By Alex Distefano
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Ambitious young artists are all alike: tour their studios and you'll invariably be reeled into a discussion on gallery politics, the brutality of the market, and the difficulties of getting exposure. Rarely will you stumble upon one who has flirted with success and remained idealistic in the process. Yet on a recent visit to an uptown atelier, a pigtailed painter defied all such conventions.
Parading an impressive body of work before me including a piece that had adorned the walls of the Museum of Modern Art she beamingly spoke of her prospects: a possible show next year at the Asia Society as well as one at a heavily trafficked midtown gallery. But while some may admire her blend of attitude and diverse aesthetic abilities she also works in collage, clay, and watercolor to her classmates at P.S. 100 in the Bronx, she's just another kindergartner who, along with 30,000 other kids this year alone, has taken part in the innovative program, "Studio in a School."
For over two decades, Studio has been placing teaching artists who, unlike art teachers, must be professional artists in public schools and community centers in all five boroughs. One of Studio's keystones is the emphasis it places on cooperation between its own educators and traditional classroom teachers to integrate typically academic subjects, such as science and math, with an art curriculum. Designed to be mutually beneficial, it also provides selected artists with lucrative part-time and full-time work and students, 80 percent of whom come from low-income families, with instructors who couple their creativity with a desire to educate.
Founded by MOMA's current president, Agnes Gund, after arts funding for schools was gouged in the mid '70s, Studio withstood those lean days, in part, because of a deep-seated belief that arts instruction is essential to every student's education. "I really think that it foments a child's mind," says Gund, adding that Studio's ongoing mission has stemmed from this conviction. And, with teachers at over 200 sites this academic year, its techniques are finally gaining recognition.
Far from the dark days of the 1970s, organizations such as Studio are currently riding a renewed surge to rebuild the city's arts programs. Recently, Rudy Crew, chancellor of the Board of Education, even went so far as to say that arts are the answer to illiteracy, reflecting a growing consensus on the importance of arts education and the need to finance its development.
Since 1997, Mayor Giuliani's three-year Project ARTS (Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools) initiative has earmarked millions in the city budget for schools that develop viable proposals, estimating their long-term arts programming needs. With $25 million set aside in 1997, $50 million last year, and another $25 million this year, funding is given to schools based on the projected effectiveness and sustainability of these propositions. Since schools can work in conjunction with independent organizations to formulate these pitches, programs like Studio, with their expertise on the subject, can be integral to their success. In real terms, this has translated into the hiring of 861 new arts teachers in the last two years.
Working in close partnership with Project ARTS is The Center for Arts Education. Established to administer and distribute a $12 million challenge grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the Center currently funds arts programs at 61 schools six of which have Studio courses as part of their curriculum mix and also aims to raise an additional $24 million. Although Hollis Headrick, executive director of the Center, praises the arts community for the ways in which it has fought the deterioration of arts education, he says that his organization will now look beyond the "patchwork" of progressive groups it currently subsidizes and work to try and secure support for all of New York's public schools.
"The current money is catalytic, but schools and arts organizations must be prepared to sustain themselves in the future," says Headrick, echoing concern that there is no guarantee the present funding boom both on the public and private level will last. "We're moving toward a vision in which the private sector will supplement educational financing and public institutions will no longer bear full responsibility."
Whether schools heed this advice and find sponsors who are willing to invest in the creative development of their future employees is yet to be seen."If schools put arts education back in full-time, we'd be out of a job, which would be better," says Gund, with little faith. "But I'm convinced that, after Giuliani, it could again be called a 'frill,' and cut."
To those who've had firsthand experience with Studio and worked side by side with its teachers though, it can hardly be considered dispensable. "The Studio program has become the centerpiece of arts education in my school," says Ruth Swinney, principal of P.S. 165 for the past five and a half years. "The artists who work with us become like members of our faculty."
Embodying Studio's philosophy of child-centered education, these artists introduce students to the investigative and creative techniques used in their own work to help them become more analytical and expressive while having fun and getting messy. Traditionally, explains Studio director Tom Cahill, schools tend to view art as skill driven, with children just being taught how to draw or paint. Yet at Studio, which promotes the notion that art is idea driven, "Teachers emphasize where these children are coming from, not day-to-day problem solving," says Gund.
The benefits of this approach are practical: instead of stressing test-taking abilities, which have no application in the working world, students are measured on their ability to perform in a given subject and employ it in other aspects of their life. Though such assessment is difficult to ascertain, the results are more telling than those of standardized tests, which are often criticized for being slanted toward nonminority students. "I've seen children produce better academically because they have found a subject that they can excel at in art," says Kenneth Wilkoff, principal at P.S. 100, adding that the Studio program also helps to keep attendance up.
Far from being a sterile and cold environment, the cluttered visual culture of Studio schools seems to succeed in transforming them into a more democratic, child-centered place. At P.S. 108 in Spanish Harlem, where Studio artist Jimmy James Greene has been working for nearly seven years, the hallways, offices, and classrooms explode with the vibrant and varied chaos of student artwork, inspired by their backgrounds, homes, and school subjects. It is not uncommon to find robots built by fifth graders on display with architectural models designed by second graders.
Students also get the opportunity for broader exposure. Both the Asia Society and MOMA mount shows of their work regularly, and a permanent exhibition space at 75 West End Avenue has been dedicated to the program. Gallery openings, heralded by invitations, are always packed with enthusiastic parents being dragged around to admire the work of the proud students.
"We're not trying to produce artists here," says Catherine Ramey, who teaches in a sunny studio/classroom at P.S. 112 on 119th Street, "But we see kids who can't succeed in any other subjects shine here."
For more information on "Studio in a School" or to apply for a teaching artist position, call 431-6300.
One of six articles in our Education Supplement.