Taking artists out of the picture
The Music Center cuts back on a ‘ powerhouse’ education effort
BY MIKE BOEHM AND DAVID NG >>> Students at Don Julian Elementary School in La Puente studied the poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou this spring, but they did more than read and memorize the lines.
“We did a lot of things, like acting and making your voice big,” said Katherine Argueta, a recent fourth- grader.
Teaching artists worked each week with the students, showing them how to make shadow puppets and prepare for a class poetry performance.
“It was my favorite part of the day,” chimed in Jared Macedo, who said he would like to be an architect when he grows up.
The program came from the Music Center and is designed to tap into the fun and imaginative appeal of the arts, giving kids an enticing pathway into academic subjects.
But after decades of sending artists into Los Angeles County schools, the Music Center has cut its education department’s staff amid fundraising shortfalls, and the teaching artist program has been nearly eliminated.
The Music Center has long prided itself as an arts education leader. But the reduction of the teaching artists has some local educators questioning whether that is still the case.
“It was a national powerhouse program,” said Nicholas Goldsborough, the Music Center’s former chief operating officer, now UCLA associate vice chancellor for fundraising. “Unfortunately, it has lost a lot of the luster it once had.”
It will be up to Rachel Moore, the Music Center’s newly hired president and chief executive, to decide whether and how to reinvigorate its arts education programs.
“The performing arts is a fragile business. Sometimes people have to make tough choices to build a sustainable model,” said Moore, currently the executive director of New York’s American Ballet Theatre, when asked last week about the program cuts.
Music Center leaders said the reductions in education aren’t budget- related but ref lect strategic and philosophical changes initiated by its board members.
Instead of sending teaching artists into classrooms — a practice that will continue for a handful of schools receiving outside funding — school teachers will come to the Music Center to learnhow to incorporate the arts in lessons. More students will come to the Music Center to see performances.
“We can reach far more kids in a deeper way,” said Howard Sherman, Music Center interim president.
For the 2013- 14 year, 35 teaching artists conducted 382 artist residencies at 53 schools in 12 school districts, according to the Music Center’s annual report on its arts education programs.
A Music Center spokeswoman said it covered 50% of the cost of the program. Individual school districts made up the difference.
World music specialist John Zeretzke, a Music Center teaching artist for more than 30 years, said that about 25 teaching artists are exploring forming “a consor- tium” to keep the program going — either independently or allied to an existing arts organization.
“Parents and schools want artist educators in the schools doing high- end work that represents exemplary art,” Zeretzke said.
The teaching artists were independent contractors, but in recent months the Music Center has laid off five of 16 full- time employees in its education division, including school programs initiative director Leonardo Bravo. Mark Slavkin, vice president for education, programs, resigned in December. Slavkin said he didn’t know the layoffs were coming at the time he left.
“I was incredibly pained when the cuts were made,” said Slavkin, who now works at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Even so, he doesn’t think the Music Center has abandoned its commitments.
Incoming president and CEO Moore, with a 21- year track record of overseeing dance education programs, said she wants to find a new Music Center vice president for education even before her Oct. 5 start date.
Overall, Music Center education- related expenditures declined by more than half since the recession began, despite the improving economy and investment markets that have helped other large arts organizations restore programs. Its public f inancial statements show that the education division spent about $ 2.3 million last year, down from $ 4.8 million in 2006- 07.
Among the more prominent cuts were the annual Bravo Awards, honoring L. A. County teachers for their contributions to arts education. The awards were given for 30 years starting in 1982, then were quietly discontinued after 2012.
Continuing programs include the Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, an annual one- day performing arts program that brings more than 15,000 f ifth- graders to the Music Center; the Very Special Arts Festival for special- needs students; and “Music Center on Tour,” a concert program that is now the main vehicle for the Music Center to reach students at school sites.
“On Tour” 2013- 14 f igures show that the Music Center mounted 383 school assemblies provided by 42 ensembles for more than 63,000 students at 131 schools.
“It feels as if we’ve lost something big,” said Debbie Devine, head of 24th Street Theatre arts education company. “They had a huge vision and a huge reach.” For Devine, the cuts signal the Music Center’s retreat from its longtime standing as an admired and imitated leader in arts education.
“They were the role model,” she said. “It’s tragic.”
Robert Lee, principal of Sun Valley Magnet School, also thinks the Music Center is taking a wrong turn. “The resident artist model [ provides] support, so the [ class- room] teacher gets more comfortable integrating arts,” he said. Relying instead on teachers to go downtown to learn methods and bring them back “doesn’t transfer very well” in actual classroom practice.
Lee added that opportunities for trips to the Music Center are limited — impeded for some schools by the cost of renting buses but in his school’s case by a lack of slots for student groups. Lee said students from Sun Valley Magnet School have had one field trip to the Music Center during his four years as principal.
Others sounded a more optimistic note. “Even if the Music Center isn’t able to do all it has in the past, I believe other organizations will step up. I think the Music Center is going to rebound,” said Rory Pullens, executive director of the arts for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He adds that LAUSD arts spending is on the rebound, expected to rise from the current $ 19 million to $ 24 million in the coming school year.”
The Music Center’s education division was launched in 1979 by Dorothy Chandler to make up for cuts in public school arts budgets driven by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. After 2000, two recessions and the No Child Left Behind program that emphasized testing in basic academic subjects led to further winnowing of many public school arts classes.
For many students, working with teaching artists has meant more than learning a particular lesson.
“It helped me gain courage to speak in front of large groups,” said Alexander Cifuentes, a recent Don Julian fifth- grader.
“Who will be sad to see it go?” Don Julian teacher Darlene Chico asked her fourth- and fifth- graders. All of the kids raised their hands.
DON JULIAN students show some of their creations. Teaching artists have worked with the school through a Music Center program.