Program allows artists to share talents in schools

Lawrence, “City of the Arts.” It’s interesting how this slogan has stuck around long after the Convention and Visitors Bureau changed it to the curiously similar rearrangement, Art of a City. The reason, I think, is because we want it to be true. We want to be a city of the arts, and so we measure our efforts against that title. Easier said than done. In a state that completely eliminated its arts funding last year, being a “city of the arts” in Kansas is like being a prime skiing destination. 

But, in spite of the “austerity measures” coming from Topeka, there’s a buzz in our arts community these days. With the success of Final Fridays, a new building for Theatre Lawrence under construction and the integration of art studios and gallery space into the new Poehler development, we are getting closer to living up to the old slogan. This is good news for Lawrence and Lawrence artists, although if we want to maintain the current momentum, we are going to have to develop a more sustainable environment for artists to work. That means jobs.

But what kind of jobs; where is the need? Where in our economy can artists be of value that hasn’t already been filled? New opportunities become clear when we refocus our view of what artists do. The problem is that we tend to overlook the potential of our arts community because we see art mainly as an end in itself, existing within the forms we are accustomed to at the gallery, theater and concert hall, and not as a wide spectrum of transformative processes that illuminate and explore the world we share.

Artists encourage curiosity and experimentation, forge new connections between disciplines, heighten our awareness of the overlooked, challenge our assumptions and received knowledge, and reimagine ways of using raw materials. As important as these qualities are in the world of art, they are also fundamental building blocks of creative problem solving, ingenuity and critical thinking.

If only there were a way to tap into these artists’ insights and methods and share them with a broader audience, especially an audience of imaginative young people. There is, and that’s where new work for artists can be found. For decades, communities across the U.S. have been putting artists to work through what are commonly known as Artists in Schools programs.

These programs vary in their reach and focus, but most share a basic structure. Based within a nonprofit organization, state or city arts council, AIS programs serve as connectors or agents between professional artists and schools. After going through a rigorous application process, artists develop hands-on, interactive workshops that complement and enhance established curricula in science, math, history and other subjects. Teachers then choose the artists/programs that best fit with their plans.

Funding for AIS programs is usually shared between private foundations, national, state and local grants, and the school or school district, with special subsidies made available to schools with greater needs. Clearly, significant grant and foundation support is necessary for any AIS program to be successful. One example in Kansas, Wichita’s Arts Partners was jump-started in 1996 by a $540,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A quick overview of two AIS programs shows their far-reaching impact. In Kansas City, Young Audiences maintains a roster of nearly 80 artists that offer over 150 different workshops, while the Fayetteville/Cumberland County AIS program in North Carolina has a roster of 75 artists that offer more than 100 programs. Check out their websites to see the great variety of interdisciplinary workshops they offer.

AIS programs work — I know from first-hand experience. In 1975, while I was a fourth-grader at Miller School in Evanston, Ill., an artist named Ruth Felton came to visit as part of an AIS program. She was a muralist who led my class in the creation of a mural about healthy food choices for our cafeteria. It made an impression. 

Many years later I find myself on the other side of the equation working as a teaching artist in AIS programs across the country from Tempe, Ariz., to Greenville, Miss. And like me, many other Lawrence artists have worked with AIS programs elsewhere. I think it’s time that we benefit from their work here at home.

An Artists in Schools program for Lawrence makes sense, if for no other reason because we have one of the highest concentrations of working artists in the country. Let’s draw on the talents of Lawrence’s exceptional artists and inspire our young people to achieve greater heights. A Lawrence Artist in Schools program would help keep talented young artists in town, boost our local economy by creating jobs, and most of all fuel the creative young minds that will soon become the heart and soul of our community — a place we all hope to embrace as a true city of the arts.

— Dave Loewenstein is a

muralist, writer, and printmaker

based in Lawrence.