Excellence Isn’t Enough: The Benefits of Arts Education–for Arts Organizations

Posted by Troy Scheid, Apr 06, 2016 1 comment

To make the case for the value that pursuing equity and access to arts education provides to arts organizations themselves, I want to look at two ongoing and current topics in arts production.

The first topic is diversity in all forms. In the past three years, as part of a larger national conversation on diversity that has revolved as much around micro-aggressions and the slow grind of institutionalized discrimination as around shocking, devastating, and violent events, America’s arts communities have been challenged to examine the unwitting ways in which they maintain this status quo. With the best intentions, we produce excellent artistic work meant to have a universal appeal, and are surprised when audiences are not diverse. The discussion revolves around this question: If artistic excellence and a desire for diversity aren’t enough to eradicate the barriers that prevent our arts institutions from serving a representative audience, what more do we need to do?

The second topic is the audience of the future. Arts production seems to be hovering around perpetual invalid status, always wondering what it will take to get an infusion of new blood. As the average age of season ticket holders rises, we wonder where the next generation of arts supporters will come from. The discussion revolves around this question: If excellence isn’t enough, and marketing to young adults fails to promote long-term engagement, what can we do to reach new audiences?

It’s apparent that these conversations intersect. An arts institution that is welcoming to diverse audiences, artists, administrators, and artistic leadership is one that has a solid investment in its own future sustainability.

In fact, the intersection of “How do we reach new audiences?” and “How do we ensure our sustainability?” is arts education itself.

Artists and arts leaders know the value of arts education for children—we recognize the transformational effects the arts have had on our own lives, and believe that no child should be denied that opportunity.  

And while we can all agree that the arts are good for children, those of us in arts education sometimes have trouble making the case that equitable arts access for children is good for arts organizations.

In Houston, I work on the Arts Access Initiative (AAI). The AAI is Houston’s action plan for ensuring that all Houston ISD students have access to the arts and arts education. The AAI is a collective impact initiative, benefiting from the input of leaders across many sectors (education, arts, philanthropy, business, government, parents, and students). This collective design consequently ensures that our goals of equity, access, and sustainability have champions throughout the city. Over 30 excellent arts organizations from Houston are involved not only in delivering programs as part of the AAI, but also in contributing to its leadership. Young Audiences of Houston serves as the backbone organization, connecting the elements and providing structure as part of its mission to support and facilitate children’s and educators’ access to the arts.

Here are the ways arts-producing organizations benefit from arts education programs, and how collective impact changes the conversation:

Making arts education part of your organization’s ecosystem is an opportunity to extend your organization’s artistic quality, not compromise it. Like other forms of valuing diversity, an arts organization’s education program for children cannot be an afterthought—it must be an integral part of your ecosystem in a way that supports your mission. Arts education has standards of excellence and measures of success. Education is a skill, a craft, and a calling like other forms of artistry.

Investing in arts education supports your organization’s goals of financial sustainability. And I don’t mean in the short-term, cash-cow sense from tuition-based classes or ticketed performances, or even grants, as important as those are. Arts education supports your organization’s long-term financial goals because artist development and audience development are the same thing.

Investing in arts education—even outside your organization—supports your organization’s mission. Not all arts organizations are appropriate sources of arts education, but a community rich in arts education opportunities for kids and families ensures healthy arts participation (and creation) for all age groups. Any investment you make in Pre-K - 12 arts education and access is a down payment on the audience members and artists you’ll want to see supporting your mission in 20 years or so. And you can reach them now.

Collective impact initiatives work against mission creep (a loss of direction in which irrelevant projects snowball and divert resources from your primary goal) and in favor of increasing resources for all. As part of a collective impact initiative, organizations aren’t isolated, having to answer every need presented to them. Problems too big or entrenched to tackle alone become addressable. Collective impact initiatives make space for individual organizations to keep doing what they excel at—and organizations are freed from the burden of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Collective impact initiatives bring the conversation to a new level. Excellence isn’t enough—even for genuinely outstanding arts organizations like those in Houston who tirelessly work to bring quality, impactful arts opportunities to Houston’s kids. Excellence alone can’t answer an issue of inequity of arts access, and for that reason, real change happens when we address equity gaps through collective impact rather than individual effort.

In Houston, the collective impact work of the AAI has allowed our arts community to transcend the conversation about “marketing our programs” to become a conversation about effecting systemic change in a decentralized urban school district, one of the largest in the nation. While progress against inequity is incremental, it is real and measurable. While many schools successfully connect their students with the arts and cultural opportunities in Houston, many other schools lack awareness, funding, connections, or know-how to provide them. These are the gaps the AAI tries to bridge.

Children who don’t have access to the arts aren’t going to transform into discerning, engaged, long-term patrons, donors, artists, and teaching artists unless we show them how.

Excellence isn’t enough.

1 responses for Excellence Isn’t Enough: The Benefits of Arts Education–for Arts Organizations


April 06, 2016 at 8:20 pm

I thought it might be useful to cite some articles that have deeply influenced my thinking on this topic. I think arts education as a field can really benefit from the diversity/inclusion work already going on at many arts organizations. How can we make our students part of our ecosystem, and not just a program (token)? 
Want to Develop and Diversify Artists? Start on Your Doorstep (Sarah Brigham, The Guardian Theatre Blog, July 1, 2015)
"It used to be that artist development and audience development sat on two very different sides of a theatre’s business plan – the latter sat squarely under the remit of marketing, while the former was strictly the artistic director or associate’s domain. It’s now time to see the link between the two.... We want, and need, a thriving artistic ecology. To nurture that, we offer residencies, scratch nights, masterclasses and business support – whatever is needed. In turn, these artists bring with them a network of people ready to be introduced to us."
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Focuses on Diversity (Charles Isherwood, quoting Bill Rauch, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2015): “The theater in general lags behind in representing the America of today and the future. So we in leadership positions need to do everything we can to reflect the world we live in.”
Is Your Theatre Only Diverse and Inclusive Twice a Year? (Malesha Taylor, HowlRound.com, Feb. 20, 2016)
"To me, diversity is a result of an integrated ecosystem, all elements of a system talking and listening to each other. How does an ecosystem last over years and lifetimes? When multiple forms of nutrients are active, cultivated and nurtured in the space working in an integrated rhythm. The same can apply to the theatre. My hope is that we evolve and expand the conversation on how we approach diversity and audiences, not only in the arts, but also in all areas of society."

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