Supporting the Arts from the Ground Up

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.”

–President Barack Obama

The news is full of stories of hard economic times causing funding cuts in arts education. More than a few schools have slashed support of the arts; some have eliminated them entirely. For artists this is alarming, for most others it’s a non-issue. Why should we spend our sparse education funding on painting and music and writing? Our math scores trail many other developed countries. Many students leave school barely able to read and write at a first grade level. Artists know the answer to this question. The arts exercise the mind in ways that the mere ingesting and regurgitating of facts can never do. Unfortunately, the ones who make the decisions on where to spend the money rarely see it that way. It is our responsibility to educate them, so they will educate our children.

When people talk about supporting a school’s football team, they don’t mean for people to sit around and hope that the school will come up with the funds to keep it going. They’re talking about putting butts in the seats. They’re talking about an enthusiastic demonstration of support and good will. Why should we approach support of arts education any differently? How successful would a football program be if the only people who showed up for games were the mothers and fathers of the players? And yet, when a school music ensemble has a concert, or the theater department is presenting a play, they’re lucky to get as many people in the audience as they have on the stage.

One big problem that arts programs have is, frankly, that the teachers rarely have the time or know-how to promote their programs themselves. (I’ve said for years that Public Relations should be a required course for up-coming arts educators.) Strange as it may seem, finding  opportunities to support the arts in schools frequently falls on the supporters.

Band programs probably have it the easiest. During the fall semester, they can be seen at the aforementioned football games. Local parades are also good places to see them. Unfortunately, neither of these options really helps to support them. A better route is to find out about local band competitions. If you aren’t familiar with these, they are gatherings on Saturdays during which several marching bands gather to present their shows, either to get a rating or to be awarded first/second/third place by a panel of judges. These serve a dual purpose: a) a chance for the bands to present their program without the distraction of being in the middle of a football game, and b) the booster program for the hosting school band can use the proceeds to help the band program there. You can usually find out about these by checking the website for your state’s music education association. Look for listings of “adjudicated events” or something similar.

Of course all of your local school’s music programs (choirs, bands, and increasingly orchestras) will probably offer several sit-down concerts over the course of the school year. These can be difficult to find out about, but they’re usually free to the public. Try to check your school’s events calendar to look for these. Also, keep an eye on public announcement bulletin boards and store windows. You may find a poster, or at least a flier, announcing the performance.

Few schools have a strong enough of a theater program to present plays to the public, but it’s not entirely unheard of. More frequently they will work in conjunction with the music department to present a musical. Promotion of these are generally handled the same way as the music concerts. Typically, there will be an admission fee, but considering that this is probably the only chance they have each year to raise money, it’s understandable.

As you might expect, the non-performing arts have a tougher row to hoe. They have few opportunities to present themselves to the public. If a school has a particularly strong visual arts program, they may have a gallery than can be visited, or they may do a public exhibition in conjunction with several other schools in some public place. Writers have it even worse. If they’re really lucky, the school may produce a small magazine that features stories and poems of students. If so, you may have to actually go to the school to get a copy, typically for a small fee. Or a school may present a poetry reading or something similar. To be honest these are almost unheard of, so for the sake of the writers if your school does offer anything like this, jump all over it. It might be just a trial run, and the more support it gets the more likely it will happen again.

One last thing about arts in schools: school board members like to think of themselves as educators, but the reality is that they’re politicians. They know very well that the outcry from cutting arts programs is going to be much smaller than the outcry from cutting, say, athletic programs. Part of your responsibility as a supporter of the arts is to be a lobbyist. Get to know your board members by sight and by name. Talk to them, especially if you see one at an arts event. Don’t preach at them. Don’t tell them they have to spend money on arts programs. Be neighborly. If you were part of an arts program in school, reminisce about it to them. Tell them how much it meant to you, and still means to you. If you weren’t, tell them how much you wish you had. Tell them how thankful you are that the kids have opportunities that you didn’t have in your day. Arts programs are getting cut primarily because the perception is that they aren’t important. Show them how wrong that perception is.

I would be remiss to forget to mention arts education outside of schools. Many communities have dance studios which will frequently offer dance recitals for their students. Likewise, some private music teachers will regularly present recitals for their students. Outside visual arts instructors may offer exhibitions for their students. Don’t forgo these opportunities. They are as important as the school ones, and in fact if current trends continue things like this will be the only arts education kids may have available to them.

Then there are fundraisers. Yeah, I know, they’re annoying. They’re also a pain in the neck to students and boosters that run them. Nobody likes fundraisers. But the fact is they’re a necessary evil. Booster organizations do the lion’s share of big purchases for arts programs, from choir robes, to Sousaphones, to theatrical sets. If at all possible, buy something for crying out loud. If they come to your door selling candy bars, buy some. If they’re running a car wash, get your darn car washed. If they’ve got a table set up at a football game selling mini-megaphones with the school’s mascot on it, get a megaphone even if you don’t need it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, support the artists. If you see a band kid during the third quarter of a football game, tell them how much you enjoyed their show. (Lie, if you have to.) Do the same to a choir kid after a concert. If it’s a non-performing art, write a letter to the school art or writing teacher, telling them how much you enjoyed the show or publication. If the teacher is any good, he’ll share it with his students, and perhaps post it in the classroom/studio. These kids put a lot of work into what they do, and get very little feedback. Any word of encouragement will be appreciated. Also, talk up the programs to your friends. Try to get them in on supporting the kids as well. Even if they don’t do anything, it will at least help turn public sentiment toward being in favor of arts programs. Get excited about it. Get other people excited about it. School board members like getting elected, and if their electorate supports the arts they will, too.