Making Arts Education Count
The key to building support for arts education lies in the unlikeliest of places: numbers.
There is beauty in numbers. One under-emphasized aspect of arts education that holds tremendous influence in conveying its invaluable and irreplaceable role is numbers. The power of digits to specify impact (however myopic we consider that point of view) is formidable and surely, not to be underestimated. The statistics that substantiate the holistic impact of arts education are staggering. Sometimes, so much so, that even arts professionals are genuinely surprised. As an education reformer who has been advocating for arts education for over a decade, this post discusses two approaches arts organizations are using to create measurable and tangible support for arts education from funders, policy-makers and everyone else.
Aligning your organization's campaigns with current events or trends are a powerful way to tap into existing popular phenomenon and gain traction for the arts. Your friends in PR would tell you that a sure shot way to attract publicity for an event or issue is to connect it to contemporary phenomenon. One such example is what ProjectArt, the organization I founded, did for Thanksgiving (and the shopping frenzy that follows, Black Friday) last year. We used infographics to point out some interesting consumer trends and connected that to giving. For instance, on Black Friday the average American spent $423 last year, up from $398 the year before. Using an email newsletter, we juxtaposed that fact with another relevant fact from the National Retail Federation, that 79% of Americans would rather have a charitable donation made in their honor than receive a give they wouldn't use. Furthermore, we also used data that we collected from evaluating our students, such as 81.2-85% of students and parents believe their child's self-confidence has improved by taking classes with us. Then, we connected it all together and made the ask by showing how much impact just $20 could make (give one hour of free arts education to a child) during the holiday season. We concluded the campaign with a Thunderclap campaign on December 3rd, the International Day of Giving, reaching 105,524 people that day, and using the irrefutable value of data to attract supporters. The exactness of numbers makes these facts hard to deny.
Since 1996, Center for Arts Education (CAE) in New York has published research to advocate to policy makers about the strategic importance of arts education for youth. In 2007, CAE published My Child, the Arts and Learning: A Guide for Parents, PreK-2nd Grade. Rather than considering the work done by publishing the report, they printed it in nine different languages and distributed it widely throughout public schools in New York City, hitting it from a ground-up approach and ultimately, aimed at policy makers. The guide provides parents and teachers with resources including, New York City and New York State arts requirements, which states every public school child is legally entitled to receive arts education in school. Sustained efforts of that nature coupled with a new municipal administration in New York City that is more politically receptive to the cause, has resulted in a massive recalibration of priorities for the better. Mayor de Blasio has proven intent on putting the advocacy aimed at his government to work and has included $23 million in his Executive Budget for expanded arts education in city schools. In following up, CAE also created a Thank the Mayor campaign that lets supporters send an email to City Hall for this much-needed allocation.
Using numbers (especially research) to advocate for the cause (bonus points if you use a bit of creativity in messaging) can make the difference between whether or not an issue gets heard or not, and ultimately, to making arts education essential to public education. The burden is on us, arts education organizations to prove the relevance of the discipline and hence, the need for the public, policy makers, donors and everybody else to support it. The argument of having arts education for arts education sake is not only insufficient, it doesn't do justice to the cause. At a time when education reform is being widely debated, we need to use the arsenal of research that is out there to inform, inspire and mobilize the support that we desperately need and is within our grasp.