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2011 Retreat ~ Friday Booking & Farewells

Ron Jones

Americans for the Arts now has excellent webinars on understanding the roles of seven different constituencies that influence arts education policy: federal, state-level, school boards, superintendents, business partnerships, principals, and parents.

Perhaps I suffer from a perspective biased because of my own professional experience, but there is one glaring absence from the series: higher education.

One reason why higher education has been overlooked is that academics, as well as the general public, tend to think that the mission—the only mission—of our colleges and universities is to train artists; to prepare college students for careers as artists, teachers, and scholars. While this is an obvious and honorable mission for arts education at the collegiate level, we are missing a real opportunity if we do not subscribe another major role to our colleges and universities: the development of future participants in the arts.

Post-Secondary arts education has an obligation to re-think how it functions and what its obligations are to the academy’s dream. Many, if not most, higher education institutions train arts majors. Most, if we are convinced by our own self-assessment, do a great job of that. But, is that all higher education in the arts can and should be doing? Can we not make a greater contribution to society than just focusing on careers?

We must have audiences. We must have donors. We must have supportive civic and corporate leaders. Therefore, we must give equal—if not priority—attention to the challenge of audience creation, development, and retention on the college and university campus.

What the arts need in the long-term, and especially in the short-term, is a supportive, valuing audience. We need a future filled with enthusiastic, receptive participants in the arts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if colleges and universities set as a primary goal helping those preparing to be the leaders of tomorrow understand and become more sensitive to the arts? That would ensure a lifelong valuing, and consequent supporting, of the arts.

Virtually all of the leaders of tomorrow go to college as they prepare for their future roles as business executives, managers, city, county, and state board members, members and directors of foundations and agencies, and so on. That is fertile and important ground for an effective arts education program, and we had better give it focused attention.

Americans for the Arts might consider doing an additional webinar addressing the critical role of higher education in arts education with the aim of examining ALL of the roles that are important in arts education and, thereby, challenge what seems to be a rather narrow self-satisfying, self-definition of the role of arts education within the academy.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to believe that higher education could do so much more for the arts. But, after 42 years in higher education, I am convinced that the current model of preparing artists without giving equal attention to preparing a future for the arts is misguided, duplicative, expensive, inefficient, unrealistic and vulnerable to being permanently shortsighted.

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