Why the PAEO can’t sit on the shelf

by Jini Stolk

When Creative Trust and PAONE (the Professional Arts Organizations Network for Education) began working on the Performing Arts Education Overview , we knew that this study of education activities by Toronto-area performing arts companies had to be a first step: the start of an ongoing process of analysis, collaboration and advocacy aimed at strengthening this increasingly important part of our work.

If we had any doubts, Kelly Hill (our research partner on the study), recently showed why action on this issue could determine our community’s very future. In the January edition of his Arts Research Monitor , Hill juxtaposed an article on the results of the PAEO with a recent study on Arts education in America, by theNational Endowment for the Arts.

Its subtitle (“What the declines mean for arts participation”) demands attention. The NEA study reaffirms – like all comparable studies, in every place, in every country – the strong connection between childhood arts experiences and adult arts participation. In fact it states that “arts education has a more powerful effect on arts attendance than any other measurable factor.” It also shows that a steady increase in childhood arts education in the U.S. throughout most of the 20th century has been followed by an increasing decline, starting in 1985.

The conclusion? Although the “progressively greater access to childhood arts education probably helped build a large national audience for the arts” that trend is turning around. Its impact, in declining audiences, is beginning to be seen.

Here, in Canada, we have no reason to be complaisant. The PAEO found that the 50 surveyed companies spent about $12 million on arts education activities, attracting over a half million participants of all ages (537,000.) The programs of 37 organizations active in schools reached over 4,000 schools in 2009-10. While this is truly impressive, our study also revealed that this activity is increasingly filling a gap in arts education provided in the schools, by the schools.

Respondents to the PAEO expressed concern about whether future resources would allow us to continue the role we’ve taken on in providing arts experiences to young people. The NEA report asks some of the same questions we’re asking ourselves: what kinds of arts education matter most; are we providing the best possible arts experiences to young people; what is the nature of the partnership between arts organizations and schools to bring the arts and artists into classrooms.

The first PAEO Roundtable on January 31st will bring together “advocates, pioneers and game changers in arts education” to discuss what we can do to strengthen our arts education programs and networks, improve collaboration and sharing, learn together, and communicate more effectively. (To get on the list for information about future sessions contact info@creativetrust.ca or paonearts@gmail.com.)

Can we come together as a community with the goal of making Toronto a recognized international leader in arts education? Doesn’t our future depend on it?

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