NYC kids need the arts des­per­ately


The coro­n­avirus hit our city in a way that is un­par­al­leled in the mod­ern era. The city’s cul­tural main­stays have ral­lied to cre­ate en­tire dig­i­tal sea­sons prac­ti­cally overnight, adapt­ing to en­ter­tain and nour­ish home-bound pa­trons. Some en­ter­pris­ing artists even im­pro­vise mo­bile con­certs in cars to de­liver joy one block at a time.

Now, as our fel­low cit­i­zens protest an­other po­lice killing of an un­armed black man, they con­tinue to fill our av­enues and parks with the un­con­trol­lable erup­tions of un­ruli­ness that at­tend all se­ri­ous strug­gles for agency. Homemade signs and the re­galia of re­sis­tance de­fine the times as we paint our pub­lic space with color, po­etry and splashes of spir­i­tual shine on what­ever moves or grooves.

This mo­ment of cri­sis has put the life-af­firm­ing value of the arts into sharper fo­cus. The very soul of our city and na­tion is at stake, and this pas­sion­ate surg­ing of ex­pres­sion is us prov­ing our iden­tity.

It would be a shame to miss the rev­o­lu­tion be­cause you don’t un­der­stand the lan­guage.

That’s why, even as New York City looks at one of the most pun­ish­ing fiscal rounds in a gen­er­a­tion, we must not cut arts ed­u­ca­tion from the city bud­get.

Art has al­ways been an in­dis­pens­able tool of sur­vival, teach­ing us about our his­tory, help­ing us to process tur­moil and grief, and de­liv­er­ing se­ri­ous mean­ing with joy.

Arts ed­u­ca­tion teaches us to un­der­stand dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing and feel­ing through the com­mon lan­guages of film, mu­sic and dance. Through art, we ex­pe­ri­ence em­pa­thy for one an­other.

And yet, the city has al­ready an­nounced that it is con­sid­er­ing cut­ting $15.5 mil­lion out of the mayor’s al­ready too-thin $21.5 mil­lion bud­get for arts ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices, more than 70%.

Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the strug­gle over ed­u­ca­tion and iden­tity shows up on posters all over the world, but it seems to dis­ap­pear with clock-like pre­ci­sion when it’s time for cor­rec­tive in­vest­ment. Now more than ever, we need ed­u­ca­tion that nur­tures judg­ment as well as mas­tery, ethics as well as anal­y­sis. We need learn­ing that will en­able stu­dents to in­ter­pret com­plex­ity, to ad­just with grace, and to make sense of lives they could not pos­si­bly an­tic­i­pate.

We need teach­ing that in­spires stu­dents to un­der­stand those who are dif­fer­ent from them­selves, and that en­cour­ages con­struc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tions across all bor­ders. Our chil­dren need to be pre­pared for a world that will re­quire a global in­tel­li­gence in­formed by time­less hu­man wis­dom. That wis­dom is most eas­ily iden­ti­fied and nur­tured through the arts.

For all the lip ser­vice paid to so­cial jus­tice, cuts to the arts will not fall on the shoul­ders of re­source-rich com­mu­ni­ties; their PTAs will quickly raise the dif­fer­ence. They will fall on the shoul­ders of the par­ents and stu­dents al­ready hard­est hit by the dual crises of COVID and of sys­temic racism.

They will fall on teach­ers who are seen as dis­pens­able, and who are treated with an un­com­mon dis­re­spect given the value of their pro­fes­sion.

They will fall heav­ily on arts or­ga­ni­za­tions that are al­ready op­er­at­ing on ra­zor-thin mar­gins.

Large and small or­ga­ni­za­tions alike, cru­cial com­mu­nity-build­ing in­sti­tu­tions, have lost the abil­ity to gather peo­ple un­til the fourth phase of re­open­ing. City con­tracts could mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death for a whole ecosys­tem of com­mu­nity-based arts non­prof­its.

Once they’re gone, a defin­ing com­po­nent of our city would be gone with them. It would be a crime of enor­mous pro­por­tions if bud­get cuts re­sulted in their ab­sence pre­cisely at the time they are most needed.

This is un­de­ni­ably the tough­est bud­get cy­cle in gen­er­a­tions, but the weight must be in­tel­li­gently dis­trib­uted.

In the midst of all the cuts and pain, there must also be hope and hunger for a bet­ter, more el­e­vated fu­ture. That means it’s time for an­other def­i­ni­tion of “our kids” that in­cludes those who are al­ways left with a slo­gan and a ner­vous smile; it’s time to pre­serve arts ed­u­ca­tion for us all.

Marsalis, a trum­peter and ed­u­ca­tor, is artis­tic di­rec­tor of Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter.

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