Last week, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released a study on arts education and the news is bleak. Taking information on a 2008 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Los Angeles Times recently reported: "Among children of a college graduate, 27% said they had never taken even one arts class, compared with 12% in 1982. For children of high school graduates, the number who'd never had any arts study rose from 30% nearly 30 years ago to 66% in 2008."
This radical diminution in exposure of children to arts education has dire consequences for our arts ecology as well as our nation as a whole.
Traditionally, young children were exposed to the arts by their families and their schools. I remember playing the triangle in nursery school, singing in music class in grade school and singing in chorus and playing in the orchestra throughout my junior and senior high school days. I was an exception. When most students entered high school, they stopped their arts participation as they focused on dating, college, career and creating a family. Most people ages 18-45 had little discretionary time and money and only returned to the arts when their children were grown and their careers flourished. This influx of middle-aged ticket buyers, subscribers, donors, volunteers and board members was essential for the health and vitality of our arts organizations.
The startling fact revealed in the statistics in this new arts education report is that we cannot expect this trend to continue. Will someone with no arts experiences as a child automatically become a subscriber or donor to the arts when they hit middle age? Will they volunteer at a local dance school? Will they be willing to join the board of a theater company? I doubt it.
If not, where will the earned and unearned income for the arts come from in 20 or 30 years? The arts suffer from inflation more than other industries owing to our difficulty improving productivity. We need to add income more quickly rather than less quickly than other sectors of the economy.
As dire as the consequences may be for our field, they are much more serious for our economy as a whole.
The United States no longer depends on manufacturing as the central element of our economy. Less than 20% of our gross domestic product now comes from manufacturing, the lowest level among developed countries.
Our economic future depends on a work force that must be creative problem solvers, those who can invent new products and create new software. This means our educational system must produce creative, problem-solving graduates.
Who better to play a role in exercising the creative minds of our children than we in the arts? How are students going to build confidence in their abilities to create if they are not given access to education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic?
Those who argue that investing in arts education is frivolous are simply wrong. We do our children and grandchildren no favor by reducing deficits by cutting educational opportunities.
But arts organizations are going to have to do more and better arts education in the coming years; we are going to have to work together to create smarter, stronger more efficient arts programming for children.
The health of our field and of our nation is at stake.