Kids need art.
That's the message that the Getty Center, a private foundation fostering appreciation for the visual arts and humanities, is sending as it prepares to open to the general public on Dec. 16. As its final splashy pre-opening event, the Getty Education Institute (GEI, one of five institutes making up the center) recently hosted a three-day "Kids Congress on Art."
With the aim of allowing youngsters to express their own views about the importance of art in their education, the congress involved middle-school delegates from all 50 states (and a Japanese Army base) along with adults active in the arts and in support of art education.
"We tend to make a lot of decisions based on what we think's important," muses Leilani Lattin Duke, director of the GEI. "A lot of times we forget to ask the kids what they think."
A number of children came from schools currently without arts education, but many were articulate about what the arts meant to them.
As Florida eighth-grader Shelly Petrequin puts it, many children have to choose between band, sports, or art. "Most of the kids never have any art at all," she observes quietly, but adds with conviction, "and they're so important! The arts tell about who you are, about what's really going on in the world, and they help people understand each other."
Indeed, when the institute conceived the idea for the congress two years ago, it asked schools across the country that wanted to participate to each prepare a banner that would illustrate values or qualities of its community. The aim was to illustrate the value of arts being integrated into a school curriculum.
Thousands of schools from all over the United States vied to be chosen; the final entrants were chosen randomly. After the opening congress ceremonies, the banners were hung along the tram path leading up the hill to the Getty Center, where they will remain throughout the center's first year.
South Dakota delegate Lacey Hunter says the experience of gathering information as her school prepared the banner changed the way she saw her community. "We took a lot of walks and usually you're just rushing and you don't see things, but we slowed down and actually looked around."
The banner for Shelly Petrequin's school, Lecanto Middle School, depicts the endangered local manatee, an animal that provokes much discussion about environmental issues among Floridians.
Vermont representative Kyle Thomas takes it one more step, saying that the arts are actually more practical than a lot of subjects he is required to take in school. "You don't use a lot of those other things, but you'll always use what you learn in art."
As for many of his schoolmates who don't see the value of arts classes, Kyle is equally pragmatic. "That's their choice, but they should at least know what the arts offer."
Actor John Lithgow echoes ideas expressed by many of the students. "Art is indispensable; it is not merely a fun learning tool. We can't do without art. No people ever has. We need it at least as much as we need food," says the performer. "We need our stories. We need to tell them and hear them be told."
Mr. Lithgow continues, "Stories shape our experience. They are like emotional exercises that make us feel human." Lithgow relates the experience of his high school years, in which he began each day with two periods of art instruction. He says it developed in him a habit of openness to new things, what he calls a habit of learning. "That habit of mind, of starting the day with art, is still who I am today," he adds.
In addition to sharing views, the participants sent a resolution on the importance of arts education to Hillary Rodham Clinton and received a personal video response.
Getty president Harold Williams spells out what he believes the arts have to offer as part of a fully integrated curriculum. "The next generation will need to be able to interpret visual images for whatever work they do," he observes, adding that he sees the arts as the most basic tool for all the creative, inventive work that will be necessary to keep our culture alive into the next century.
The GEI has positioned itself at the forefront of the push to reintegrate arts into school curricula nationwide with its comprehensive discipline-based arts-education (DBAE) program. It offers supports to teachers working to combine the arts with a larger academic curriculum, among them summer training programs for teaching DBAE at Getty-funded regional institutes around the country. More than 1,000 teachers from 400 districts take courses at these institutes, reaching upwards of a million students nationally. At least 36 states have adopted curriculum frameworks based on a DBAE approach.
While there are those who voice the argument that the arts are a frill that cash-strapped school districts can ill afford, many in the business community are raising their voices in support of a broader-based education.
Says James Houghton, retired chief executive officer of Corning Inc., "The practice and study of the arts is far from peripheral and can be a major building block in giving American business the broad competencies needed as we enter the 21st century." He concludes that the nation's success will depend entirely on the skills of its work force and that a sound grounding in the arts can only enhance those skills.
Looking at the student banners now flanking the Getty tram station, one can see why. Each banner shows the collaborative spirit of dozens of children as they analyzed their communities, pinpointed the highlights, and came together to create a single unified vision of their home. These are valuable life lessons that point to a single conclusion:
Kids need art.