Just as Milton Glaser's iconic graphic design helped salvage morale in a 1970s New York City in rapid decline, another artistically-minded project set out to do for the community what federal, state, and city governments were failing to do: educate the city's children. In 1977, as Manhattan faced a blackout that exposed the dark side of hopeless big-city life, in the midst of rampant crime paired with an NYPD under investigation for record corruption charges, Agnes Gund, President Emerita of MoMA and current Chairman of the Board at MoMA's PS1, turned the lights back on in the art room for what would eventually become hundreds of thousands of children across the five boroughs. Her innovative program, Studio in a School, installed working artists in public classrooms to head visual arts workshops. Gund was bringing creativity back into the public class room and beyond just putting a paintbrush into the urban child's hand, the program managed to do deeper work: it proved that fostering creativity can propel an individual in the pursuit of happiness and improve the quality of life for the community at large.
At a time of national economic downturn, funding for arts programs in schools was possibly the last thing on the list of priorities for New York City's budget. On the brink of bankruptcy that then Mayor Beame only narrowly avoided through a hefty municipal investment by the city's teacher's union's pension funds, The Daily News summed up the nation's executive attitude toward a potential bail out in their classic headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. When Studio in a School came around, it was not in a climate that would effectively respond to lobbying on behalf of educational policy shifts; on the hierarchy of the city's needs, reducing murder rates understandably preceded replenishing funding for the arts. And therein lies the brilliance of Gund's philanthropic vision: as noted by Thomas Cahill, Studio's current President and CEO, "When Studio started, there really weren't a lot of people looking at responding to the city's needs and particularly responding to education. Agnes Gund coordinated, designed, and executed the vision she had--a program that would be led by artists collaborating deeply with schools. That could only really be done with the commitment of private funding." Gund's fierce philanthropic campaign to prove Studio's benefits to public school children, their parents, educators and thier communities set the ball rolling.
Starting with only a handful of schools, Studio evolved by way of sticking with and refining its original philosophy: To foster the creative and intellectual development of New York City youth through quality visual arts programs directed by arts professionals, and to collaborate with and develop the ability of those who provide or support arts programming and creative development for youth both in and outside of schools. In its 35 years, Studio's programs have grown to offer arts programs at more than 145 public schools, daycare centers, and community based organizations throughout NYC's five boroughs annually. Today over 90 professional artists devote about 45,000 hours a year to more than 32,000 pre-K-through-high school students. About 90% of the children they serve come from low-income homes.
Collaborating with art teachers and administrators, Studio develops curricula in schools through planning, educator workshops, and a range of programs that holistically educate in ways that expand the students' world views. Because the art instructors are not city employees, but are funded through public charity, they are able to maintain their creative focus without the hindrance of bureaucratic formalities. Instead, Studio's programs have been ergonomically shaped to fit the existing needs within schools and their surrounding communities, a sort of field study that facilitates learning from school teachers about how an art program fits in the larger context of public schooling, and in turn ensuring staying power for arts education.
With the belief that all artists are inherently educators given their drive to communicate, Studio only hires professional artists to teach their programs. Artists firmly believe in the creative process because they live it daily. A skilled and experienced artist who knows the content from behind the scenes, and is enthused about the potentials of art for its producers and consumers, can do wonders--not as a didactic teacher, but optimally as a mentor and guide. At the core of Studio's principles, says Cahill, who is also an artist and arts educator, art "simply matters" and should be introduced to kids while they're still young. Small children are making discoveries before they even know the names of the colors they're working with: "They mixed a little blue and red and white, and suddenly they have lavender and you can see on their faces the discovery, the delight. That opportunity to learn something through making and through discovering is very much the artist's way of learning."
Empowering students at all levels to create unique work, not factory work based on rote instruction, allows them to perceive and respond to things in their own way. This process instills confidence, independence, and an aptitude that enhances their critical thinking and ultimately spills over to other academic arenas. Students are also encouraged to learn from one another, which affords another unique opportunity to get a variety of responses to any one given question.
To make art implies that it will have an audience, so in addition to encouraging a student's own voice, Studio ensures that the manifestations of ideas that are important to them are revered in a public forum. The classroom environment becomes an audience and individual output of art is the central object of attention: something that is talked about, valued, taken care of, framed, and gathered around. These work habits and rituals of critique stem from the integral aspects of the professional artists' own practice. Studio's programming also includes organized exhibitions of students' artworks that allow a wider audience among their communities outside of school. Entire families arrive to see, celebrate, and respect their children's works; the young artist gains leverage as a contributing member of these communities with work that is taken seriously. Cahill elaborated, "It's also communicating things that parents are waiting for the schools to discover, like that their kids have great imaginations, wonderful eyes for discovering." In this way, Studio also brings students' families into the art world, which helps foster an understanding of its conventions.
While it is difficult to gauge the impact of a program like Studio on a level of the individual students, many former participants have checked in and reported to have gone on to arts professions; one Brooklyn artist who began as a student at P.S.164 attended a traditional art school and is now teaching nearby. Studio also introduces high school and college students to potential careers in the arts as well as examples of ways to incorporate art into their lives outside the formal art world through apprenticeship and paid internship programs, including opportunities at museums.
In keeping with their mission to provide an integrated, community-driven approach to arts education that improves overall quality of life, one of Studio's current programs integrates nutritional education, tackling growing rates of diabetes, obesity, and other preventable ailments in high-poverty areas located in food deserts--areas with limited access to fresh food and healthy supermarkets. These programs introduce art through drawing and tasting healthy options while celebrating health and nutrition. Students are encouraged to learn about "the power of eating a rainbow" of colors in order to imagine a process for integrating eating well into their own lives. This tool of envisioning is at the core of the artistic growth process for students, examining science-based learning and creating potential for change in their own lives through new understanding.
Starting as a small nonprofit that now has an impact on supporting quality standards on arts education in New York City and beyond, Studio has become recognized as a national model. In 2010 it received one of three "Investing in Innovation (i3)" grants awarded to arts organizations from the United States Department of Education. Studio is now considering ways to expand their working models beyond the boroughs. While Gund's efforts began outside the world of politics, "knowing something well can actually be an important lever for policy," expressed Cahill. Given Studio in a School's success, perhaps at the next inevitable budget cut, arts will instead be the first thing to be preserved. Art does matter, and what also matters is private citizens, with drive and leverage like Gund, taking issues into their own able hands to fill the needs of their communities. Artistic vision is not about simply pointing out societal problems; it entails creating and sharing a process that leads to a more vibrant big picture.