a wish about online learning:

The internet, as envisioned by the visionaries who created it, was not supposed to be a shopping mall. It was intended to democratize, to give us all a platform to speak, create and listen. As schools across the world come to rely on it more, as artists and children meet on it more, may it be a place where we can spur one another to greater heights of being. Instead of making it into one more test preparation machine, let us agree to make it something equal to our higher ideals of, yes…Art for Art’s Sake!

“When I examine myself and my method of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.” Albert Einstein

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