Monday, May 16, 2011

On Cultivating the Art Habit

From what people on the other side of the fence tell me, attendance is more unpredictable than ever before at museums and galleries. Though many factors are likely responsible for this, I want to encourage institutions to keep considering the potential impacts of:

(a) my dead-horse-I-like-to-keep-flogging, high admission fees;

(b) the demise of arts education for children in both the public-school realm and the civic-service realm (this demise is exacerbated, I would argue, by those high admission fees, and by the lack of interest institutions seem to take in any government policies other than institutional-funding ones).

Along the latter lines, I came across some interesting insights on developing the "art habit" this weekend. These insights came purely by happenstance; my husband teaches music to young children, and he had borrowed some books on the topic from the library. (Thanks library!) One of these, At the Beginning: Teaching Piano to the Very Young Child by Rhoda Rabin, had this to say in the chapter "Art and the Art Habit":

What is the "art habit"? It is the love for and practice of art, the incorporating of formal expressions of beauty into the life of an individual, in our case, the young child. Our objective with early piano lessons is to develop the art habit in children, and to make the piano as natural a part of life as the telephone or the bicycle.

The cornerstone of teaching music to the young child is the absolute belief that young children can be accomplished artists: accomplished not in terms of the size or complexity of their repertoire, but in terms of their ability to produce beautiful sounds and respond to beauty, in learned as well as instinctive ways. Is it naive or overly romantic, this idea of the child as artist? Experience shows that it is not. Whether or not a child is precocious in other areas of his or her life, he or she can make music and experience the extraordinary dimension this power lends to a young life.

Young students are as deserving of the finest artistic instruction as conservatory students are. From the first moment the child touches the keys, we are teaching art—not "art readiness."

In quoting Rabin, I don't mean to imply that arts education is the be all and end all.

But I do think that arts institutions like museums and public galleries would be wise to pay serious (and not just nominal) attention to it, especially given that the National Endowment of the Arts has stated that "Arts education in childhood is the most significant predictor of both arts attendance and personal arts creation throughout the rest of a person's life."

Wondering how Ontario is doing on this front? Better than in the Harris era, but still not great, according to People for Education's 2010 Annual Report:

Less than half of Ontario's elementary schools have specialist music teachers on staff. A further 28% have itinerant music teachers who may be in the school a few times a week for programs such as band or strings, or acting as the music teacher. Only a very small proportion of music teachers are full-time, and generally in very large schools.

There are even fewer schools with specialists in the other arts. In schools with grades 7 and 8, only 18% report having a visual arts teacher, and 8% have a drama teacher.

Students' access to rich arts programs often depends on the abilityof their parents to fundraise, or, in secondary school, the flexibility of students' schedules and their capacity to pay fees.

Most schools rely heavily on parent fundraising to support the arts. This year, over 40% of elementary and secondary schools reported raising funds for the arts. Last year, 23% of secondary schools charged fees for music classes and 54% charged fees for art classes. Students who attend schools in more affluent areas, where fundraising amounts tend to be higher, are thus more likely to have access to arts enrichment.

I really think that if museums and galleries are worried about attendance in the long term, they need to focus on arts education for youth and adults, and reconsider their admission fees and programs in light of developing the "art habit" as well.

(Image from The Great Musician blog)


Heather Saunders said...

I agree with you about museums' prohibitive admission fees. Your post made me think of Matthew Syed's chapter on the nature/nurture debate surrounding child prodigies in Bounce (HarperCollins, 2010), especially his discussion of the Polgar family. Laszlo Polgar set out to raise three stellar chess players through early exposure and a healthy dose of encouragement, with great success. He chose chess over visual art since it's more objective, but it makes me wonder what would have happened had he chosen art as the area of focus. It certainly makes a case for improving arts education for youth...not to create prodigies, but to enrich their lives.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks for your comment. Interesting... I hadn't heard of that book. Will have to check it out.

I guess one aspect of my feeling on this is that the older I get, the more remarkable I find young chilren's ability to learn (or at least do that soaking-up kind of learning) compared to adults.

At the same time, I was really only introduced to visual art as an adult--or at least young adult, age 20.

So I basically think access to arts education is important for all ages, though it may have its most persistent impacts if introduced regularly at a young age.

Anonymous said...

Hi Leah,

Thanks for this have passed it along and of course as an arts educator how can I not 100% behind public arts education! pretty shocking to hear those statistics about canadian schools, having been teaching in priveleged international school i've been out of the real workd loop...what is happening Canada?! And why aren't parents/voters outraged and changing this?!


Leah Sandals said...

Hi Cabi,
Thanks for your comment. I do feel when I read stuff like this that I'd like to take some arts ed courses, just to get more exposed to the articulation of these philosophies and priorities.

As for Canadian voters... I can't presume to say. I think a lot of people are feeling stretched and fearful economically, a situation in which the arts seem to shrink as a priority--even if they themselves can be a source of jobs.

I can empathize with this position and at the same time I wonder what our arts institutions have done to contribute to this sense of marginality as well.

In any case, I'm very impressed with you and all the other arts educators working away out there! Keep it up!