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School art programs on the chopping block


Bleeding Heart Alert: This post contains material of an activist nature.

Nakeem Burton and Jose Vizcarrondo, Edison High School, from the Philadelphia School District All City art exhibit up now until June 9 at the School Administration Building.
Nakeem Burton and Jose Vizcarrondo, Edison High School, from the Philadelphia School District All City art exhibit up now until June 9 at the School Administration Building.

Yesterday’s Inquirer had a story in the B section about the Philly School District cutting back on art in the schools. Specifically, the cuts are in the contract programs between the District and the Mural Arts Program and one other unnamed contractor (perhaps the Philadelphia Museum of Art) that bring artists in to the schools to work with students to create murals and do art projects.

In a district where many schools do not have art teachers and where the aging physical plant is in need of bright cheerful motifs to perk up drab institutional walls it’s no surprise to hear that there is a waiting list for these programs. I guess the schools will just have to keep on waiting. Mural Arts Program Director Jane Golden says in the article that she will seek foundation and other funding to continue the program. That’s great and let’s hope some foundations and donors step up.

Not mentioned in the article is another group of people affected by the cuts — the artists who work on these projects and who get great energy out of working with the students — and a little bit of compensation for their sweat and steerage of a project. Mural Arts is the closest thing we have to a WPA program. It employs many artists and the programs in the schools are great. The PMA’s Artist in Residence program in the schools is also great for fostering learning and producing wonderful projects with students. The loss of both these programs is a big loss.

Khalil Johnson
Khalil Johnson, grade 6, Reynolds School. from the school district show.

The Inquirer article features a school in the barrio, McKinley, in North Philadelphia, whose Mural Arts Program project I posted on in 2003 when artist Jennie Shanker helped create two outdoor classrooms with interactive sculptural elements that were also teaching aids. I also wrote a piece for the Weekly which I’ll put in a separate post (it never ran on the blog and I want to get it in our archives).

City-wide Student Art Show

Jaisha Rodriguez
Jaisha Rodriguez, grade 7, Morrison School

Friday, the day before the Inquirer story ran, I went to the School District’s all-city student art show at the School Administration Building. I’m interested. I go to things in schools. People know it and so I hear about things. The high-energy energy works and the projects in the huge show (I’m talking more than 1,500 works from 190 schools!) are lovely and walking amongst the works is a joy. Children can make really great stuff with constuction paper, or with simple pencil on paper — if they’re directed, mentored and helped to do so.

Zameer Waliyud-Din
Zameer Waliyud-Din, 9th grade, Constitution High School. Allen Iverson looks so sad as a Denver Nugget!

Children’s art is of course loveable to most, if not all. The works are earnest and guileless. And because of those two qualities, children’s art is transparent and direct like the work of outsider artists. For many of these students it must be empowering to be exposed to a hands-on art experience in school which results in something they made that goes up on the wall for all to see. You can’t quantify the success of these programs but you can feel it, channeling the energy and pride.

Student art show
The School District all-city art show is in the Administration Building, now on N. Broad St. just north of the Inquirer Building. The show’s installed on three floors in the atrium and in one first floor corridor.

We at Artblog have historically covered the city’s murals, many of them made with student helpers, and we’ve covered art in the schools. Here’s just two examples:

–The Mosaic mural at mural on the Girard Avenue Library, designed and executed by Jennie Shanker, Paul Santoleri and a host of students;

–The Cooke Museum of Art, a program at Cooke Middle School organized by Diane Pieri and sponsored by the PMA’s Artist in Residence program (I fear that’s the other program in danger in these cuts). I just got a notice from Diane that the third annual Cooke Museum is opening Wednesday, June 6, 10:30-1 pm. This year the student projects sound pretty great–photo essays that are either portrait or landscape, flip book story books, and mandalas.Address and map link here.

I’m hoping that Jane Golden and others will find a way to continue these school art projects. We know that the art is not a “valued” commodity and thus it’s not tested in the No Child Left Behind tests that rank and score schools and grade them as passing or failing. But much has been written about visual thinking and art as a tool to communicate ideas and concepts. And so what a shame that this tool will be missing from the toolbox next year.

Dennis Creedon of the School District said something in an email to me that resonates: “When you celebrate children’s art, you celebrate the best that is in all of us. In so many ways, they are tomorrow’s hope.”

Let’s not kill the hope by squashing the art.