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Act Now for Young Artists: Save All the Cultural Future We Will Ever Have

ISSUE 5 • April 2020

I Paint. I Draw. I Conquer. Painted on a wall.

By Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

This blog post belongs to WolfBrown’s series, Navigating the Crisis. This series is a collection of research papers, blogs and announcements that critically examine the arts sector’s response to COVID-19. In this piece, Dennie Palmer Wolf calls for a greater focus on protecting youth arts programs in the face of COVID-19. She lays out critical ways that foundations, donors, state governments, and arts institutions can work with youth to ensure our collective cultural future. 

Right this minute there are roughly 42 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 in the United States. Some are future artists, performers, and writers.  And many of them are deciding whether to push ahead and apply for summer programs that may be canceled and keep saving for a private lesson when their hard-won $150 will occur in the tiny window of a home computer, or if, in an economy this fragile they should even think about being a writer. Their creative lives – and ours –hang by a thread. So as foundations, donors, state governments, and arts institutions themselves work to save arts and cultural institutions from collapse, we cannot afford to first balance books, retain valued staff, get the doors open, and only then turn back to young people whom once upon a time we welcomed, educated, and employed. We face exactly the harsh calculus of COVID-19: ignore the creative needs of young people now and await a barren, narrow, and even more privilege-riven cultural future.

We face exactly the harsh calculus of COVID-19: ignore the creative needs of young people now and prepare for a barren, narrow, and even more privilege-riven cultural future.

This essay is a stake in the ground. Over the ensuing weeks, we will write regularly about the concrete ways in which young artists and their advocates are acting to preserve and re-invent the possibility of a creative future for 42 million future makers, performers, listeners, and watchers. To open the bidding, here are immediate imperatives for the many players who can make a difference in this moment to consider:

Philanthropy: Fund Youth Arts Explicitly

Many emergency funding plans have formed or are forming. Most of these plans focus on institutions (museums, theater companies, libraries or studios). They are understandably respectful of dictating programs or employment practices. But we are already seeing what happens without an explicit and proactive stance that includes earmarked dollars for programs for young artists. Young people’s programs are largely staffed by free-lance teaching artists—thousands of whom have been let go, eviscerating much of the programming that gave young artists access to live practice. Now conjure a different world in which those cuts were considered a loss on the level of canceling a major exhibition or furloughing musicians. In that world emergency funds would include a designated category of funding for youth-serving arts organizations. Or applicant institutions might receive extra dollars if they could demonstrate a commitment to sustaining high-quality programs serving youth and young adults.

And what about the future beyond immediate survival? What if applicants agreed to share public access to their proposals and the creation of an open-source directory of applicants to promote stronger and more innovative practices in the field of youth arts? And what if the accountability for receiving a grant wasn’t the standard-issue final report, or glossy video, but an obligation to share what was learned (including barriers to change and failures) with at least two other youth-serving arts organizations? (This proposal reflects the inspiring approach that the MacArthur Foundation took in sourcing and reviewing applications to its 100&Change Initiative and then to translating the fruits of that effort into field knowledge.)

Media and Technology: Re-invent Online Learning

Only last week, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship proceeded as an open online conference. One of the sessions, featuring the work of The Citizens Foundation, sponsors of a network of schools in low-income nations, was devoted to schooling without schools. Development specialists from Africa, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom spoke about lessons from online learning during earlier school closures (during the H.I.V. and Ebola crises). One speaker after another insisted that the first goal has to be keeping young people engaged and seeing themselves as curious, able learners, using every and all media available: Internet, television, radio, and flyers available in newspapers and food shops.

We have to re-think online learning, not as an archive or frozen classroom, but as an artistic medium – flexible, full of potential, and worth exploring – with young people.

They urged all of us facing COVID-19 to turn young people loose on noticing what and who is around them. Take advantage of the chaotic social world where learning will be happening—a fifth-grade mathematics lesson could attract a primary school sibling or reach a mother who never had the chance to complete school. Use those eleven-year-olds as flashpoints for everyone’s learning.

But the current rush to online learning (urgent as it is) has, in many cases, returned us to a world of full-frontal chalk-‘n-talk reminiscent of the earliest, stiffest days of educational television. Few current online offerings match or stretch the capacities of middle and high school students who are ready to take on long-term projects, use their gaming experience to work in digital teams, and invent new possibilities for virtual exchanges. Many arts organizations have fought off online teaching and learning, arguing it was a poor substitute for actually dancing, doing scene work, or sketching outdoors.  True. But we have to re-think online learning: It is not a meat locker we can raid for pre-recorded and quickly repurposed content. It is a studio or a theater filled with possible choices –full of potential, expressive, and worth exploring. The playwriting challenge sponsored by the Children’s Museum and Theater in Portland, Maine offers a compelling example with its open invitation to all authors under 18 to write anything “from realistic family dramas to utter absurdity.” Participants can write solo or with partners, negotiating a linked series of ten core theatrical challenges, each backed up with written and recorded materials, plus a live daily session of playwriting advice from theater professionals. It culminates with support for casting, designing, and producing the completed play right at home.

What consortium of developers, artists, and donors will do the work of reimaging online learning in partnership with young people, making spaces for them as the next generations of designers, technicians, and audiences and teaching them the hard and soft skills they need to continue to lead this work? In this moment, who will step forward to be the young adult Sesame Street, designing vivid content taught in more adventurous ways, connecting to public archives, and led and inspired by living, breathing, and compelling artists who can speak to the joys and terrors of making original work? 

Also see what 826 Digital is posting for young writers stuck at home. Or have a look at what Berklee School of Music is offering through its program, Pulse. In the visual arts explore the Getty, Metropolitan, and RijksMuseum invitations to re-stage famous works that have generated wildly imaginative, and very acute, renditions like an archaic archer re-staged by a woman who valiantly handles the curved bow of her vacuum cleaner as if a goddess-warrior of the cleaning wars. Alternatively, see what the Rijksmueum in Amsterdam created in its Rijkstudio where viewers can assemble their own “exhibitions” and even download images from the collection for use in their own works at 

Cultural Venues:  Engage Young People as Cultural Citizens

When the lights come back on, they ought to shine down on a much clearer and more civic-oriented mission for venues: creating engaged cultural citizens—young people who know how to use, enjoy, and hold accountable the cultural institutions that are theirs.

Theaters, concert halls, even libraries have gone dark. But when the lights come back on, they ought to shine down on a much clearer and more civic mission: creating engaged cultural citizens—young people who know how to use, enjoy, and hold accountable the cultural institutions that are rightfully theirs. Consider the Brooklyn Public Library’s proposed campaign for a Twenty-Eighth Amendment that was scheduled for the spring of 2020. The invitation that went up at the main and branch libraries read: This spring, BPL (Brooklyn Public Library) invites the public to help draft the 28thamendment to the U. S. constitution. Through a series of open Town Hall-style forums held at libraries, detention centers, and high schools, Brooklynites will discuss and debate the issues that they believe a new Amendment should address. Find a Town Hall near you.

So what if a network of cultural venues (libraries, theaters, parks, history museums and more) collaborated to offer a course to every 8th or 10th-grade student in every high school? The course could be organized around four to six class field trips to the kinds of arts and cultural venues where young people often feel intimidated, or even unwelcome. In addition, on their own, young people could seek out and attend a half dozen other cultural events in their own communities. These events could be full-on “downtown” plays or concerts, but they might also be field trips to a capoeira exhibition at a family-owned studio, a Sunday service gospel, or a public hearing about the design of a new park in their neighborhood.  The point? To come to understand and own public cultural spaces by becoming active members: writing reviews, creating adolescent-eye tours, and taking part in talkbacks. The result could be many more young people, from many more ZIP Codes, who go to readings, who check out new books, and who take their siblings to dance festivals in public plazas. They are the audiences of 2025, 2050, and 2075. They will organize for arts education in their children’s schools. They may come out for public meetings about parks and whose statues belong there.

Crazy? Maybe not. In New York, the organization, Cool Culture, partners with over 450 schools and early education programs to provide more than 50,000 historically marginalized families and their young children with free, unlimited admission to a network of 90 museums, historical societies, zoos, and botanical gardens. The City of Amsterdam guarantees every student not only in school arts education, but also access to out-of-school time arts programs. It is considered part of becoming a citizen of the city. If venues want future audiences, then the standard tactics of offering low-price tickets and presenting popular favorites may not be the most powerful mechanisms. Every study we have of adult cultural engagement points back to early and active engagement.

Aust, R., & Vine, L. (Eds.). (2007). Taking part: the national survey of culture, leisure and sport. London: Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Orend, R. J., & Keegan, C. (1996). Education and Arts Participation: A Study of Arts Socialization and Current Arts; Nagel, I. (2010). Cultural participation between the ages of 14 and 24: intergenerational transmission or cultural mobility?. European Sociological Review26(5), 541-556. -Related Activities Using 1982 and 1992 SPPA Data.

School Districts: Intern to Learn

When schools open up again, the likelihood is that resources for arts teaching will be sparse. There will most likely be an emphasis on making up for lost time in basics like reading and mathematics. In addition, recession economics may starve local tax receipts leading to cuts in public school funding. Past experience suggests that specialized arts courses and activities are among the most vulnerable line items. Yet these are precisely the opportunities that young artists, especially those who depend on free public programs, need the most in order to continue to develop as creators.  Internships—working and learning while placed in an arts and cultural organization—provide a much-needed avenue for addressing the needs of young people who want to pursue the arts and culture as a profession. Exactly like students in auto-mechanics or medical technician courses, students in creative courses should leave the classroom for real-world placements, earning high school credit and acquiring vital career and post-secondary skills in the creative field they wish to enter.  A potentially complementary summer program, the Bloomberg Arts Internship, is already up and running in four major cities: Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The evidence is striking: the programs attract more applicants than they can handle, organizations of all kinds are willing to host interns, and longitudinal data suggest that alumni engage in the arts and culture at levels that far exceed those of their peers. Districts need to step up and offer the arts and culture what they do for students in career and technical education.

Employment: Re-think Youth Employment 

The contemporary press reports daily on the numbers of arts organizations furloughing their part-time staff. Teaching artists, docents, and education and community staff—these organizations’ first responders—are out the door (along with their skills). But in the shadow of this loss is another: the positions that young people hold as teaching assistants, mentors, and workshop managers in those same programs are also being cut. For many youth, these positions have triple weight. First, such jobs provide access to higher levels of learning and responsibility in the creative fields young people hope someday to enter. Second, they provide meaningful employment in creative fields, often to young people whose families cannot afford tuition-based classes or camps. Finally, they model what is missing in much youth employment—the opportunity to work in a setting that sees you as a learner. In North America, almost 80% of high-school students work part-time for pay before they graduate from high school and by 12th grade, 70% of students are employed more than 20 hours a week during the summer. However, 60% of youth workers are employed in retail or restaurant jobs, working minimum wage, with little access to doing the kind of work that would ever let them out from behind the counter.

By contrast, consider the example of JAMM, a community music program in Juneau, Alaska, where middle school students actively learn how to pass on their skills to younger people, acquiring organizational and teaching skills that will stand them in good stead on any collaborative team.

In terms of formal employment, Say Sí, a creative youth development organization in San Antonio, Texas annually hires nearly 20 high school mentors and a dozen college students, providing them with training and promoting them within the organization. At present, three employees have traveled from student to staff, including the present Director of Programs.  If implemented widely, and leading to stable paid positions, this pattern of rising levels of opportunity and responsibility could be one of the major contributions of arts programs to the wider field of creative youth development.

Everyone All Together: Disrupting Inequity

In every sector of our lives COVID-19 has x-rayed and magnified the inequalities that pervade “the land of opportunity.” There is no sheltering in place if you are homeless; there is no healthy eating if your family is eating out of Dollar General; there is no online learning if you are 18, without a computer, and unable to pay your phone’s data charges.

Our system rations imagination according to social class and ZIP Code. The present crisis only makes things worse as everyone finds themselves in a Darwinian world with scarce resources.  But this is precisely the time when we have to take stock of crushing inequities, not yearn for light at the end of the tunnel.

Becoming an artist has never been easy in the U.S. and it is particularly difficult for poor students. Public education, on which many families depend for opportunities, typically offers only once weekly music or visual art lessons. Throughout the country, poor students and students of color have fewer, shorter, and more interrupted opportunities to learn in the arts. In the last generation, arts activities have increasingly become pay-to-play opportunities, carrying tuition, materials, and travel fees that limit who can join. Earlier this winter, I saw a spring catalogue from a public elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that offered fabulous arts opportunities: at close to $500 for 16 sessions. How many families will have to pass when the stark choice is rent, food, or arts education at such a price?

Young artists emerge from this system unevenly prepared, a condition that persists into post-secondary training and their working lives (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. 2013. An Uneven Canvas: Inequalities in Artistic Training and Careers). One late night at CVS, I stood behind a young woman Xeroxing her drawings to apply to her city’s high school of the arts, with the machine turning her stunning portraits of wild birds to smudged, gray phantoms at a quarter per page. If she goes on to art school, she, like many young women and people of color, will struggle to belong, to network, and to find internships or paid work to finance her student debt. Her future as a working artist is fragile.

Put plainly, the path to participation in arts and culture has always been steep, but increasingly, it has become a narrow, exclusive toll road. Our system rations imagination according to social class and ZIP Code. The present crisis only makes things worse as everyone finds themselves in a Darwinian world with scarce resources.  But this is precisely the time when we have to take stock of crushing inequities, not yearn for light at the end of the tunnel.  We owe young people fundamental disruptions to such a system.

Consider this concrete example: Research on young musicians tells us that the most powerful accelerating factor is having good private lessons, early and over time. So what if in this online moment, a consortium of funders, together with tech innovators, developed a free platform with high audio quality and little delay? And what if they put out an all-points-bulletin to talented musicians to contribute their time to give master classes and micro-lessons to small groups of young musicians who could apply and enroll online? And what if we watched that experiment to see whether young musicians come to expect the best for themselves? Does their sense of belonging in the musical world change? Do they audition for competitions? Do they apply to go on as instrumentalists or conductors?

Everybody was born talented so find your talent and don't waste your talent. A sign in red.

Inventing a Different Future

What if we, together with young people, acted now, iterated quickly, made big, important mistakes and got on with better work? What if we used this moment to get to a more equitable system? Pie in the sky?  Maybe not. Time to build a new future with, not for, young people.

We will use this moment of crisis and isolation to regularly profile a person, a team, or an organization that is inventing that future.

If you are a candidate, or if you know one, let us know. We want to learn and write and make some difference.

A version of this paper was originally published by Creative Generation.