THE BLOG
09/06/2016 10:46 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2017

Sending the Wrong Message

When I was a kid, I remember going to the bank with my parents and being given a little folding cardboard book that was shaped like an elephant. In this book were slots for me to save nickels. Once I loaded it with nickels I could bring it back and have my own account. This was my introduction to banking. I remember always having a passbook savings account. Few people under the age of 50 know what that is. Anyway, what does an elephant know about saving money? Was this a subliminal message from the G.O.P? I jest.)

In ninth grade I took a career placement test. I am not sure who administered it but I do remember that my recommended options were nursing and music. That must have stuck with me because when I went to college I did not have the nerve to major in vocal performance but I decided on the field of music therapy. The school I attended, University of the Pacific, is one of the few that offered a program at that time. After about a year, though, and with the encouragement of my teachers, I changed to vocal performance and transferred to Juilliard. After a few months my teacher there told me I would never have a career and to go back home. I know what it is like to be told you cannot aspire to do what you love. I changed teachers.

I am fortunate to have had a father and mother who were artistic. My mother had a very good voice but gave up her pursuit of being a professional singer to have my brother and me. She continued, though, to sing in amateur groups. My father had a degree in art and had to find creative ways to incorporate it into his careers, which he did quite successfully as an advertising guy, the writer and publisher of Family Camping Magazine, as head of public relations for two regional offices in the National Park Service, as Superintendent of a park and as a Methodist clergyman. He used his knowledge of the arts and his own illustration in all of these.

There was only one time I can remember worrying about how I was going to make a living and that was after grad school and also after the failed first, and distressing marriage. I realized I had little money and had to get my act together as a singer so I started doing some temp work to pay for lessons that I really needed in order to do better. It paid off. I never considered going back to school to complete my music therapy degree at that time. (Much later when I was having a crisis of purpose, I did consider it.)

This all leads to a recent advertisement that a large financial institution placed this week to appeal to teenagers to help them learn about financial matters. The bank is hosting a teen day. In a sense, I suppose the idea is a good one, especially for those headed off to college who need to navigate the complexities of establishing a credit rating, applying for school loans, etc.

Where it backfired was that the ad pictured student performing artists: a ballerina and an actor looking forward to becoming scientists with the help of said financial institution. The underlying message was, "Give up your dreams and talents and look for the money. The Arts are just a hobby and there is no possibility of a career."

There was immediate outrage from the arts community and parents and even grandparents, thanks to the positive wonder of social media. (Remember, too that a graphic ARTIST had to design the ad.)

In reaction to the outrage the bank issued an apology, removed the ad, and apparently fired the person who created it. This financial institution, like many others, supports the arts in many ways both high and low profile. My initial reaction was to trash them but I realized that they are also quite philanthropic, especially toward the arts, so I held off any knee-jerk-reaction article.

That said, it saddens me that anyone could imagine the message in the initial offering.
Here are a few of the choice comments I read on social media:

What? Is this for real?

I used to hate it when people would ask me what I planned "to do" with my music degree! Who do they think plays the music they listen to?

It's not a question of "either, or". If we want to raise children to be complete human beings, it has to be "both".

I have a student that was with Price Waterhouse & now sings at Covent Garden!

I have 2 music degrees, and have spent half of my life making my living in a non-arts business. When not at my job, I have been feeding my soul, and hopefully enriching my community, making music and theater, onstage, offstage, and backstage. The fact that I have a degree of any kind has opened doors that would have remained closed, and I like to think that my employer felt that my arts background and activity has made me a more valuable and interesting employee.

I guess it's time for Domingo to go into nursing? Or Mic Jagger could maybe study computer science? Get those real jobs that pay well?

Ive been told this all my life, to have a reliable career. Except most of the people who went that route, now at 35 hate their lives.

This ad stinks. Sincerely, An actor whose mortgage you hold

I wonder what the outcry would have been if they were youth athletes.

..the way this add was executed supports the cultural narrative that the arts are something we do as a hobby while the "real" work is in more important areas like science. It supports the idea that arts can exist, but they should be in utilitarian service to other endeavors.

So many kids who are artists are put down and attacked in ways that range from subtle to physically and emotionally aggressive. Too many kids would not even want to go to school if it weren't for their art classes--dance, music, theatre, art...those things that enhance our humanity in a world rapidly stripping it away.

Execs should not be allowed to go to movies, watch tv, read books, listen to music, dance or look at pictures or photography of any kind and only be able to watch the Super Bowl but without the commercials or half time show.

And on it goes.

Why did this ad ever happen?
Who decides how much you absolutely have to make?
We each compose our life to our aspirations, loves and responsibilities.

Where is the much-needed message that the arts make one a whole person? Humanity, society, sciences, religion are all enhanced by and reflected in the arts. There is always need for a proverbial mirror which the arts provide as a reminder that emotional well-being is more than about possessions. Moreover, each human being has a gift and if they are lucky they can follow through and realize it, whether it be a gift for sciences, humanities, arts. (As I write this I think of the many universities that have Colleges of Arts and Science. Interesting that the two are connected.)

I encourage many of my students to see a larger picture when working on music... history, literature, biographical information, language, and yes sometimes even science. Many would say music is science. Many would say reading music is akin to learning a language. Dance of all types is an athletic endeavor, without a doubt. Perhaps if people saw it that way there would be more interest. The Arts can no more live in a void than the Sciences.

There is an entire culture of people who are afraid of the classical arts and thereby afraid of what they don't know and don't understand. (It seems to be an epidemic in many other areas of our society as well). Who cannot "get" the honesty and humanity reflected in all the arts? Only those who do not dare discover it.

Sadly, I have had some students who have told me that their parents just don't understand what they do, or hope to do, and they ask how to explain it to them. That is a tough question in certain cultures which I so wish I could answer. The only answer I have is to live my life as an artist is a way larger than myself, through philathropy, education, outreach and more.

As Francis Bacon wrote, "Knowledge is Power "

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons is of two squirrels up on high tree branch. They are watching a flying squirrel who apparently just made the jump. The one squirrel says to the other, "You will never know until you try".

We do a disservice to the youth of our country by discouraging them from participating in, attending and yes even choosing the arts as a profession. We are doomed for a grim future if we do not change this image, approach, belief, practice, message.

My version of the aforementioned ad might look a few ways:

" A ballerina yesterday. A ballerina tomorrow. An arts supporter and philathropist in the future."
or
"an actor today, a chemist, actor and audience member in the future "
or
"a musician today, a parent of a musician tomorrow."

Our financial institutions, political parties, local and state governments, tech industry, sports organizations, and all of us as citizens need to step up to the plate to help get the right message out.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science."
Albert Einstein