Cutting Arts Education is a Form of Identity Theft

Posted by , Mar 21, 2014 7 comments

Matt D'Arrigo Matt D'Arrigo

The arts are powerful because they provide us with, and help us to create, our identities - who we truly are. The two ultimate questions we have in life are: who am I and why am I here? If you find the answer to the first, it will help lead you to the answer to the second. Identity provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose.

It was in art that I found my own identity. I was in sixth grade and had always really struggled in school. I was lost and confused and thought I was a failure; my self-esteem and confidence were extremely low. Back then there weren’t a lot of diagnosis like ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities. I was diagnosed as being lazy and a troublemaker…and they probably had a pretty good case against me. Then my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, said four words that changed my life. We were doing an art lesson and she came up behind me, looked at my picture and said “Wow, that’s really great”! The other students gathered around and shared her enthusiasm. All of a sudden I wasn’t a failure anymore…I was an artist. I had an identity! I’ve carried that identity and confidence with me to this very day, it’s made me who I am.

Our nation has an identity theft crisis. The victims are our children – many times the most vulnerable and marginalized. The perpetrators are our most trusted officials, decision makers, and leaders. By cutting the arts and arts education in our schools and communities they are denying these youth the opportunity to find their true identities, their true creative selves. They are de-valuing and diminishing their true talents and potential; making them fit into boxes they don’t fit. Eventually both the box and the child will break.

The organization I founded, A Reason To Survive (ARTS), is in the identity theft prevention business. The youth we work with are not only getting their identity stolen, but they are also given false identities by society and those around them: homeless, abused, foster youth, at-risk, cancer patient, juvenile delinquent, etc. Their circumstances do not define who they are. I like to say as soon as they come through our door at the ARTS Center, they become an artist, dancer, musician, or filmmaker, whatever they choose to be. Their societal identities are left at the door. Yes, we use the arts as a prevention and intervention vehicle for these youth, but more importantly we use the arts as a celebration vehicle for who these kids truly are.

The good news is we are not alone. There are thousands of efforts throughout the country to stop this identity theft crisis. They take many forms and approaches – arts education, arts integration, arts as social service, during school, afterschool, in school, and in the community. It takes government, nonprofits, businesses, and communities all communicating and collaborating together to provide this arts safety net for our youth. Only then will all youth have the opportunity, ability, and resources needed to find their true identity through the arts. Lets make that commitment to our youth and hold the arts as a sacred priority to ensure a brighter and more creative future for us all.

This blog was based on this TEDxSanDiego talk I gave recently.

7 responses for Cutting Arts Education is a Form of Identity Theft


March 24, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Thank you Matt. In one sentence you summed up my career long purpose for being in the arts and advocating for arts education: "By cutting the arts and arts education in our schools and communities they are denying these youth the opportunity to find their true identities, their true creative selves."

To know yourself and be known and seen by others in positive terms is a critical human need. The arts are an essential path to finding an identity for so many. To be denied that can mean feeling or worse yet believing that one's own existence is in question.

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March 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Thank you for this excellent editorial. As a musician and teacher here are some of my thoughts on the importance of music and arts education:

The purpose of education goes far beyond job training and creating obedient workers. Those who want to cut the arts may, in fact be scared of their potential power.

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March 22, 2014 at 9:45 am

It's heartening to hear another voice of sanity - and well put! So many creative people have had your experience - you're very fortunate that the turning point came so early.

After decades running a nonprofit serving the same kids you serve, my husband and I developed an "arts mentoring toolkit" that includes student assessment software that measures a person's ability to learn. It's a paradigm shift from what's currently available,and I invite you to take a look at It's what ensured our program's continuance when the going got tough a few years back - but I have to say that since it truly requires a paradigm shift it's not exactly flying off the shelf.

All of us who work with youth to empower them to learn who they are (and why they're here) would do well to step it up with our insistence that children are given what they need -- not just arts for a well rounded education, but for their survival and development as human beings. Thanks so much!

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E.G. says
March 23, 2014 at 9:15 am

Instead of "complaining" that the loss of art is the loss of expression and identity, that though true, and apparent to art teachers, is not so obvious to those outside the field.

WE MUST focus on what BOEs, Superintendents, and legislators understand: Success in testing = good = funding. They care little, if anything, about the "warm and fuzzy" goodness of art.

Art is the meeting place for all subjects...

When we grid, measure, and use perspective—we learn about geometry. When we make sculptures—we learn engineering. When we mix colors—we reveal information about physics. When we write about our work—we reinforce these skills. When we create illustrations for stories—we learn about literature. When we review the styles of art from da Vinci to Warhol—we understand more about history.

Students who take art score 100 points, on average, than their peers, and higher too on state exams. Mine are 50% LESS likley to fail the HSPA as shown by my guidance department.

The best lawyers, bakers, doctors, cooks, supervisors, etc have one thing in common, "Creative Problem Solving," This is the focus of a good fine art program.

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E.G. says
March 23, 2014 at 9:35 am

PS: 100 Points HIGHER on SATs.

(Wish edits were enabled.)

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March 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm

I watched arts education in action this morning as my second grade granddaughter and 3 partners participated in our County Office of Education's Poetry and Prose competition. She claimed the title "artist" for herself two years ago, but her Superior rating today solidified that even more. Arts education is essential for our children to truly become the best they can be. - Fawn

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April 01, 2014 at 8:02 pm

After 9-11, there was a report. One of the things the writers of this report cited as to why nobody could imagine that terrorists would fly a plane into a building was, and I quote, "A failure of imagination.'

that is the most damning sentence I can imagine when it comes to anything in our country. When things fall down and don't work right, that is usually at the heart of it. We fail to truly imagine what can happen.

When you cut the arts and kneecap funding for sow the seeds for disasters, processes that function but have no heart, fiascos that nobody knows how to creatively solve and long term nightmares that dreamers, thinkers, philosophers and artists could have seen coming from miles away.

Failure of imagination? Yes, because they fail to understand what taking art out of our curriculum does to science, engineering and math.

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