Sunday, February 7, 2010

State of the arts - is there still time for culture?

State of the Arts

04:31 PM CST on Friday, February 5, 2010

Today’s education debate revolves almost solely around testing, benchmarks and foreign competition. With the focus on results, is there still time in the school day for the arts? The Wallace Foundation believes so; it recently renewed a multimillion-dollar grant to continue funding Thriving Minds, a partnership between Dallas, DISD and cultural organizations designed to expose students to the arts. Points turned to Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, to talk about where the arts stand today.

What is the state of arts in public schools?

Nationwide, it’s frankly alarming. The arts are increasingly being reduced or eliminated as budgets become tighter and there is an increased emphasis on empirical testing to determine student achievement. For those concerned about the future of humanities in American civic life, those are alarming trends.

Can the arts help at-risk kids?

This is the day-to-day work we do at the theater center. Truth is, the most important thing for kids who are disconnected from positive role models or healthy relationships with their peers is to connect with something outside themselves, something bigger than just them, to belong and have someone care about you and demand things of you. That’s clarinet lessons, play practice or tap dance class. You’re going to show up on time, have your tap shoes and learn this difficult combination. That takes practice, time and discipline.

Take high school kids who are experiencing a sense of isolation. Put them in a play where they have to work with each other to tell a story. That’s very, very powerful.

How do you reconcile this with the fact that the U.S. is falling behind in math, science and engineering?

Mathematical skills are absolutely important in terms of being able to turn a vision or idea into reality. Math by itself cannot change the world. It absolutely requires a vision about what society can and should be. Numbers didn’t come up with the Internet. The Internet has embedded in it notions of dreams of how people could communicate. You need those things hand-in-glove with technological expertise to figure out how to make it work.

Is there a big-city school district that’s doing arts correctly?

There really isn’t one, but the Wallace Foundation is providing resources to try and understand what it takes to get t right. I think Dallas is closer to getting it right than almost any other major city, but we have a long way to go.

I’m sitting in my office and can look out the window and see the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I teach in the school a couple of times a week, and its students have a lot of access to the work that we and other theater groups do. That is a shining jewel of what the best of arts education can be at the secondary level, not only in Dallas but around the country. The collaboration that we’re doing is to the best of my knowledge unprecedented in the United States — the idea that a professional arts organization would have such a close, embedded relationship with a public school, actually teach in the classroom and engage the students in the artistic life.

Increasing the number of kids who have access to seeing great works of arts — to mentors or teachers and to groups connected to those arts so it more than “let’s get in a bus and go see a play” — is the goal. Booker T. is doing that, but in a perfect world, what would make Dallas the absolute leader and pinnacle of that is if those opportunities could be shared with all children.

Why are the arts important?

A democracy can only flourish if we as a people share common goals, vision and ideals. It promotes empathy if people can put themselves into someone else’s shoes. Otherwise, you’d be in a dog-eat-dog society. The ability to allow someone to step outside themselves is something the arts have always done.

Is there a link between the arts and critical thinking?

People argue, “Oh, you’ll become better at mathematics” or “You’ll get higher grades and be more likely to get into college.” Yes, there are studies that show that, but I think those are relatively tangential to the real importance — critical thinking. Great works of dance or literature or theater or music invite you to step outside of yourself and grapple with things that are abstract and often, by their very nature, unsolvable.

This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Jim Mitchell. His e-mail address is Kevin Moriarty’s e-mail address is