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Portico Magazine
Arts Education Feature
June 22, 2007
Draft 1

What if we had a powerful secret weapon to make kids enjoy school more, have better attendance, better math scores, and better jobs when they graduate?

It's no secret -- arts education in a myriad of forms improves academic, social and civic performance. At Space One Eleven, co-directors Peter Prinz and Anne Arrasmith started with a mission to help visual artists in Birmingham. "We do that by giving artists jobs in art education, and by giving exhibitions of artists' work," Arrasmith explained. Educating children was not their original purpose. "But the children's program has been so rewarding."

Their largest project was the city center mural on 8th Avenue North, next to the Birmingham Museum of Art. "The wall is the largest public art in Alabama, with 22,000 handmade tiles, each one an individual work of art, all fired by two electric kilns in our backyard. It took us five years," Arrasmith continued. Children from the nearby public housing development Metropolitan Gardens and other locations were recruited. "The kids walked through the whole process. They developed the design, presented it to the city officials, came up with a budget, all of it.

"We discovered that we were training kids to be thinkers, not artists. Children have to learn how to do a project, they need training to think broadly."

The Governor's Commission on the Arts in Education reported in July 2006 that students exposed to the arts make better grades, enjoy school more, and even get better jobs. Businesses today want to hire flexible, creative thinkers who have good communication skills, and the lively arts produce those traits and more.

The original artists of the Space One Eleven program are adults now, and Alana Garrett is a web designer and graphic artist at Southern Living. "If it wasn't for Space One Eleven I wouldn't have come into contact with the Alabama School of Fine Arts," she said. "They really opened up the door. Before, I wouldn't even have considered an art degree.

"For other kids, the program means they can be exposed to a different environment, outside their current environment which is sometimes hostile," Garrett continued. "Art allows them to express themselves clearly and expand their lives." Garrett now serves on the board of directors for Space One Eleven, in its 21st year of arts education for urban students. "Once you connect with Space One Eleven it becomes a part of you."

Something indefinable but real nevertheless seems to happen when students connect with any kind of arts education program. Repeated research shows that arts education measurably improves reading and language skills, mathematics skills, thinking skills, social skills and motivation to learn. The advocacy group Americans for the Arts reports that children who participate in any kind of arts for a minimum of three hours, three days a week, for at least a year, are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair and three times more likely to win an award for school attendance.

Ryan Cole is the assistant director of the Alabama Rural Action Commission and a believer in the power of arts education. "Until I had the opportunity in college to get on stage and see the words come to life, I never made a real connection with language. It is well documented and well researched: arts education makes a better student."

Alabama's record of supporting arts education is rather spotty, he admits. Funding cuts left very few arts programs in the public schools. "We haven't really recovered from the last bout of proration. We don't have arts back in every school. But we are creating a network to make it happen." The Alabama Black Belt Arts Education Initiative pilot grant, nearly $300,000, funded the creation of an innovative children's theatre project in Lowndes County and a resident artist program in Bullock County public schools, among other things.

"That created enough momentum to speak up for arts education," Cole said. "My intention is to do that for the whole state. And I'm proud to say that pilot grant was doubled this last legislative session, to $600,000."

A privately funded arts organization has been hard at work in the black belt for twenty years, and the tiny town of York in west Alabama is seeing the benefits. "Everything we do is aimed at arts education," said Nathan Purath, artistic director of the Coleman Center for the Arts.

Their next artist-in-residence program will bring a New Jersey artist, Garland Farwell, to York. "He's very inspired by Alabama folk art," Purath continued. "We're planning a lot of different collaborations with churches and school groups." With the help of young and old, Farwell will develop a series of large scale kinetic sculptures and puppets. His tenure will end with a parade, and the artwork will then be installed in various public buildings.

Executive Director Shana Berger is especially interested in the civic benefits of arts education, since the Coleman Center's mission is to improve the quality of life in the region. "A lot of our work focuses on children learning how to be a part of the public voice," she said. "Kids see so many things adults may not see, and they can express themselves in a simple, true way.

"When we enrich our kids, we're enriching future generations. What we hope to instill in them is the desire, knowledge and confidence to engage in the community and the world throughout their lives -- and that makes a more dynamic and creative community."

Arts education doesn't end with a paintbrush. The benefits of music education are widely recognized, from enhanced brain functioning to increased self esteem. For Debbie Bond, though, traditional music education just didn't work. With her own experiences in mind, she helped create the Alabama Blues Project.

"The blues are an amazing tool to reach at risk kids," said Bond. "We teach totally by ear. Teachers are saying 'what are you guys doing that's reaching these kids we can't reach?' The blues came up out of hard times, incredibly oppressed times, so it has a very powerful emotional component -- it touches kids in a way that's very compelling."

In after-school programs and a week-long summer camp, children learn to play and sing the blues. "R&B, rap, hip-hop -- they're all derived from the blues, which are a part of the indigenous culture of Alabama. They get very excited about it," Bond said. "Teaching to the test does not teach higher level thinking skills and creativity. Human creativity and imagination -- that's what the arts are all about. Tapping into human experiences, then transforming that experience and expressing it through art."

"I have always believed that everyone has the capacity to be creative," Arrasmith concluded. "This proved it to me. These children, who are often invisible, accused of being the source of society's ills, could make a beautiful work of art."

"It's very powerful for adults when kids express themselves," said Berger. "It tells the community so much about themselves, as well as being really empowering for the kids."

Ultimately, our artistic efforts will be all we have to offer, Bond pointed out. "When a culture ends, the only thing that survives is the art."

Space One Eleven is at 2409 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham. Telephone 205-328-0553.

Coleman Center for the Arts is at 630 Avenue A, York. Telephone 205-392-2005.

Alabama Blues Project is at 712 25th Avenue Northport. Telephone 205-752-6263.

(sidebar: resources)

If your children aren't getting enough of the arts in school, there are dozens of opportunities for after school, weekends and summer, some of them free or low-cost. For students really committed to the arts, Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham is a tuition-free school for 7th-12th grade Alabama students interested in creative writing, visual arts, theatre arts, dance, music or math and science. Admission is by audition. The school consistently wins national recognition for excellence.

Virtually every performing arts center in the state has an educational component. Urban settings are particularly rich in arts education opportunities. The Birmingham Museum of Art offers a wide range of children's classes. At the Red Dot Gallery in Birmingham's Lakeview District, artists Scott Bennett and Dori DeCamillis wanted to to merge the exhibition of unusual fine art with a welcoming educational environment. "I love it. I find it just as fulfilling as making art," DeCamillis said. "We really enjoy watching people improve." Many other galleries offer classes for children and adults.

Dr. Frank E. Adams Sr. is the educational director at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham. "We have the only free program to teach jazz," he said with pride. "Vocal, piano, all the instruments. Every March we invite school jazz groups to play along with other musicians in a statewide jazz festival. Jazz is the only original art form produced in the U.S., and its roots come from Alabama. We feel it should be promoted here."

Birmingham Children's Theatre is one of the largest children's theatres in the country, and they offer workshops for aspiring performers. Sloss Furnaces has a widely recognized metal arts program for students 16 and older. Studio By The Tracks was formed in 1989 to provide free art classes to special needs adults and children. Janet Holloway operates "Art to Go" from a bright yellow van, taking art projects to inner city schools and other places where art opportunities are in short supply. For more ideas, go to the internet, call a local museum or gallery, or just ask around.

Alabama School of Fine Arts is at 1800 8th Avenue North, Birmingham. Telephone 205-252-9241.

Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame is at 1631 Fourth Avenue North, Birmingham.
Telephone 205-254-2731.

Birmingham Children's Theatre is at 2130 Richard Arrington, Jr. Boulevard North, Birmingham. Telephone 205-458-8181.

Sloss Furnaces is at Twenty 32nd Street North, Birmingham. Telephone 205-324-1911.

Studio by the Tracks is at 301 20th Street, Irondale. Telephone 205-951-3317.

Art To Go is a mobile art experience. Telephone 616-3833.

Karyn Zweifel is the author of Alabama Arts, a comprehensive guide to the lively arts in Alabama. She is also the author of seven other books, and writes on travel, health and family issues for online and print magazines. Arts education is an ongoing interest. "I don't think I would have stayed in school if I hadn't been able to go to the Alabama School of Fine Arts," she says. "The world of theatre appealed to me, allowing me to try on different personae until I grew comfortable enough to walk around in my own skin. Now I have children of my own I can see how the arts allow them to learn and grow in nontraditional ways."

She lives and works in Birmingham's Southside, in a spooky old house with her family, a cranky old cat and an ornery little dog. A new paperback edition of her first book, Southern Vampires, is coming out from Crane Hill Publishers this fall. Other writings and news of upcoming book projects are available at her website,