When the Future is Uncertain, Look to Arts Education

03/21/2017 11:03 am ET
Arts education is more than an “extra-curricular” activity. These places are a refuge for so many students. We have an obliga
Baltimore School for the Arts
Arts education is more than an “extra-curricular” activity. These places are a refuge for so many students. We have an obligation treat them as such.

At the impressionable age of 13, I walked through the doors of the Baltimore School for the Arts for the first time. But it was like I had entered another world. I didn’t know that there was a place like BSA where teenagers were loud and gossipy one minute and taking your breath away with a pas de deux the next. Where kids stayed up all hours of the night rehearsing, painting, studying, not because we had to, but because the craft we loved so dearly demanded it.

I didn’t know that there was a place where, from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, whether you bused from the projects or woke up at 5:00 in the morning to carpool from a surrounding county, you had a place where you felt something not many teens feel. That you belonged. That you mattered. 

Attending the Baltimore School for the Arts opened plenty of doors for me. But what mattered the most is that it forced me to have an open mind, to listen, and to speak up. It stretched me in ways I never imagined. It gave me a way to see and interact with the world that has stayed with me. It gave me all the the things a school should.

On top of all that, it gave me a family. 

BSA students learn that to be an artist is to confront the biggest questions. What does it means to be human? The arts give us ways to express the things a tweet never will. To be an artist is to see the beauty in things—from mundane experiences to our deepest fears and sorrows—and to help others do the same. Being an artist is about imagining and creating a better, more perfect world if not for a fleeting moment. Getting there takes courage, empathy, and no shortage of hard, hard work. It takes curiosity and openness to the fact that your way may not be the only—or the best—way to get it done. Qualities in people that seem to matter more by the day. 

It isn’t easy to make a young artist. But it’s happening each day at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Our city, our country, our world for that matter cannot afford to lose this oasis. At a time of deep divisions, the arts bring people together like nothing else. Don’t believe me? Go there and see for yourself

But it would be shortsighted to think only about now. How will the world change in the next 50 years? Let us not forget that the students who will graduate from high school in 2017 have never lived in a world without the internet. They weren’t born yet when the Google search engine was developed. They were learning to walk and talk when Facebook launched. 

In short, today’s students will inherit, and as such be the ones who must confront, new kinds of challenges. The questions they will need to answer are the ones that may very well shake us, as a society, to the core: Are we ready for self-driving cars? Will we still have faith in democracy and freedom? Will we work together to protect our planet from climate change? Will we stand with people who don’t look like us, live like us, or love like us? In times of change, will we be cynical or will we take action? 

I’ve seen how the arts have a way of transcending even the toughest challenges. How music speaks when words can’t. How a powerful photograph can capture us and make us question the things we believe. How the arts help us find meaning and purpose even in tough times. 

BSA prepares students to succeed not only in the professional arts world, but in any field they eventually enter.
Baltimore School for the Arts
BSA prepares students to succeed not only in the professional arts world, but in any field they eventually enter.

Today’s kids will be tasked with solving a multitude of problems they weren’t around to create (nor old enough to vote against). Are we doing all we can to make sure they’re ready? It’s on us to prepare them to the best of our ability. And I would argue that nothing can do this the way an arts education can. We can’t afford not to fund these programs.

A budget isn’t just about money—it’s about values. We can’t prepare kids for an uncertain future if we don’t prioritize their education. Baltimore City Schools now face a massive $130 million deficit for the 2017-2018 school year. The deficit means that schools will have to cut most “extra” programming, including arts programs. If state and city leaders do not work together to prioritize closing the gap, BSA risks losing 75 of its 90 part-time arts faculty. These teachers are crucial to the school’s ability to provide top-notch pre-professional training to young artists.

State funds could help close the gap, but Governor Larry Hogan, who campaigned on a platform of decreased state spending, will need to step up to the plate. It is wrong to cut corners and play politics with kids’ futures. To categorize arts programs as merely “supplemental” or “extra-curricular” is deeply misguided. When we fail to acknowledge the life-changing role these programs play, we miss their true value.

The Baltimore School for the Arts really has been onto this since it opened its doors over 30 years ago. Many of its graduates are successful artists, some wildly successful at that. They are also Ivy League students, bankers, and entrepreneurs. Others are teachers and administrators, some who have come back to work at the school they love. In a city where so much is broken, BSA is something that works. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to lose. We can’t solve new problems with old thinking. We need to think outside the box. We need creativity. We need visionaries. And by God, we need arts education. 

Though I did not become a professional musician, the gifts BSA gave me are endless, and I continue to see them. 

It was the memory of playing Piazzolla tangos years later as a college student studying abroad in Argentina. 

It was submitting a 50-page research paper in Spanish, but only after thanking Señor Tabegna. 

It was moving to Silicon Valley to work in education technology, because every kid should be exposed to people and ideas the way I was at BSA, and there are exciting new ways to make that happen. 

It is the joy of watching the girl who sat next to me in chemistry tour the world with Alvin Ailey. 

It is the days I take my viola out of the case and play again, remembering the haven I had at 712 Cathedral Street. 

Governor Hogan and Mayor Pugh, I call on you to #FixTheGap. We cannot accept a Baltimore without a Baltimore School for the Arts. The world needs Baltimore’s young artists, perhaps now more than ever.  

Not every kid who walks through BSA’s doors will be a Jada Pinkett Smith or a Broadway star. (Some will, and that’s awesome). But you know what they will all be regardless of where they end up? Empathetic. Optimistic. Disruptive. Unafraid. Everything a citizen of this world should be. 

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