Studying Uncertain Future of the Arts : Local Leaders, Fearing a Diminishing Pool, Explore Responses to Cuts in Public Education Programs


The continuing decline of public school arts education is the most pressing concern facing the Orange County cultural community as it approaches the next millennium, arts leaders said at a daylong conference here Friday.

Without schools to nurture an appreciation for the visual arts, music, theater and dance, the future may hold half-filled galleries and concert halls.

“Generations of students are growing up without significant arts education,” said David Emmes, producing artistic director of South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa. “These people don’t have a predisposition to the arts.”


Emmes was among the state and local arts and civic officials on the keynote panel that kicked off the event. Based at SCR and organized by the Arts Orange County service agency, “Creating the Community of Tomorrow: Orange County, the Arts & the Millennium” attracted about 130 people. Many spent the time discussing possible solutions to the drastic nationwide reduction in arts education over the past 20 years.

“Our job as leaders in this community is to communicate to people out there--not in this room--why art is important to them,” said Mark Chapin Johnson, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

While many arts organizations offer educational outreach programs, they cannot reach every student or fill the void left by a vanquished arts curricula. Such programs, viewed as luxuries, were largely felled by state and local funding cuts in the late ‘70s, although panelist Jill Beck, dean of UC Irvine’s school of the arts, suggested another motive behind the slayings.

Support has been cut because the arts encourage independent thinking and the development of the imagination and “liberate the internal censor,” Beck said. “There is a fear of the arts that we should address.”

Whatever the cause, two decades ago all public school students in the county took visual and performing arts classes from trained art teachers, said conference speaker Phyllis Berenbeim, the Orange County Department of Education’s visual and performing arts coordinator.

Today, although the state has earmarked $3.5 billion for education in the past two years, many high school students will graduate without having taken a single art class in secondary school. And art is no longer required in elementary school, Berenbeim said.


Not everyone believes better education is the best answer.

“Without supporting individual artists, you have no art to teach people about,” said Naida Osline, director of the Huntington Beach Arts Center, which regularly stages solo exhibits on a budget of $400,000 a year.

Indeed, while SCR’s Emmes spoke for education, he said smaller, alternative institutions operating in the shadow of such enterprises as the $73-million Orange County Performing Arts Center need more funding if the county’s arts scene is to mature.

Conference-goers agreed that government arts funding is likely to shrink in the decades ahead. Many somberly noted the recent preliminary House vote, led by a Republican majority, to give the National Endowment for the Arts, which received $99.5 million for 1997, $10 million next year. That amount will effectively kill the NEA, its officials have said.

“If you expect government to come out for a [financial] solution, you’re going to be badly disappointed,” said conference speaker Marian Bergeson, state secretary of Child Development and Education.

Thus, educators and arts leaders must continue to find private support for education (parents’ groups fund some local schools’ efforts) even as they lobby for public backing, the speakers said. In July, state legislators will take a final vote on a bill requiring a year of arts education for all high school students, Berenbeim said.

On a upbeat note, the U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that the 21st century’s annual job-growth rate for artists and graphics designers will be 26%, twice that projected for the overall marketplace, said speaker Peter deCourcy Hero, director of the philanthropic Community Foundation of Santa Clara County.


Many of these jobs will be in the exploding computer graphics arena, which supplies special effects for movies and computer games.

UC Irvine is working with Digital Domain, a Los Angeles digital-effects firm, to open a $10-million campus satellite in Santa Ana that could churn out candidates for such jobs, said Santa Ana City Councilman Thomas E. Lutz. But that’s at least five years away. Meanwhile, executives at high-tech firms have said they must recruit employees overseas until American schools can provide basic art skills.

At least advocates can point to a pressing economic reason to support the arts, conferees said. But Sergio Lizarraga, who teaches computer graphics at Cal State Fullerton, doesn’t want to see art become merely a job qualification.

“I’m worried we’re responding only to economic needs instead of thinking about the humane benefits of the arts,” Lizarraga said. “We become artists to express ourselves and communicate.”