One-click access to nearly 250 makers through the Online Artists Directory! Explore Now ×

Where Making Matters

Where Making Matters

As schools have focused more on testing, math, and science, other groups have come forward to nurture kids’ creativity.

Where Making Matters

As schools have focused more on testing, math, and science, other groups have come forward to nurture kids’ creativity.
December/January 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Learning and Achieving Through the Arts student

The Learning and Achieving Through the Arts program develops skills in the visual arts. Art implants a “curiosity that will last a lifetime,” Inner-City Arts co-founder Bob Bates says.

Eric Minh Swenson

It’s no secret that the arts are disappearing from American classrooms. In today’s high-stakes testing culture, public schools are under pressure to devote instruction time to subjects deemed more important, such as math and science.

Many argue, however, that the decline of K–12 arts education does a disservice to schoolchildren, and not just those with an artistic bent. Research (and everyday experience) suggests that art makes us happier, less stressed, more productive. James Catterall’s landmark 2009 study, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, strongly connected arts learning with both academic success and social engagement, especially for low-income students. And lately creativity is being tied to innovative thinking across disciplines: The STEM-to-STEAM movement calls for adding arts to an integrated curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and math. As the National Art Education Association asserts, “to be successful in STEM-related career fields, students must be proficient in visual thinking and creative problem-solving facilitated by a strong visual art education.” In other words, art makes us smart. 

So if evidence points to the benefits of art education, but schools are short on time and money, how do we get it to kids in a substantive way? Dedicated organizations and individuals are stepping up with various solutions to fill the gap. Here, we highlight a few inspiring models.

Los Angeles

Bob Bates goes into a kind of reverie when he looks back on the origins of Inner-City Arts some 35 years ago. He was around 40 then, an army veteran turned artist, living with his wife in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. “One evening I was meditating,” he recalls, “and in the silence I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Get an arts space for kids.’ One time, with no further instructions.” He carried the idea around for a while, but did nothing about it. Then he had a vivid dream. “Three women and three men walked up to me and said, ‘Bob, we have given you five years to start this project. If you don’t do it soon, we are taking it away from you and giving it to somebody who can make it happen, because we want this school to be started on planet Earth.’ That’s very far out,” he concedes with a smile, “but there it is.”

In 1989, with help from businessman and arts patron Irwin Jaeger, Bates heeded that mystical call and founded Inner-City Arts in a small space downtown. Today it’s a vibrant complex of sleek studio buildings designed by architect Michael Maltzan, an urban oasis of beauty, safety, and creativity, right next to Skid Row. There, thousands of mostly Latino and African American children and teenagers from some of LA’s poorest neighborhoods – most of whom receive little or no art instruction in school – can access first-rate facilities in visual, performing, and media arts. Through a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District, K–8 students and their classroom teachers are brought to Inner-City Arts twice a week for seven-week sessions. Middle and high schoolers can get scholarships to take after-school and weekend workshops in everything from painting and ceramics to dance and digital design. And teachers come for professional development, to learn how the arts can be a bridge to academic success, especially in high-poverty schools.

For Bates, the place and its programs serve both a practical need and a higher purpose. “In the beginning, I thought art was about a good experience making cool things,” he says. “But over the years I’ve observed that art is the major tool for opening the possibilities of invention, creation, exploration. Once that switch is thrown, people have a curiosity that will last a lifetime. They will solve problems, work in teams, do things” – and maybe, he hopes, become “more human, compassionate, and merciful” along the way.

These days he’s excited about the new Creativity Lab, an art-meets-science studio where youngsters apply the scientific method – “create a test, evaluate, adjust” – to design and engage in hands-on making. Chockablock with tensegrity structures, kinetic contraptions, and miniature 3D-printed robots, the lab was launched with $1 million from Disney, whose Imagineers come almost every term to spend a few days working with the kids. (Inner-City Arts also gets strong support from Hollywood heavyweights: Its Rosenthal Theater was funded by the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Indiana Jones screenwriters drop in on the filmmaking courses.)

At Inner-City Arts, children can explore not just materials and methods, but also their own identity and potential. One student made a self-winding wooden top in the Creativity Lab, then took it home and showed it to her grandfather, who was so impressed he started taking her into his own woodshop to build things. “That little girl could wind up becoming a mechanical engineer,” Bates marvels. Ever the visionary, he adds, “Or she could be somebody who designs something for a colony on Mars. Who knows?” ~Joyce Lovelace

Lawrence, Kansas

Residents of Lawrence, Kansas, pride themselves on their small city’s big cultural life: the University of Kansas and its art museum, the little theater troupes, the popular downtown gallery walks on the last Friday of every month, the exceptionally strong art programs in the public schools. To top it off, there’s the Lawrence Arts Center, a 40,000-square-foot facility that offers exhibitions, performances, and a diverse program of year-round art education, including a unique arts-based preschool and kindergarten.

“One thing I try to infuse into our programming is the power of imagination – believing in possibility, pushing yourself to do things that are grand,” says Neal Barbour, the center’s director of youth education for first through 12th grades. A printmaker and ceramist, Barbour came to Lawrence from the Northwest five years ago (after his job as a school art teacher was cut), with a mandate to develop a STEAM curriculum at the center. He convened a group of artists and scientists to look at science, technology, engineering, and math subjects through an arts lens, which led to some 200 lesson plans now taught in the center’s well-equipped studios. One class examines the science of camera shutter speed through the “light drawings” Picasso created with a Life magazine photographer in 1949. In another, students engineer robots that move through the force of vibration, drawing pictures with their feet.

“We view ourselves as an extension of the public school education system here,” Barbour says. Cultivating that two-way street means offering subjects not taught in the schools (printmaking, fashion design, sculpture), sending the center’s resident artists into classrooms as guest teachers, and providing teens with real world art experiences, such as helping to curate shows in the community. It also entails reaching out to kids who need art the most, particularly in rural areas. “A big part of our mission is access and equity,” says Barbour. “We’re here to provide support, activities, and enriching educational opportunities for anybody who wants to be in this building.”

“Kids, art, play – they all go together,” says Barbour’s colleague Linda Reimond, the founder and longtime director of the center’s arts-based preschool, recently named in her honor. Reimond was an early childhood teacher and had a toddler at home when she started the school in 1985, with a class of 18 pupils. With about 120 preschoolers enrolled today, the school inspires children ages 3 to 5 to learn through music, movement, storytelling, and hands-on making. “We let them discover,” says Reimond. “A child at the easel will mix a blue and a yellow and then gasp – ‘I made green!’ ” Each classroom has a Creation Station, where little hands go wild concocting objects out of old CDs, paper-towel tubes, all manner of household junk. “Houses, rockets, robots – whatever they imagine, they have to figure out, make those parts fit together. Well, that’s science, engineering, and math. They tell stories about what they’ve made, we write them down, they point to the words, and – oh gosh, that’s reading.” The arts open the door to academic skills.

For her work developing this approach, Reimond was one of 10 winners of the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award in 2015. In Detroit for the ceremony, she toured the nearby Ford plant. “We were looking at F-150 trucks being made on an assembly line by all these computers and robots,” she recalls. “Suddenly it hit me: In 20 years, no job will look the same as it does now. So what life skills can we give the kids we’re teaching now?” She came up with five essentials: problem solving, creative thinking, communication, teamwork, and social skills – “Those are the things kids need.” And early exposure to the wonders of art is important grounding.

“Music teaches us to listen. Visual arts teach us to see. Dance teaches us to move with joy. Literature and drama teach us to see through other people’s eyes. And maybe that makes us more human.” ~JL

Louisville, Kentucky

Caitlin Kannapell and Rachel Mauser believe in taking art to the people. Since launching a nonprofit community maker space called the Steam Exchange, they’ve become fixtures around the Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. They chat up residents on the street, urging them to come take classes or enjoy open studio time. Sometimes, to draw folks in, they wheel out the hot-dog cart they converted into a mobile screen-printing studio. All ages are welcome, but Kannapell and Mauser are especially determined to engage local youth.

“Rachel and I have a huge amount of respect for young people. We love, love, love kids,” says Kannapell. “Making sure they have a voice, feel respected, and understand their true capacity is really important to us.” At Steam Exchange headquarters (a former liquor store the women fixed up with help from neighbors), children and young adults can take free classes, some approaching STEM subjects through creativity, others simply art for art’s sake. Middle schoolers and teens from the neighborhood can also serve on a Youth Vision committee to plan their own projects in the community – a mural, for instance – and take part in public events.

“Art is a wonderful means to holistically support youth,” observes Mauser. “It’s about doing well in school, having something they feel proud of, keeping busy in a productive way. Being empowered, leaders. Especially in a place that doesn’t necessarily have all the amenities and resources of wealthier neighborhoods.”

The two friends were each looking for a meaningful way to promote artmaking at the grass roots when they teamed up to start the Steam Exchange in 2014. Kannapell had a math degree and had taught various academic subjects in non-traditional learning environments. Mauser, an artist and bookbinder, had just finished a fellowship at Penland School of Crafts. They decided to focus on Smoketown, the oldest historically African American neighborhood in Louisville, named for the kilns of its old days as a brickmaking hub. With startup money from IDEAS 40203 (an artist-led group promoting creative entrepreneurship) and YouthBuild Louisville, “we went for it,” says Mauser. First, though, they talked to people on the ground.

“We didn’t just come in, set up shop, and say, ‘This is what you need and what we’re going to do,’ ” says Kannapell. “We said, ‘These are the skills we have. What are you interested in? What do you feel the neighborhood needs? What do you as a young person want to do or learn?’ Every component of our programming is deeply rooted in this process of collaboration.”

Two years on, the results are “diverse and surprising, beyond what we originally imagined,” Kannapell says. Classes have ranged from mosaic art to sewing to digital coding. Students have designed and painted a 40-foot outdoor mural. In a joint project with Mobile Print Power, a screen-printing collective in New York City, kids made an edition of art books on the theme “What does it mean to be a minority?”

Steam Exchange currently serves a core group of about 30 young people, and a broader word-of-mouth network of up to 150. For now, Kannapell and Mauser teach most of the classes themselves, and are comfortable with slow, steady growth. “We were very clear that we didn’t want to rush these relationships. We wanted them to be natural and real. So we’ve been organic in the way we meet the people we work with,” says Mauser. “We know we’re in it for the long haul.” ~JL

North Adams, Massachusetts

At Kidspace, a child-centered gallery in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, art is changing lives.

“Kidspace is about showing how art isn’t a separate category of our lives, but part of our everyday experience,” says director of education Laura Thompson. “It’s a vehicle that people can use to communicate, to problem-solve challenges in their everyday lives.” The museum’s community program, Art 4 Change, engages children through art to promote empathy, optimism, and courage – qualities Thompson thinks are essential to tackling today’s problems. At Kidspace, art sparks conversations about social issues that affect many children, their families, and their neighborhoods, as well as society at large.

Now through spring, two concurrent exhibitions light up Kidspace and animate the principles that A4C seeks to advance. In the show “Here Comes the Sun,” Federico Uribe’s On Good Faith playfully summons visitors to examine the sculpture’s form (a lion), materials, and meanings. His meticulously assembled sculpture of brass bullet casings, shotgun shells, plastic flowers, and feathers uses beauty and intrigue to explore violence, among other subjects.

Nick Cave’s “Kaleidoscopic Playground” riffs on the optical repetition and symmetrical patterns that kaleidoscopes create, surrounding visitors in a colorful, fun-house-like environment. Mirrored silhouettes of children cast visitors’ reflections, appearing with word prompts such as “special,” “other,” “until,” or “as is.” The words invite visitors to use personal experience and knowledge to create their own meaning and insight.

With these lighthearted works, the artists encourage guests not to succumb to the fear, anger, and hopelessness that violence, racial strife, homelessness, and hunger can bring. Instead, they appeal to visitors to take the optimism and joy they find at Kidspace and use it as fuel to achieve their potential and lift up others.

An A4C handout encourages kids to take their Kidspace experience home, to “plant seeds of joy.” One suggested activity: “For the next 10 nights, share with someone something good that happened to you during the day and also something good that you did for someone else.”

A4C is also designed to engage students and teachers of two local school districts. As one North Adams middle schooler, reflecting on a recent visit to the gallery, wrote:

“In my thoughts, optimism is the way you look at something. … It feels like you can choose what to do, what to feel & what to accept. I need to look at all the stuff I can do, not the stuff I can’t. I want to live a great future and I look at a glass half-full, not half-empty.” ~Mark Richard Leach

A former museum administrator, Mark Richard Leach writes about visual arts and is an independent curator and consultant. He lives near Charlotte, North Carolina.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.