The Critical Role of Higher Education in Arts Education

Posted by Ron Jones, Feb 21, 2012 13 comments

Ron Jones

Americans for the Arts now has excellent webinars on understanding the roles of seven different constituencies that influence arts education policy: federal, state-level, school boards, superintendents, business partnerships, principals, and parents.

Perhaps I suffer from a perspective biased because of my own professional experience, but there is one glaring absence from the series: higher education.

One reason why higher education has been overlooked is that academics, as well as the general public, tend to think that the mission---the only mission---of our colleges and universities is to train artists; to prepare college students for careers as artists, teachers, and scholars. While this is an obvious and honorable mission for arts education at the collegiate level, we are missing a real opportunity if we do not subscribe another major role to our colleges and universities: the development of future participants in the arts.

Post-Secondary arts education has an obligation to re-think how it functions and what its obligations are to the academy’s dream. Many, if not most, higher education institutions train arts majors. Most, if we are convinced by our own self-assessment, do a great job of that. But, is that all higher education in the arts can and should be doing? Can we not make a greater contribution to society than just focusing on careers?

We must have audiences. We must have donors. We must have supportive civic and corporate leaders. Therefore, we must give equal---if not priority---attention to the challenge of audience creation, development, and retention on the college and university campus.

What the arts need in the long-term, and especially in the short-term, is a supportive, valuing audience. We need a future filled with enthusiastic, receptive participants in the arts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if colleges and universities set as a primary goal helping those preparing to be the leaders of tomorrow understand and become more sensitive to the arts? That would ensure a lifelong valuing, and consequent supporting, of the arts.

Virtually all of the leaders of tomorrow go to college as they prepare for their future roles as business executives, managers, city, county, and state board members, members and directors of foundations and agencies, and so on. That is fertile and important ground for an effective arts education program, and we had better give it focused attention.

Americans for the Arts might consider doing an additional webinar addressing the critical role of higher education in arts education with the aim of examining ALL of the roles that are important in arts education and, thereby, challenge what seems to be a rather narrow self-satisfying, self-definition of the role of arts education within the academy.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to believe that higher education could do so much more for the arts. But, after 42 years in higher education, I am convinced that the current model of preparing artists without giving equal attention to preparing a future for the arts is misguided, duplicative, expensive, inefficient, unrealistic and vulnerable to being permanently shortsighted.

13 responses for The Critical Role of Higher Education in Arts Education


Ms. Talia Gibas says
February 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm

In Los Angeles we convened a think tank in 2010 to discuss this very issue, and the energy and excitement in the room was palpable. The need to infuse the "arts" as core to all degree programs - which would address Ron's point about cultivating future audiences - came up again and again. (A report on that meeting is available here:

If the energy around that think tank is any indication, there are many people within the higher ed community who are chomping at the bit to have these conversations. With a commitment to time, space and thoughtful facilitation, a lot could be accomplished.

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February 23, 2012 at 10:22 am

Is it possible to consider a partnership between the Americans for the Arts and either:
1. The Association of American Colleges and Universities
2. American Association of Community Colleges
3. Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education.
4. Association of American Universities
5. American Association of State Colleges and Universities
6. Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
7. National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
8. Imagining America - a national consortium of 90 colleges and universities

I'm sure there's more - but I'm already exhausted! The Americans for the Arts would need to substantially raise our membership fees to cover its own membership fees to all of these institutions!

If anything, a partnership with Imagining America would bridge between the Fine Arts Deans, and another breed of higher educational institutions that embrace art as a way of learning in ways that enrich the next generation of audience as well as artist. Take a moment to look at Imagining America. Be inspired.

Silos, even in higher education leadership associations ... see what I mean?

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Kristen Engebretsen says
February 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

Hi Silagh,
Thanks for sharing all of these resources. Last year we hosted a higher education peer group at our annual conference, and we hope to build on that at this year's conference.

Also, we now have two representatives from higher education on our arts education council. We will be brainstorming about what Americans for the Arts can do to help break down these silos.

Thanks again for your input!
Kristen Engebretsen

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February 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the resource, Silagh. The organization Bob Lynch referenced was the International Council of Fine Arts Deans, of which Ron was apart before he took his new position in Memphis (

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February 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm

What Ron says is so true! Here's some data to back it up: In the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey, we found that people with arts degrees - whether or not they work in the arts - are eighteen (18!) times more likely than the general population to volunteer at an arts organization. That's pretty powerful.

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February 23, 2012 at 7:07 am

This makes a lot of sense to me. Perhaps its not as obvious when things are running smoothly, but when there is a real deficiency it tends to stand out.

I'm a potter, and I've been worried about the trend in Art departments where Ceramics (already a second class citizen) is cutting loose much of its attachment to pottery instruction. Of course the impact on training new professionals is potentially devastating. I teach in a community arts center, and recognize the impossibility of entirely filling the void from that direction.

But as you suggest, the problem goes much deeper than just the professional future of potters. Sure, fewer potters are being hired to teach at the U, and this is a loss for potentially employable potters. But perhaps more importantly, by not hiring potters Universities either don't offer wheel classes or they have instructors teach them who have no expertise, passion, or investment in promoting pottery. How this helps inspire future potters should be fairly obvious: It doesn't. But significantly it also doesn't expose the student population to what pots are and it doesn't foster a respect for the practice and products of the potter's artistic profession.

If an instructor doesn't really care about a topic or encourage its study the student population loses out. If its not even taught anymore, students may not even be aware of it. For potters, without that exposure there is less awareness of pots, less interest in pots, less respect for pots, and less sophistication about pottery. Is it so hard to believe that a failure to educate our audience will also fail to encourage their patronage?

I have been trying to get my fellow potters riled up about this, but it seems a losing battle. Most potters are so used to being treated like second class citizens by the Art establishment that they almost prefer to cut all ties with academia. But this cannot be in their own self interest. The impact it will have on the future of our profession could be devastating. Almost all the contemporary pottery icons had an academic education, and if these folks are the inspiration of our field, just how much will that inspiration suffer when subsequent generations take over without the high standards set at the U? Will our audience go from educated about the values and sophistication of pots to relying on tastes honed in ignorance and without exposure? Will the high point at galleries end up looking more like the free-for-all DIY at etsy? Because taste tends to now point in a less sophisticated direction?

So if this makes a difference in one field it probably holds true for others as well. It should be a real concern. They used to teach macrame and basket weaving at colleges. Without support in higher education will some of the arts go the way of these fine hobbies? Will the growing emphasis on digital arts put a nail or two in the coffin of less vogue studio practices? I wonder....

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February 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Agree. I was in my Doctor's office (when I had full time employ at a post secondary proprietary art school)and was talking to my doctor about what I did, etc. As an artist and art educator, I started quizzing him on the arts asking what artists he liked and what styles, etc. His answer was, ' I don't know.' He had sports art up in the offices but that was because it was a sports medicine 'center.' When asked if he knew the difference in Monet, Manet, and Man Ray, he had no clue. When i showed him some of my contemporary stuff he did not know whether to say 'great or get out!'
Here's a guy in his early 40's, a good Doctor, a D.O and he has had no art appreciation or art history in college.
Let's face us....= anarchy

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Kristen Engebretsen says
February 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Ron this is so true. And while I wish that Americans for the Arts could host a webinar about every key player in arts education, we simply do not have the resources to do so. However, this webinar series is based on our new publication, The Arts Education Field Guide, which does mention the important role of higher education. You can download the Field Guide at: Thanks!

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February 22, 2012 at 7:16 pm


I agree, having worked in the practice of training teachers and partnering with schools in arts integration and arts infusion higher education could make a HUGE impact on making this part of their pre-service training. I would welcome interns from the education and/or arts departments to experience the available careers in this field.

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February 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm

I salute my colleague from across the bay. While I understand that funds are limited I would like to know if the field guide addresses Dr. Jones' point that Higher Education has been short sighted as has the advocacy field in not taking the opportunity to impact tomorrow's decision makers now. We continue in so many ways to 'tend to the fires' instead of putting our energy towards prevention- imagine a world where every educated person understood the value of the arts and VALUED the arts both on a personal and societal level. Gee we might be able too fix multiple issues in our country, better health, better education, less violence. Thank you Dr. Jones.

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Ms. Talia Gibas says
February 22, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Thank you for raising this important issue. I agree that institutions of higher education need to look beyond careers. They can also take the lead on breaking down existing silos BETWEEN career tracks. Specifically, higher ed has a crucial role to play in the preparation of K-12 teachers to include the arts in their classrooms. There are many crucial conversations to be had between the arts education and broader education fields, and how the arts can be better incorporated into the pre-service training of teachers is one in which higher ed can and should take the lead.

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February 22, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Ron, I've been saying this for a long time... However, more on the subject is available through the Creative Campus movement that began with the American Assembly convening in 2004. Link to that report here:

What seems clear is that the key constituency to target this message is higher education leadership. I know that the Americans for the Arts is engaged in conversation with some national council of college presidents (or deans or something). I was having trouble finding the actually name of the group, but know there is one of these partnership as mentioned to me in a casual conversation by Bob Lynch at the APAP conference this January. It may give those AFTA members some comfort in knowing there is an effort. Yet, there are so many national organizations of colleges and universities. Just like the institution of higher learning itself, they are silos and insular.

Also, according to the website link, the full-length field guide is only available to American for the Arts members, and upon request.

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters, through the support of the Doris Duke Foundation have an incredible effort called (oddly enough) "The Creative Campus." Much can be read about that initiative on

There are many arts administrators in higher education who wrestle with this issue daily. At least it's a substantial enough affinity group that perhaps the Americans for the Arts would be willing to experiment with a few sessions at convention. I did request just this action in Philadelphia.... what does this vision need to make it a reality?

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