Acts of Achievement

The Role of Performing Arts Centers in Education

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 15, No 2 (Summer 2004)

The Dana Foundation Reviewed by Rachelle Axel, San Francisco Arts Commission

Edited by Barbara Rich, Ed.D, Jane L. Polin, Stephen J. Marcus

2003, 164 pages. The Dana Foundation, 745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 900, New York, NY 10151, 212-223-4040, daninfo@dana.org, www.dana.org.

Acts of Achievement is a valuable compendium based on a Dana Foundation conference of the same name, held in Washington, DC, in April 2003. This volume serves as an expanded transcript from the conference, presenting key points from the conference panel discussions, guidelines and assessments for performing arts residencies, reflections on the evolving definitions of quality in arts education residencies, and practical information on the educational programs of performing arts centers nationwide. The text is rich with broad-based insights on arts learning and real-life examples of arts education practices in and through performing arts centers.

Its contents include an introduction by the DanaFoundation's principal arts consultant, Janet Eilber; an executive summary by philanthropic advisor Jane Polin; interview excerpts; in-depth case studies of eight performing arts centers; profiles of sixty-six performing arts centers' education programs: and extensive resource reference lists. The jewel of the publication is Lynne Silverstein's essay, "Artist Residencies: Evolving Educational Experiences." The specific authors, speakers, and panelists make this not only a good read, but a great resource.

Much of the impetus for this book and conference came from an email exchange about artist residency guidelines between the Dana Foundation staff and its friends and grantees in arts education. It quickly became apparent that a good, practical guide was needed. They were also hard-pressed to find criteria that included performing arts centers and that facilitated the delicate collaboration among educator, artist and presenter.

Enthusiastic response to a 2001 conference and handbook (Planning an Arts-Centered School) sponsored by the Dana Foundation, spurred the planning of "Acts of Achievement." Held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the goals for the 2003 symposium were ambitious. The foundation sought to address hot-button issues repeatedly asked by colleagues. These included: How do we involve school leadership in arts education? How do we develop a symbiotic relationship between artists who teach and classroom teachers? How do we involve parents and secure grass-roots community support? What elements make artist residencies in school successful?

Acts of Achievement's executive summary offers a history of how performing arts centers became a locus point for the community and how they began to engage young people through education in performing arts disciplines. As the essay states, "The new performing arts centers would now play a critical role in developing a capable, caring citizenry." The summary also ties this history to early notions of audience development with its focus on educating young people. Over time, performing arts centers joined other school reformers in their efforts to improve K-12 public education. Performing arts centers began to identify and implement four central components of effective school collaborations: 1) establishing new forms of partnerships based on community resources and identified needs; 2) making up for the loss of arts education at every level; 3) improving the quality and quantity of artist teachers; and 4) involving new audiences by developing new, non-traditional venues.

An interview with Warren Simmons (executive director, Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University) conducted by William Safire (chairman, the Dana Foundation) is clearly part of the ongoing dialogue of arts education providers. They discussed the direct and indirect effects of the arts on learning, support systems in education that include the arts, standards in the arts, the preparation and readiness of artist teachers, the need to gather evidence to improve arts education, assessment methods for student learning, curriculum frameworks that support learning in and through the arts, and more.

Three panels of experts addressed questions that framed the remainder of the conference content: 1) What do you consider to be the critical factors for success in artists residencies? 2) What can performing arts centers do to better prepare artists to be teachers? 3) How can performing arts centers provide more and better professional-development opportunities for K-12 leaders? Arts education luminaries including James Catterall, Ella Baff, Libby Lai-Bun Chiu, Gail Burnaford, and Steve Seidel offer fascinating insights into these fundamental questions.

Acts of Achievement for all its educational pedagogy is a very hands-on tool. It offers key factors in successful artist residencies, such as Begin with a Reality Check, Emphasize Teacher Participation and Teacher-Artist Collaboration, Make the Residency Visible, and Develop Messages Tailored to a Variety of Needs. And it includes an artist residency checklist that offers guidelines for artists, teachers, arts organization coordinators, and school coordinators. These are very practical, no-nonsense guidelines that are often elusive for arts education practitioners seeking to find what works best in crafting their own residencies.

Each of the eight case studies first outlines quantitative data—the number of school districts, elementary schools, high schools, and students served annually. Then each arts center's mission is outlined, setting the stage for the goal of their residency programs. While most of the sixty-six profiles focus on performing art centers, there is a sprinkling of performing arts presenters, universities and arts education organizations that emphasize dance and theater. While each residency is unique, common threads readily emerge and indicate what works best to improve arts learning among students, enliven teaching practices, and nurture community interaction. The welcoming remarks of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser catch the essence of Acts of Achievement: “the “primary focus is on enhancing the lives of young children.”