Promoting visual arts courses, K-12, pays off
The auditorium of the Mount Everett Regional High School is packed with parents, siblings, and peers applauding loudly as the jazz band finishes an upbeat Latin number. Afterwards, people pour into the lobby, proud of a job well done. Almost forgotten in the hubbub is another show of talent. Artwork is everywhere—heartfelt portraiture taped to cinderblock walls, impressionistic paintings (some even Renoir would be proud of) mounted on decades-old display stands, hand-thrown pottery teetering on folding tables. Meet the budding artists of the Berkshires: a quiet, committed group of students who, unlike their peers singing to sold-out musicals and riding out championship sports games, often have to find their own way.
Take 16-year-old junior Claudia Martin, an artist. From an early age, she has been drawing, painting, spinning, and snapping pictures whenever she can. Despite living in a vast cultural mecca of more than 20 fine-arts institutions, including the Norman Rockwell Museum, MASS MoCA, The Clark, and public and private galleries, Martin and other students with an artistic bent face a lonely journey as they seek out interesting and, more important, engaging art experiences. One problem they encounter is that art venues in the Berkshires cater mostly to tourists or to a more mature crowd. Another is that students have an increasingly limited exposure to art in their schools, especially as they enter the higher grades.
“I think the visual-arts program is under-appreciated,” says Martin, who despite her impressive height seems somewhat shy. “It isn’t like band where there are practices and rehearsals.” Unlike most of her classmates, Martin has a fairly rigorous art schedule at Mount Everett, but only because of her aggressive pursuit of the subject. By the time she entered middle school, visual-arts courses and requirements all but disappeared from her class schedule, save for a smattering of hour-long “specials” at the end of the day. But those specials were only offered 45 days out of the school year and rotated between art, health, media, and a foreign language.
Martin just finished a summer program at Parsons, the design school in New York City, and has been a regular student at the Renaissance Art School in Great Barrington and a regular contributor to the annual high-school art show at the Norman Rockwell Museum. But she is the exception to the rule, according to Kari Giordano, an art teacher and the arts (music and visual arts) curriculum leader at Mount Everett. Giordano has been teaching design and photography to seventh- through 12th-graders for the past eight years. She believes that the study of art is crucial, especially as kids get older.
“It’s not an MCAS subject,” Giordano says, referring to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, “so it doesn’t get the same kind of attention or emphasis.” Nevertheless, Giordano realizes that school administrators at Mount Everett know that the art program is keeping many kids, who would otherwise not be engaged in school, interested. For instance, in a local café, the work of one of the students is displayed on the walls, and Giordano takes obvious pride in this first full exhibit outside the school.
Her concern is that many art venues are missing the point when it comes to older students making art connections. In short, teenagers don’t want to see the works of dead illustrators; there is nothing that speaks to them through American folk art; and most of them cannot relate to ancient Han dynasty artifacts. They would trade Monet for Banksy in a heartbeat.
“In order for students to get invested in a venue, they need to get invested in a concept,” Giordano says “A lot of the kids seek their art out online: Instagram, Tumblr, DeviantART, and Upworthy—that’s what’s interesting for them. They’re looking for an art community.”
The disconnect between Berkshire teens and the art world within their reach is a gap that Lisa Donovan, a professor of arts management at MCLA in North Adams, is trying to bridge. In order to keep potential artists and higher-education students in the area, Donovan, with MCLA backing, is spearheading several initiatives that involve some of the area’s arts and community stakeholders, such as MASS MoCA, the Berkshire Arts Education Network, and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Donovan’s goals include bringing arts education to the forefront of the public-school curriculum and developing an arts space for teens in downtown North Adams. Thus far, several of Donovan’s students have participated in a number of workshops, including a five-hour youth summit last November, through collaborations with MASS MoCA.
“We really need to expand, as a cultural region, our offerings to include the teen years,” Donovan says. “We are trying to create interactive pathways for effecting change countywide. [The Berkshires] is already a model for creativity, but arts education isn’t always at the table—and it needs to be. Look at the research done around high-school dropout rates and fine arts.”
To be sure, several studies, including a major survey of 200 NYC schools conducted in 2009, have revealed that students—even those labeled “at-risk”—who are invested in art are more likely to graduate from high school. Donovan has noted the impact. At one of the teen workshops held at MASS MoCA with Nepali-born artist-in-residence Ang Tsherin Sherpa, more than one parent and several teens approached Donovan. “‘We need so much more of this’ was the message,” she says. “One parent referred to the workshops as a haven for her kid.”
So, with all of this compelling evidence in support of the arts, why are teenagers in the Berkshires, especially older teens who are surrounded by places like The Clark and the Norman Rockwell Museum, not immersed in fine-arts courses all the way up to graduation day?
“The year-round population in this county faces some serious poverty issues,” says Hope Sullivan, director of IS183 Art School of the Berkshires in Stockbridge. “There are less resources for kids as they get older, and many have parents who stop being involved because they have to work and the kids can’t transport themselves to art classes. The field trips to big museums raise awareness about the richness of what the area has to offer, but this is not necessarily an engagement activity.”
While there are many in-school opportunities for the younger set, as students reach middle school, the once-rich curriculum of drawing, painting, and pottery dwindles significantly as grant funding tapers off.
“For some reason, we accept the need for practice when it comes to music or soccer, yet art offers many of the same benefits,” Sullivan says. “It’s a valuable thing for any child, but it is more of an individual pursuit.”