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A Different Perspective on Art "After" School

by Annie Storr, guest blogger

Interacting with art at all ages is important.

There is no argument that children need the visual arts in their lives. We all work hard to make sure they experience art throughout school years. More power to the educators of MAEA, and their allies, who make sure that continues to happen!


Towns, state legislators, philanthropic charities and parents can be persuaded to pay for the arts—for children. So, it has become the norm to focus on art for students, both in school and out in the community. That doesn’t mean there are enough resources for art for young people, but there is something.


Think of the maxim, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Well, don’t we need to consider whether or not it is also the case that, for young people, “Art is the politics of the possible.” Art is essential in K-12 education. We know that, even when the ‘powers that be’ don’t seem to. It is part of growing up a whole person. It opens doors to creativity, comprehension and exploration for the years ahead. Art for kids is attainable, so it exists. By contrast, raising political and economic support for art for everyone else (before Senior Services set in) has been more of a problem. Society expects that if an adult wants art education, they will pay for it. That’s common sense. But the front-loaded nature of art education has unintended consequences. Relatively few adults pay for art education, so there isn’t very much of it. Not enough parents have lifelong art learning in their lives, so they don’t have much to share with their children in due course, besides admiration, nostalgia or skepticism. Here is the biggest problem, however, in my opinion: By leaning almost exclusively toward K-12, our society has turned Art into “Kid Stuff.” Being absorbed in art is something children do, but not (normal) adults. Who wouldn’t conclude that art is nice, but inessential, in “the real world” beyond school? Possible, art is even “immature.”


If we really mean what we say, then art in the K-12 years helps equip students for the rest of their lives. But that doesn’t mean that art education acquired as a child is enough to last on its own for decades. For one thing, as teachers know too well, there is only so much that can be done in a class period, a week, a month, a unit. It isn’t possible to teach enough in 13 years, intermittently, even if art experience could last like a vaccination. For another, children on average have limitations of skill, dexterity, access to resources and free choice that adults can often surpass (at least sometimes in life) later on. Most important of all, children don’t yet have the breadth and depth of life experience that they will acquire as adults—even allowing for wide variation among individual lives. Put another, children aren’t yet ready for much of art’s lessons. In fact, it would be irresponsible to lead children into the depths of where art can take them, before they are mature enough for adult experiences. Put still another way, many adults will need art even more, as they discover life’s challenges, than they did as children. What most students receive is just an first orientation for the future—before a long, or permanent gap.


So, what happens after high school graduation? Some adolescents go on to college. A fraction of those students will get one or a few courses, or even a major, in art, art history or a related field. For them, the window of art education is open. What about everyone else?


Who is counted among “everyone else,”?. Teens and 20-somethings who don’t go to college, or delay beginning for whatever reason. High school non-completers. Foster youth, who “time out” and are on their own at age 18, often with little or no educational or cultural support. Part-time or full-time college students whose demanding majors, financial limitations, college counselling or family attitudes about education emphasize strictly adhering to only what is ‘practical.’ High school graduates who go straight into the work-force, often precariously, which requires all their physical or mental energy to make the transition. Job seekers who get caught in the emotional and financial bell-jar of employment applications, non-responses and rejections. Young adults for whom “free time” is a myth, whose obligations include family care, probation, personal medical regimes, a second job, English language study, and so on. And, of course, all of these same people, 10 or 25 years later, by which time art and its potential have fallen off a cliff. Some college students get a reprieve and have some access to art education. The majority of high school graduates, and non-graduates, become a “lost generation” to lifelong art learning.


Museums, art centers, community organizations, community college extension programs, offer a smattering of attractive program options for adults. These are good for the participants who can take advantage of them, but they don’t nearly fulfill potential demand. Besides uneven access in terms of geography and timing, there are other problems. They are almost always fee-for-service programs, meaning both that they are not inexpensive and that when enrollment is low, hopes are dashed. Unlike staged K-12 curricula, adult leisure-time courses are typically “flat-lined,” recurrently starting over again at “Beginners” level, seldom if ever getting beyond “Intermediate.” For adults, who generally are purpose-driven in continuing education and want to progress in skill and knowledge, the lack is a silent disincentive. It becomes deadly to the motivation to continue over time. Above all, many arts organizations offering lifelong learning opportunities start from the apparent assumption that interested potential students will already have a college education, and very likely, a Liberal Arts education, rich in the humanities and arts. There is an aura of social status about being well acclimated to art and arts organizations. When you aren’t inside that circle of experience, the awareness is more alienating than if you hadn’t tried to get involved.


As educators, we could start by learning about developments in post-secondary art pedagogy, and see what can be done to offer adaptations to non-collegiate members of the same age cohort. Good examples of upper-level high school art units could be adapted in subject matter content to the life experiences and interests of adults 3 to 5 years older. Once established in life, many 30-somethings and 40-somethings will find their way, if they want, to Community College courses. But what about those, younger adults, who may identify as “Not Students” for some time? How likely are they to get there? What about organizing programs conceptually, experientially, around life experiences rather than media or stylistic periods: Partnering, Living Solo, Parenting, Sharing Creativity, Illness/Health, Expanding Options/Diminishing Options, Politics and Activism, Faith and Doubt,--exploring what 10,000 years of human imagery, symbolism and art-making can teach about life? DIY adults may be able to suggest innovative ways to finance programs for themselves and others—especially if they have a hand in shaping them. What about pilot programs sponsored by employers, unions, or faith and inter-faith institutions? How often recently have foundations or philanthropies been approached to float the artistic equivalent of night-time sports leagues for young adults?


So, let’s start thinking about what we can do as art educators to ensure that our school-age students of today will continue to receive exposure to art--opportunities to make it, see it, study its history, critique its examples and conceptualize its meaning, in ways that will grow with them as they mature. It’s a win-win-win. Their lives will be enriched. The network of art-livers will grow. And support for the next generation of kids in school will be stronger than it is today.


Anyone interested in starting an MAEA Post-Secondary Interest Group? I’m in.


Annie Storr is an art historian, museum educator, and professor. She developed Exercises for the Quiet Eye to promote patient reflection and quiet looking to expand and enrich the experience viewers have with visual art. She is a valued member of MAEA.

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