Artists and arts advocates go on the offensive


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These days, an increasing number of artists and arts advocates are demanding that more of their fellow Americans, and especially their elected leaders, start valuing them -- in ways that recognize their labor and help make it pay. As President Obama and lawmakers aim to open Uncle Sam’s pockets to stimulate the economy, artists and the nonprofit organizations that give them much of their employment are hoping that a goodly sum will materialize to boost hiring in creative fields.

They are stating their case with ad hoc online petition campaigns for the appointment of a national arts czar and for the arts to get 1% of any stimulus package. A bill approved this week by the House of Representatives calls for injecting $544 billion in economic stimulus spending into the economy, including $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.


In addition, new grass-roots proposals are popping up suggesting that more artists be hired to teach in schools.

“If you’re going to bail out people who move numbers around in banks and put rivets in things, you should also be supporting artists in their work,” says Kiff Gallagher, a San Francisco-based independent singer-songwriter. The former Clinton White House staff member has launched the Music National Service Initiative, a fledgling nonprofit that aims to recruit, train and pay a subsistence wage and benefits to young musicians who would spend a year or two teaching their art in schools and community centers in poor neighborhoods.

“The arts get the shaft because they’re looked at as soft and fuzzy, not things we’re able to measure and count,” Gallagher says. “But the new president shows that a higher social, empathic intelligence is required to solve hard-core issues. Maybe it turns out the world is fuzzy and its problems are fuzzy. So it’s important we put music and arts back in the schools.”

“We have this huge sum of money and this brief window of opportunity” to secure some of it for the arts, says Michael D. Nolan, a San Francisco producer and former arts administrator who heads the newborn National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools and Communities, another initiative that envisions giving artists a chance to earn money sharing what they know and love.

With talk in the nation’s capital about the need to spend on “shovel-ready” projects that should pay off in immediate job creation, Nolan says, “compared to a lot of public works projects that need some ramp-up time, artists have their brushes and paints and can teach in the schools tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, advocates such as Americans for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies are pushing the president to create a high-ranking White House position with the responsibility of ensuring that arts policy is carried out coherently by the assorted federal departments that affect the arts, including Education, Labor, Commerce and, in cultural exchange programs, State. Another priority, says Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, is getting artists included under a proposed economic recovery provision that would provide health and unemployment benefits for part-time, low-wage workers.


If an infusion of federal arts money reaches Los Angeles, Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, says she’d love to use a chunk to fund a new matching-grant program that would help boost small arts organizations’ fundraising know-how while enabling them to commission new works.

And, if more money materialized for artists in schools, Zucker says, it would enter a well-established pipeline in L.A. that ensures local artists get at least 30 hours of training on how to work effectively in classrooms.

“The finest programs train artists to be very collaborative with classroom teachers, so they don’t show up and say, ‘I’m the grand pooh-bah of arts, and I’m going to tell you what you need to know,’” says Janet Eilber, artistic director of New York’s Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, who oversees a Dana Foundation program that helps place artists in schools in Los Angeles, New York City and Washington.

Not surprisingly, some arts educators worry that, aside from the training issues, mustering a corps of artists into the schools could boomerang. Rather than a useful adjunct to regular arts instruction, they fear, it could become a cheap substitute.

School officials “don’t rub their hands together and say, ‘I’m going to get rid of music education today.’ But if they’re making difficult decisions and somebody says, ‘Here’s a cheap and easy way out,’ of course they’re going to look at that,” says Mike Blakeslee, senior deputy executive director of the National Assn. of Music Education, a professional group for music teachers.

In any event, the stakes are high for getting arts education right. Even if the economy recovers, experts say, the arts will still face the long-term threat of a dwindling audience. These observers point to a decades-long retreat in arts education -- a widely assumed though not thoroughly documented trend in which schools increasingly have emphasized basics and treated the arts as an expendable extra.

Recent studies, including a Rand Corp. report last year, have warned that arts organizations are in danger of losing audiences because post-baby boomers haven’t been consistently exposed to the arts.

The last nationwide glimpse of students’ arts knowledge, in 1997, wasn’t rosy. That year, the federal Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” was devoted to how eighth-graders had done in standardized tests in music and visual arts.

Among the findings: Fewer than half of the students had taken an art class, while two-thirds had taken music. Asked to write a brief analysis of a collage by Romare Bearden, virtually none of the students had a “complete” sense of what the artist was trying to communicate and only 22% were deemed to have gotten at least the gist of it.

With the Senate taking up the stimulus legislation, the results will suggest how much artists are deemed to matter to the nation’s economic well-being. A sequel to the sobering 1997 assessment of kids’ arts knowledge is due this spring: another Nation’s Report Card on the arts, this one based on tests taken by eighth-graders early in 2008.

“The timing is critically important,” says Deborah Reeve, executive director of the National Art Education Assn., a professional group for visual art teachers. “And the report will be very telling.”

-- Mike Boehm