Long before she directed an award-winning film about Chinese theater and dance, Kim Eveleth found creative expression in her art and music classes at Manhattan's P. S. 84.
Ms. Eveleth was a second-grader at the school when her cat died after falling from an apartment window. For months afterward, she painted cats with wings and shaped clay into tombs that resembled a nearby monument to the soldiers and sailors who fell in the Civil War.
''I didn't have any words for what I was feeling,'' Eveleth says. ''Art was my grieving process.''
Three decades later, in an age of crack cocaine and available handguns, the 1 million children who attend New York City's public schools confront graver problems than losing a pet. Yet more often than not they lack the teachers, tools, and time to try their hand at the creative and performing arts.
As the New York City Board of Education braces for another round of deep funding cuts, its sixth in as many years, pupils and teachers have reason to believe that conditions in the classroom are about to get much worse. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has targeted the school system for $750 million in spending cuts, nearly one-tenth of its current $7.7-billion budget at a time when enrollment is growing by 20,000 students per year.
''We've never had a year where the money was so tight, not even when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy in the '70s,'' says Sylvia Dunsky, chairman of the New York City Music Teachers Association.
The Giuliani administration says the cuts, which reflect an anticipated reduction in state and federal grants to the city, will require little more than pruning the school system's central bureaucracy. Earlier this week, after nearly a year of acrimonious debate with the mayor, Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines agreed to the plan.
Both Mayor Giuliani and Mr. Cortines, however, concede that students at the city's 1,095 public schools will feel the pinch in three areas: special-education programs, after-school activities, and art and music classes.
Tight budgets are nothing new. Following the fiscal crisis in mid-'70s, many schools began replacing full-time art and music teachers with enrichment programs offered by private arts organizations. Today, institutions as large as the Museum of Modern Art and as small as the Salt & Pepper Mime Company regularly give lectures, workshops, and performances in city schools.
The New York State Council on the Arts, which funds many of these organizations, has seen its budget shrink from $51 million in 1991 to its current level of $32 million. Gov. George Pataki has proposed further cuts for the next fiscal year.
''The yin inside the yang of this funding crisis,'' says Hollis Headrick, who directs the council's arts in education program, ''is that there's never been more research supporting the value of learning in and through the arts.''
Cognitive psychologists, for example, have found that children exercise different ways of learning. While most American schooling is geared to linguistic and logical understanding, they say, many children grasp concepts more easily through spatial or musical perception.
What is more, many current trends among educators, like having students in science and reading classes assemble a portfolio of work over several months instead of giving them a multiple-choice test on the last day of the semester, owe their origins to the arts community. And as businesses clamor for graduates who can solve problems and work in teams, arts education promises to do just that.
''The point of teaching the arts isn't just so students can identify a Picasso or recite 10 lines of Shakespeare,'' Mr. Headrick says. ''Putting on a play brings people together to share ideas, assume different responsibilities, and solve problems.''
Shortchanging students of art and music also forecloses their opportunities in higher education and the workplace, advocates say. New York City is the world's leading design center, home to a $14-billion-a-year apparel industry. Advertising, communications, and publishing account for another $10 billion annually. Yet the city's leading design schools are looking outside the region for eligible applicants.
''We've seen a steady decline in the number of students from New York City high schools who qualify for our program,'' says Allan Hirshfield, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where students can work toward a bachelor's degree in art and design for less than $2,500 a year. ''They simply don't have portfolios, because there aren't many high schools left that have art programs.''
If schools no longer provide children an opportunity to participate in the arts, many parents are wondering who will. Cheryl Henson, vice president of Jim Henson Productions, suggests that churches, neighborhood groups, and arts organizations can help fill the gap.
This weekend, for example, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will host its first International Children's Festival of Theater and Music. A parallel conference, which concludes today, seeks to assist presenters, producers, and performers in developing quality programs for young people and family audiences.
Yet some educators say such efforts don't go far enough. ''What we need most is to reintroduce daily instruction by certified instructors,'' says Sylvia Corwin, former chairwoman of the art department at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. ''That might seem unrealistic, but I don't think our society can afford anything less.''
Together with FIT's Mr. Hirshfield, Ms. Corwin and a score of other educators have formed an ''artnership'' aimed at reinvigorating art and music education in the public schools. Kim Eveleth, who advises school districts in 24 states on science curricula, joined the group earlier this year.
''When I was a child, art was my avenue for getting a deeper understanding of what I experienced and for sharing it with other people,'' she says. ''It worries me to think that kids today are growing up without that.''
r The International Children's Festival of Theater and Music, to be ''chaired'' by Kermit the Frog and his Muppet friends, will feature performances and workshops in theater, dance, music, storytelling, and sign language. For information about the events, which run Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., contact the Brooklyn Academy of Music at (718) 636-4100.