Collaboration is the Key to Delivering Arts Education to All

Regional Arts Commission St. Louis

Through surveys, interviews, and group discussions, with residents, arts and cultural organizations, and artists, through EVOKE, we’ve heard an overwhelming call for more arts education—especially for St. Louis children and youth—in schools and throughout the community.

While the desire and need for more arts education is ever present, we’d like to acknowledge some of the arts education programs that are currently doing phenomenal work and making an impact on our community.

For over 30 years, COCA has activated the power of arts education in St. Louis through its programming and recently launched  a bold $40 million campaign to expand its University City facility to include a 450-seat theatre, an 8,000 square-foot new studio space, and more. Stages St. Louis has purchased a $2.8 million building in Chesterfield, Missouri, which will house their growing community outreach and musical theatre education programs, including JumpStart, a new nationally funded program for middle school students. Metro Theater Company, Springboard, and the Children’s Choir are just a few of several established and mission-driven arts education organizations already serving the arts education and enrichment needs of young people throughout the region.

The greatest challenges: accessibility and equity.

While these and many other arts organizations in St. Louis have education and enrichment programs of their own, these organizations acknowledge that they are disconnected from each other, diminishing their collective impact and impeding their ability to deliver high quality arts education to all children. In an EVOKE workshop for about 80 St. Louis arts and cultural organizations, there was a strong consensus for improvement to arts education within the school systems throughout the region. This invites an opportunity to develop a new, collaborative approach to arts education across the region—one that builds on the collective efforts of these organizations, teaching artists, and partners outside the arts.

Perhaps more importantly, it is widely acknowledged that arts programming isn’t available to everyone. St. Louis offers a wide range of educational opportunities outside the school setting, but arts education within schools is unequal. Some schools provide arts-rich programming, while others have none. There are currently generations of people who have come through the St. Louis Public Schools who have never had arts education—meaning not only are there kids in school now who have never had arts education, but their parents also never had art education. Those parents don’t have a frame of reference to advocate for arts education. They can’t say, “I want you to have piano lessons because I know what it did for me.” Furthermore, there are teachers in classrooms today who have never taught students who were also receiving arts education, meaning they can’t speak to what it might accomplish to include the arts in a classroom lesson.

“It’s about the schools. Invest in getting arts back into the regular curriculum. Arts organizations are trying to fill the gaps but lots of kids are not getting any drama, music or dance. We have to invest in our young people.” – Arts Organization Discussion Group

Amanda Wells, founder of FLOW—a writing center that offers a range of writing workshops and events to the public—is working to bring arts education to all St. Louisans in an equitable way.

“Art is a fundamental practice of the human experience,” says Wells. “It helps us understand, reflect, and process the world and others around us. St. Louis is a city that is in flux and pain, and we need to create shared experiences where we can encounter, appreciate, and embrace difference. We can create those experiences through art and move forward as a more inclusive city and more understanding individuals.”

Like many other arts organizations in the region, FLOW has to find ways to reach their audience, circumvent obstacles, and deliver its services to them. “Though I think we are seeing some improvement, location and transportation can be barriers to engagement,” says Wells. “We are a city of urban sprawl and commuting. It’s one reason that FLOW is launching an online community. Accessibility is something we have to be conscious of, and it can be difficult to find funding to help reduce those barriers. Technology can help with some of that, but again, the financial resources to do that can be hard to secure.”

Wells also feels that collaboration is the key to solving the issue of equitable access to arts education. “Art tends to have a complex web of gatekeeping and exclusivity associated with it,” she says. “I think that by re-defining and re-educating the public (and even institutions and business) about the civic function and human necessity of art, we can begin to change the public perception of what constitutes art and who it’s for. I think projects like EVOKE are a good start in that direction. Let’s do more of this, please. And collaborating with other cities. That would help a ton. We’re starting to do that with FLOW, and it’s been a lovely process thus far.”