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The return of arts education to public schools — thanks to Dallas?


by Jerome Weeks 26 Mar 2008

Another conference, another cry to bring back arts education. And another project that may be inspired by Dallas’ Big Thought and DISD program — DALI or the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative: Nearly every arts organization can trace malaise and marginalization to a lack of arts education in schools. Several generations now have made it to adulthood […]

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Another conference, another cry to bring back arts education. And another project that may be inspired by Dallas’ Big Thought and DISD program — DALI or the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative:

Nearly every arts organization can trace malaise and marginalization to a lack of arts education in schools. Several generations now have made it to adulthood never having been challenged to figure out what’s going on in Picasso’s Guernica, where the “Enigma” is in Elgar, whether the life path of George Gibbs and Emily Webb in Our Town is rote or meaningful – and why all these things should be urgent and important to anyone moving through the world today.

What this dearth of arts education has meant … to the 120 arts leaders who gathered this month at the National Constitution Center: a dangerous deficit of engagement, which has led to dwindling audiences, a smaller pool of talented board members from which to recruit, a shrunken donor base, and a creeping feeling of institutional irrelevance. …

Someone finally is taking on the job of returning arts education to Philadelphia children. The William Penn Foundation convened these leaders to begin what promises to be one of the most important initiatives in the city’s history. It will be an expensive and possibly politically fraught process. But there seems to be an acknowledgment that the little fixes (better marketing, cheaper seats, more populist repertoire) are no longer working. The time has come to think long term, difficult as it may be.

No one knows what form the solution will take, but the process is going forward confidently with a series of workshops and discussions. William Penn hopes to have a blueprint for a program within six to nine months. Presumably, though it hasn’t said so, the foundation will also put its money behind the idea. Whether it comes in the size of one of its usual grants, or on the extraordinary scale of its 1996 gift to Fairmount Park ($26.4 million), remains to be seen.

How much would it cost to put a high-quality, sustained arts experience into the life of every school-age child in Philadelphia? Too much, of course. With schools already scraping to provide even the basics, how can anyone hope to add the expense of art teachers and visiting orchestras? What people tend to forget, however, is that almost every Philadelphia arts institution already serves school-age children, and that those programs can and should be integrated into whatever new program Philadelphia creates.

That was one of the key messages from Gigi Antoni, executive director of Big Thought, a Dallas learning collaborative, when she kicked off this recent arts confab. Big Thought is a big operation, bringing arts to 400,000 children and adults in Dallas annually. It is widely regarded as a model for how an outside group can work with a public school system in establishing an arts curriculum – sustained, weekly instruction in art and music for every child.

What relevance does a Sun Belt-city school system filled with children of oil tycoons have to Philadelphia? Actually, in Dallas, children of oil tycoons go to private schools, just as in another city we know. The rest of the student population is largely poor and overwhelmingly African American and Hispanic.

And, as Antoni pointed out, Philadelphia has an asset Dallas lacks: a large number of downtown and near-downtown colleges and universities. Since one of Big Thought’s ideas is to enhance, not replace, people and programs already in place, this can only be a huge advantage.

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  • A Poem:

    If you’re dumb
    as dumb can be,
    Must be from
    D.I.S.D.