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Obama's call to arts

The president-elect's proposed Artists Corps is one plank in his push to revitalize the arts in education.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2009

A head for the arts: Obama's own experience as a child, when even the poorest schools had an art teacher and a music teacher, is driving his desire to reintroduce that experience for all children.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

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While the Obama transition team works on headline issues such as the economy and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small but cautiously hopeful cadre of arts groups, arts educators, and artists from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and beyond is nursing the quiet hope that creativity will find its place beside the sterner faces of war and recession on the Jan. 20 White House to-do list.

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The incoming president himself has steadily fed such hopes. Barack Obama enters office with the first-ever presidential arts platform drafted during the campaign. While it lists eight strategies, including increased funds for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the three top priorities are:

•Expanding public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations

•Creating an Artists Corps

•Publicly championing the importance of arts education

"The mere existence of a cultural policy platform is an amazing thing, a good thing," says Richard Kessler, executive director of The Center for Arts Education of New York City. "Nothing like it existed before in the history of our country."

The new president's commitment to the arts comes partially from his own experience. "When I was a kid," he told a crowd in Wallingford, Pa., on April 2, "you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts, everyone had access to music and other arts." While this preceded research on such well-known modern concepts as the "Mozart effect" – which details how the study of music enhances mental performance – a certain common sense reigned. "People understood that even though they hadn't done all the scientific research," Mr. Obama added, "children who learn music actually do better in math and kids whose imaginations are sparked by the arts are more engaged in school."

Expect the White House to host a steady stream of artists, including jazz and classical musicians as well as poetry readings.

"Our art, our culture," the president-elect told anchor Tom Brokaw on "Meet the Press," on Dec. 15, "that's the essence of what makes America special, and we want to make as much of that as possible in the White House."

Perhaps nothing has attracted as much interest as the proposed Artists Corps, a national service concept that, much like the Peace Corps, would draft legions of young talent into service across the nation's schools and arts organizations.

"The Arts Corps idea couldn't have come at a better time," says Richard Burrows, director of Arts Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Up until the recent economic woes rippling through every community in the United States, including Sacramento's recently announced $41.6 billion state budget deficit, the nation's second largest school district was steadily increasing school arts funding – from $6 million in 1999 to $53 million this past year. Now, says Mr. Burrows, everything is up in the air, including a portion of the $8 million budget for a program that brings arts organizations into the schools, the Arts Community Network Partnership.