Among the many treasures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month are fifty-eight works of art by New York City public school kids. Handsomely set along the corridors of the Uris Education Center, these works were judged from a thousand submissions to the annual competition offered by New York City's Department of Education, with support from Bank of America and Studio in a School. The artists range in age from four to nineteen; they work in photography, sculpture, collage, painting, and drawing. The work is breath-taking.
These are very, very talented children. Each of the thousand children whose work their teachers submitted were honored and specially recognized. And behind that thousand are thousands more children whose school days are brightened and whose lives are enriched by dedicated teachers and artists in the public schools, including those from Studio in a School. When I attended the opening of the exhibition PS ART 2009, I was struck by the artistic display of both the children's insights into reality as well as their aspirations. As one six year old expresses in an exhibition label, "...I did it on my own and got the idea by myself."
Much of the work confronts and challenges the viewer directly; portraits predominate. And in almost all of them, the artists--from pre-kindergarden to fifth grade to high school--look piercingly at the world. These are personal, direct, searching projections of themselves, their families, and friends and ones which viewers share with these young citizens. The work also frequently examines the urban environment. Over and over again, the children show the piled up, spilled over, busily overbuilt places in which they live. Sometimes the city stares: In one bright red painting, a city block has a shuttered storefront, a space "for rent," closed doors, drawn curtains. Sometimes the city sparkles: In a tall, thin vertical rendering, a team of young artists celebrates the dizzying diversity and altitude of the city, drawing buildings that rise up and up, on top of each other. "I want viewers to think about the buildings and how beautiful they are," a nine year old writes.
Studio in a School (SIAS), a non-profit organization, was founded in 1977 in response to city budget cuts that virtually eliminated arts education in the New York City schools. In 2004, its director, Tom Cahill, and his co-chair, Barbara Gurr, worked to create the "Blueprint for Learning and Teaching the Arts," the first comprehensive, multi-dimensional grade-wide framework for arts education in the school system. For more than 31 years, SIAS has engaged more than 400,000 students, 300 artists and teachers in 750 schools in arts education. As noted by The Fund for Public Schools' Vice Chair Caroline Kennedy, "In a city where more than 150 languages are spoken in the homes of our students, art is a universal language." And SIAS and The Fund for Public Schools ensure that good teachers and good teaching are encouraged in their dedicated work in classrooms across the City.
When SIAS was founded, I hoped that it would help to save the arts in the schools. I also hoped that it would help children and their families and teachers develop visual literacy so they could make informed judgments about the world they inhabit. Knowing how to look can help people improve the quality of their lives, appreciate the buildings and the landscape architecture around them, assess architecture and roadways, and insist on good parks and pathways. I also hoped that capturing their experiences through art would help people understand each other. I greatly honor efforts that use the arts to help resolve conflict and misunderstanding, to reach toward community, to celebrate colors in paint and on paper, and also in different populations. If we listen to what the children say, these ambitions do not seem too high. As one young sculptor says, "As a recent immigrant ...I feel terrible when I don't know how to express my feelings and thoughts... Art provides me with a way...When I create, my confidence builds and I am better prepared to face the future." Art can break through barriers and build connection.
There is an exciting future for arts education. There is nothing to regret or restrain, and there are always rewards--creativity, expressiveness, and sensitivity to others and to the environment, concern for community. The wonder is that once again--as in the nineteen seventies, when we created Studio in a School--the arts throughout our educational systems are being threatened and pulled out of our childrens lives. Today, once again, intelligent citizens and leaders should muster support for arts education. In our school systems--large and small, urban or suburban or rural, new or well embedded--arts provide a sure place in which all children benefit, all children learn, and all children clarify themselves and communicate to each other.