Aspen Ideas: Art for much more than art’s sake

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times

The approach to arts education is changing in the U.S. In several panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival, national educators and artists have discussed ways that the model is breaking away from the old approach of only putting kids in smocks for art class, or into performing-arts electives. Instead, they’re finding that integrating the arts into all aspects of a curriculum has substantial benefits, and that teaching self-expression is a useful tool to help keep at-risk youth out of trouble.

Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner outlined the trajectory of American arts education at a panel Saturday morning, with actress Alfre Woodard, dancer Charles Riley and Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damien Woetzel. In the 19th century, Gardner explained, drawing, music, literature and drama were taught to help the U.S. form a national identity and as a part of civics lessons, not as a frivolous activity.

“In the 20th century, we threw away some of these instrumental reasons for having arts in education,” he said.

Over the past century, he surmised, the arts mostly have been taught as superfluous to basic education. That has led to arts being first on the chopping block when districts need to cut budgets.

“If you ask Americans, ‘Should we teach arts?’ All say ‘yes.’ But when it comes to budgets, I think we all know what gets cut first,” Gardner said.

Woetzel is among a group of artists appointed to President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and in that capacity Woetzel has helped develop the national Turnaround Arts initiative.

The program’s curriculum, written by the committee with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House, uses the arts to improve student engagement at failing schools nationwide. Woetzel will bring dancers into a science class, for instance, to illustrate anatomy lessons on how joints work, he said.

He characterized such efforts as a return to the old model of arts education that Gardner advocated. Student performance has begun improving in the eight schools that Turnaround Arts is working with so far, Woetzel said.

“The way the arts fit into education, I really took the idea that they are part of the big thing,” he said.

In Chicago, the arts community also has rallied to become a resource for at-risk youth. Organizations like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Storycatchers Theatre, and the youth poetry group Louder than a Bomb are empowering young people with art and working with the juvenile justice system to use the arts as a means to rehabilitation.

“Chicago is leading the way,” Woetzel said Tuesday morning at a Storycatchers panel. “They’re creating a whole landscape of how the arts can make a difference in this area.”

The event included Storycatchers artistic director Meade Palidofsky and Angelica Garcia, whose legal troubles began at age 15 and resulted in her incarceration in a juvenile prison from age 17 to 21. Garcia got involved with Storycatchers when she was locked up for a parole violation.

Through Storycatchers, detained or incarcerated young people write stories about traumas they’ve survived and pivotal events in their lives in a collaborative environment, eventually turning the stories into musical theater that is produced and performed by the kids themselves.

Garcia, who now works as a Storycatchers spokesperson and manages her family’s restaurant, performed a piece from a Storycatchers production based on her experience as a victim of sexual assault and the ways she acted out afterward.

Palidofsky said most incarcerated young people suffer trauma before they begin getting into trouble with the law, and Storycatchers aims to help them reconcile that past to make a better future for themselves.

“As art it becomes universal, it becomes everyone’s story and it becomes something beautiful,” Palidofsky said.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also touched on using the arts as part of a strategy to stem the tide of gun violence and murder in inner cities. In an impassioned hour-long presentation on Saturday — which Institute CEO Walter Isaacson called “the most important speech at Aspen Ideas Festival this year” — Landrieu outlined ways his city is addressing the epidemic of shooting deaths among young people in its neighborhoods.

The city’s NOLA For Life program includes neighborhood recreation centers that use the arts and other activities to attract youngsters and then build anti-violence training into the fun stuff.

“Every one of our recreation portals, when kids come and play soccer, baseball, basketball, or our arts-education programs, we then grab them and use those portals to teach them, not about the subject at hand, but to teach them partnership and conflict resolution,” Landrieu explained. “You don’t have to tell them, ‘Hey, we’re bringing you in here so that you can get better so that you don’t get killed.’”