1.20 / The Possibility of Possibility

How Things Work, Part 3

By Aimee Le Duc July 28, 2010

Image: Root Division youth education program. Courtesy of Root Division, San Francisco.

Today, California primary and secondary students are in a strange liminal space, where arts education is mandatory but there is no requirement for how, or even if, a school implements arts education in any subject matter. Several Bay Area visual-arts organizations have recognized this grave discrepancy and have stepped in to fill the void. They’ve incorporated youth-based arts education programs into their operations, and, as a result, have developed relationships with communities beyond their exhibition audiences while expanding the possibilities for public and private funding for their mission. Arts-education programs are in many ways the most direct example of the mutual benefits a program can offer to both an organization and the community it serves.

In January 2001, the California State Board of Education adopted Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards that specifically outlined what every student, pre-K through high school, should learn about creative learning and arts. These standards, which were last revised in 2004, were divided into disciplines—dance, music, theater, and visual arts—each of which is measured according to the following standards: artistic perception, creative expression, historical and cultural context, aesthetic valuing and connections, relationships, and applications.1 Instructional manuals were published; the University of California and the California State University systems required some form of arts as a credential for entry. Unfortunately, these seemingly positive steps in the development of arts education have been countered by more prevailing and counterproductive trends.

From 1970 to the present day, arts-education programs have been steadily and drastically de-funded to make way for technical courses and job training.2 According to the State Board of Education, the current law allows school districts to use their instructional-materials adoption funds for the visual and performing arts only after purchasing any needed materials for language arts. Additionally, between 1970 and 2004, teacher-credential programs did not require specific training for teaching visual or performing arts. The current generation of teachers in the public school system does not have the formal training to provide directed education in the arts. According to the California Department of Education, there are “8,305 full-time credentialed teachers of the arts, teaching 1,462,297 students in discipline-specific arts classes, representing only 23 percent of the State’s 6.3 million students.”3 And as Stanley Fish writes in the New York Times, even the Obama administration continues “to implement the assumptions driving the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, chiefly the assumption that 'individual income and national economic progress' should be education’s main goals.”4

So where can young people access curricula that support creative processes over testable outcomes? There are numerous after-school and supplemental programs in the Bay Area available to motivated youth and their parents that allow for experimentation, reflection, and, in the simplest terms, play. Many of the alternative visual-arts spaces in San Francisco have robust visual-arts education programs geared toward eight- to twenty-year-olds who are particularly at risk simply because they attend schools in communities with predominately low-income households. Low income translates into low property taxes and little other revenue coming back into the community and less overall government and private funding for those public schools.

With less funding going into these schools, coupled with virtually no federal requirements (and lax enforcement of state requirements) to spend money on any creative (i.e. non-testable) education, the students who might benefit most from alternative educational paradigms do not have arts programming in their schools. Additionally, according to the California Department of Education, “Disadvantaged and at-risk youth are often barred from school arts programs (if they do exist) in favor of remedial instruction in reading and math. This practice contradicts research evidence that quality arts education provides even greater learning benefits to disadvantaged youth than their advantaged classmates.”5

The programs at alternative visual-arts organizations currently filling the void came into existence because artists, writers, curators, and collectors saw a need for spaces that foster a culture of creative making and doing. They also, by keenly tending to the needs of the community, created room for young artists to collaborate on programming.

Programs vary from organization to organization. For instance, the First Exposures program, run through SF Camerawork, is a mentorship-based photography program held on Saturdays at Camerawork’s space, Rayko Photo Lab, and at other locations across the city. Southern Exposure’s Mission Voices and Youth Advisory Board, Galeria de la Raza’s Studio 24, Root Division’s education programming, and even Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Young Artists at Work all host arts-education programs either inside the exhibition spaces themselves or nearby. The classes are taught by actively practicing artists who are interested in working with young people in general and with these arts organizations in particular. In all cases, the students make their own art; learn to prepare and show their art in exhibitions, books, and events; and, in some cases, work directly with the artists currently exhibiting at that organization.

These programs do not pander to the stereotype of disadvantaged children using art as a way to simply ”make it.” They are thoughtful, fully realized arts programs that offer challenging curricula for interested young people to engage with as they see fit. They are programs that look at the larger contexts that include the grim realities of diminished funding as well as the honest realities of the students who sustain these very programs. It is a large amorphous reality that moves and changes and does not have a center to grab.

A parallel can be drawn here between the development of the alternative visual-arts spaces in the Bay Area over the past four decades and the community-based arts-education programs these spaces support. Just as non-profit and alternative spaces arose in response to the lack of support from established institutions for visual artists and the whims of governmental funding strategies, arts-education programs have also emerged from the mindset that innovative and effective solutions exist outside long-established and dominant systems. Driven by entire communities, parents, and the young people themselves, these programs evolved from the ground up. Often, these arts-education programs have grown alongside and inside these spaces, which have been sustained and supported by the creative and activated communities that saw the need for them in the first place. If these organizations survive by meeting the needs and interests of their supporters, it is a simple extension of that logic to see arts-education programming as an effective strategy of sustainability for the alternative art space, as effective as any form of cutting-edge art making.

Programs like those of SF Camerawork, Southern Exposure, Galeria de la Raza, Root Division, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are all examples of strong visual-arts programs with long histories and deep roots in their communities. There is also the Imagine Bus Project, whose entire mission is dedicated to providing arts education in communities from Sonoma to San Francisco. Each program has a specific strategy for creating environments for learning, but each reaches out and partners

with schools, for-profit companies, and other local businesses to make resources available to the students who participate in their activities. Each organization is also fiercely dedicated to hiring local artists to teach and mentor in their programs. This kind of job creation supports local artists financially, broadens the scope of the programs, and ensures that the education remains in the foreground of the organizations’ overall creative mission.

The Imagine Bus Project is entirely direct in its public language, in which it points out their organization’s existence came out of a crisis of education funding, noting that it is “committed to bringing arts education where it's needed most. In times when there are significant cutbacks to afterschool programs and art is threatened in public schools, it is ever more necessary for the work of TIBP to be present and consistent in underserved communities.”6 Jaren Bonillo, the executive director, summarizes what is most successful and liberating about alternative arts-education programs.

I believe the most effective strategy to deliver strong arts programming to youth is by developing strong partnerships and alliances with community-based organizations, other non-profits, and businesses to ensure that the level of programming provided extends learning into everyday life.

Our strongest asset is working with emerging artists that have an affinity and interest in working with underserved populations. The knowledge and skill sets of contemporary artists connecting with youth goes far beyond the skills gained–developing positive adult relationships, critical thinking skills and developing a sense of achievement. Successful programs should not only impart technical art skills, but also incorporate other disciplines that are sensitive to the unique life experiences, cultures and backgrounds of students.7

Erik Auerbach, program manager for SF Camerawork’s First Exposures program, described the program’s goals and some positive consequences of FX’s success to me over email. First Exposures pairs one child with one photographer, who serves as a teacher and mentor who commits to working in the program for at least one year.

Here at First Exposures we have been starting to look more at the “whole child” model and looking at the bigger picture of what arts education can mean. We’re trying to beef up the mentoring side of our program even more and looking at ways we can provide additional support for youth in our program as they prepare for higher education and life in general. Arts can be an amazing tool for confidence building and this can translate directly into “real world” skills and needs. For us, we aim to take on bigger picture projects and themes. It seems like as time goes on there are more and more programs like ours popping up all over the world. We have been an inspiration for programs internationally including new programs in Lisbon, Ghana and Niger.8

Is the solution to the arts-education crisis to simply let these organizations be charged with all arts education? Should we leave it to these spaces to compensate for a broken system? Obviously, the ultimate goal would be for arts funding to be restored, so arts education and youth-based programming could augment a rich curriculum. None of the arts educators I spoke with said they are holding their breath until the public school system funding is safely secured, but they are not passively waiting for the tide to change, either. For all of them, the successes of their programs represent forceful tools to leverage for long-term change. Strong programming makes for strong advocacy.

Arts-education programs in visual-arts spaces can be better positioned to advocate for the restoration of arts funding in the public schools. These programs have proven track records of producing group after group of students that demonstrate the very standards of arts proficiency set out by the Department of Education. They show that by fostering creative problem solving and strategies of visual communication, these "at-risk" youths can participate in valuable activities that give them skills that can actually help them navigate the workplace. These education programs also have well-documented systems of hiring and training artists to be effective teachers and mentors.

Teaching Artist Ace Lehner introduces photography, Southern Exposure’s Mission Voices Summer program, 2010. Courtesy of Southern Exposure, San Francisco.

Arts-education programs situated within alternative visual-arts spaces are both effective systems of learning and sources for creative exchange with the arts community. These programs are also potentially powerful agents of change for the failing public-school education system. Looking to the future, Tara Foley, Art in Education program manager for Southern Exposure, commented,

Arts organizations are mobilizing. They are focusing on their strengths in hard times. We need to lean on each other for support. What we can do is become aware of what other arts organizations have to offer and help spread the word and help fill in the collective gaps. Arts organizations that have youth education programs will support each other in any way possible, through passing down program management knowledge, to helping with outreach and collaboration.9

Education clearly plays a crucial role in the overall sustainability of Bay Area alternative arts spaces. These programs are nurtured by community partnerships, contributions from working artists, and the participation of young people from a cross-section of the region. These community partnerships encourage innovation and movement, they are attractive to funders, and they ultimately provide invaluable outreach for both individual programs and the organizations as a whole.10 On another equally significant level, these partnerships endorse a healthy creative lifestyle that will transfer into any future work done by the participating young artists. Foley continues,

Partnering with schools is on the horizon, on many levels. I don’t mean just running programs at schools, although this is a good thing. But on a basic level, teachers can plant the seed that they think arts are important by integrating it in their lessons. This is happening now and is the future or arts education. I go to classes to talk to youth about our program often. When I am there, I am doing outreach for SoEx in particular, of course, but I am always the most interested in what students think art is. I want them to know that we are a strong force that will support them if they do choose to become artists in their adult life. I want them to know that arts do matter. I try to tell teachers about us so that they can bring their classes to our shows.11

Arts-education programs make extraordinary contributions to the visual-arts organizations that house them. The sustainability and overall health of an organization can be measured through these programs as easily as it can be measured through the exhibition programs; both are fulfilling grave needs. Inevitably, they inspire exchanges between the artists and curators involved in the exhibition programming, between young people and more seasoned artists, and most valuably, between practical job skills and characteristics of a well-lived, whole life.



1. The revised Visual and Performing Arts Framework for California Public Schools: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve as developed by the California Department of Education was published in September 2004, and identifies key standards in each arts discipline. Download the arts standards and framework at:  http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/index.asp.

2. California Alliance for Arts Education research report. http://www.artsed411.org/educate/research.aspx 

3. "The Status of Arts Education in California Public Schools" in California Alliance for Arts Education. http://www.artsed411.org/educate/research.aspx

4. Fish, Stanley, The New York Times, June 7, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/a-classical-education-back-to-the-future/?scp=1&sq=A%20Classical%20Education:%20Back%20to%20the%20Future&st=cse

5. California Department of Education report on Quality, Equity, and Access to Arts Education. http://www.artsed411.org/educate/QEApressrelease.aspx

6. http://www.imaginebusproject.org/

7. Email exchange with Jaren Bonillo, July 12, 2010.

8. Email exchange with Erik Auerbach, July 12, 2010.

9. Email exchange with Tara Foley, July 12, 2010.

10. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The San Francisco Arts Commission and Zellerbach Family Foundation are a few examples of reliable funding agencies for youth arts education in the San Francisco Bay Area.

11. Email exchange with Tara Foley July 12, 2010.

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