Learning and the Arts: Crossing Boundaries

Vicki Rosenberg, Janet Rodriguez, Nick Rabkin, and Alexandra Christy

When I see what you see
The distance between us disappears.
— Miguel Algarin

Between January 12 and 14, 2000, 120 grantmakers from fifty foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Arts came together at the Getty Center in Los Angeles for an unprecedented boundary-breaking event. Their topic was the arts' potential for improving the lives of children in this country. The group included leading arts, education, and youth development grantmakers — among them fifteen CEOs and four trustees — eager to think, talk, and plan across their traditional disciplinary lines.

The meeting, dubbed Learning and the Arts: Crossing Boundaries, was the product of two years of research and planning started by Nick Rabkin and Vicki Rosenberg, senior program officers for the John D. and Catharine T. MacArthur Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust respectively. They were concerned about the limited support arts education receives from foundations and public agencies despite growing evidence that it can make very significant contributions to children's learning and development especially in the information age. Arts education too often falls through the cracks between grantmakers' education and arts dockets, is considered peripheral in education policy, and is reduced to education about the arts in cultural organizations. The Getty and MacArthur foundations with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation hosted the meeting.

What do the arts contribute to education? And what sort of experiences must people have to benefit from them? Over the two-day event, grantmakers were immersed in thought-provoking discussions about these questions.

The vision of arts education that began to emerge at Learning and the Arts moved well beyond the conventions of school art or music curriculums, enrichment, or pre-professional training.

Elliot Eisner from Stanford's School of Education discussed the skills and competencies the arts develop in students. These included critical thinking skills, informed perception, the ability to solve complex problems that often have multiple solutions, the ability to be an effective team member, the ability to tolerate ambiguity, and appreciation of different cultures. Contrary to popular wisdom, which views the arts as being about affect and expression only, Eisner described them as a crossroads, where emotion and representation are mediated by cognition.

Ken Robinson, who recently chaired a commission on the future of arts education for the Blair government in the United Kingdom, reviewed the history of the arts in education. He reminded us that the arts have always been marginalized. There has never been a “golden age” when the arts were available to all children or included in the core of the curriculum for all students. Robinson believes that all educational systems respond to the intellectual demands of the economic systems in which they are embedded. So, he argued it should not be surprising that the arts were a stepchild of education in the industrial age. The new economy demands a different set of intellectual skill sets and cognitive inclinations — for creativity, innovation, critical, synthetic, and systemic thinking. These are habits of mind that are cultivated effectively by the arts.

Rudy Crew, the former New York City School Chancellor, approached the question from the practical point of view of the manager of a major school system. He reflected Eisner and Robinson when he urged that education be about developing the whole child — academic, social, and personal growth are the goals of education. The arts, he said, must be part of the curriculum because they are at the crossroads of these three goals.

Eisner and Robinson's theoretical perspectives were supported by mounting evidence of deep learning and development in arts programs in and outside schools. Shirley Brice Heath, James Catterall, Steve Seidel, and other researchers reviewed the significance of their findings in several important recent studies.

Hands-on workshops were led by leading art educators and artist/ educators from programs across the country. These provided just a taste of the depth and complexity of new approaches to arts education, but they deepened understanding of the arts' power in learning and development.

Arts education that meets the needs of the new economy and a high standard for learning and development is:

  • multi-disciplinary, open to the new technologies, and offers children the opportunity to find the discipline that is their best fit;
  • sequential and developmentally appropriate;
  • sustained over years, not just weeks or months, with adequate financial, policy, and material support — children, teachers, and programs have good supplies and materials, room to work, access to knowledge, and opportunities to present their work to a broader community;
  • fun and engaging, but also rigorous and disciplined;
  • deeply cognitive, affective, and physical.

Schools, cultural organizations, and youth and community organizations must change to deliver this sort of arts education. The promise of Learning and the Arts is that grantmakers, working together and across the boundaries of their programs, can play a significant role in stimulating these changes.

With that in mind, a smaller group of grantmakers spent an additional day together in early May to consider how Learning and the Arts might take shape as a multi-funder, multi-disciplinary initiative. From that meeting, an expanded leadership team has emerged that includes leading grantmakers in education and youth development as well as the arts. In the months ahead, this team will consider opportunities for action, particularly in the areas of further research, advocacy, and field building.

Vicki Rosenberg is senior program officer, Getty Grant Program. Janet Rodriguez is program officer and Alexandra Christy is senior program officer, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Nick Rabkin is senior
program officer, MacArthur Foundation.