If the arts are indeed a frill, as our culture is led to believe, then name another subject that adds more to the community – from the thousands of people drawn to festivals, thousands of dollars spent on entertainment, and the incalculable amount of culture that each activity yields.
For a few years now, Cyndee Kaiser and Cheryl Starr have acted as in-residence artists for schools such as Longfellow and Roosevelt. They’ve created a clay city and world map outside of Longfellow, offered cartooning classes and animal art for youngsters, helped kids write stories and plays to read at senior homes, and hope to work with the Boys & Girls Club to create art banners for Phoenix Park.
These programs not only come from the kindness of the community members’ hearts, but also from Bernice “Bea” Wagner, who made a donation to the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center that would allow for after-school arts activities at schools with “at-risk and financially underserved kids,” Kaiser said.
The best part is these types of kindnesses happen all the time for school arts programs. Cathy Reitz, the DeLong music teacher, routinely invites musicians from the university and community for Musicpalooza. This past fall 450 Lakeshore students got to see The Ahn Trio at The State Theatre, the cost of which was covered by an anonymous donor.
Lt. Gov. Barb Lawton says the involvement of non-profit organizations and community members in school art programs is tremendous in Wisconsin. She particularly cited rural areas, where there’s sometimes fewer options, as being incredible examples where local artists come in and supplement students’ education.
George Tzougros, executive director of Wisconsin Arts Board, was sure to mention this trend as a double-edged sword, however. Especially in poor economic times, when cuts to classes loom, some communities see that kind of involvement as a substitute for normally scheduled arts education. When that’s the case, the school board cuts arts offerings. “Arts organizations are wondering when they should go into schools to help. If it’s too soon, then administrators see them as replacements and they cut a teacher. If it’s too late there’s not going to be any structure, or kids; it’s already lost,” he said.
The flip side is that arts classes continue to reach out to the community, as well. After asking almost every arts teacher in Eau Claire what their classes take part in, I compiled quite a list – from displaying art at The State Theatre, LE Phillips Library, city council chambers, on city buses, and for hospitals to playing music at parades, sporting events, car shows, and senior homes – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the fact that thousands of people attend these events, the teachers that often organize them are told not to be so ambitious.
“We love to go ‘beyond the four walls’ and get out to perform in local, regional, and national projects – dances, benefit concerts, festivals, you name it,” said Memorial music teacher Bruce Hering, who organized the massively successful sendoff concert for the jazz students that saw them playing with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (they came back from New York with a first place prize at Essentially Ellington for the first time in the school’s history). “I have always been told to ‘hold back,’ ‘don’t do so much.’ … I’ve had to fight to be able to do these kinds of things ... and that has been that way for a good long time, my whole career, basically. It’s not just a reflection of current economic issues.”
These are people like Kathy Bareis (DeLong), who uses her own time to offer art workshops for middle and high school students in the summer, art classes for United Cerebral Palsy, plus art classes for the community that have a waiting list. And, believe it or not, they’d all love to do more.