Monday, October 7, 2013

Can you see the big picture?

The more I am getting to know about in the ins and outs of the California education system, the more I am realizing why the arts feel so forgotten.  The biggest problem I have noticed is that in general artists do not become administrators.  In much of my experience, the musicians, directors and choreographers are the last ones to volunteer for administrative positions or school-wide tasks.  This is causing a rift between the needs of the performing arts and the people making all the decisions. 

Of course there are exceptions.  I feel very proud to say I trust my dean to fight for the performing arts across campus. I also know a few artists who double as arts advocates in positions across campus, in unions and in state organizations.  But, these champions of the arts are few in number and  in many cases feel like David against Goliath. The irony is that everyone loves the performing arts.  I am sure most schools have featured their performing arts programs on the covers of their school catalog, schedule of classes or introductory brochure.  The arts are the glamorous poster children for personal growth and enrichment.  And, a good portion of the school funding often goes to theaters and arts programs in order to maintain these attractive faces of the college.  And, yet we feel the squeeze: fewer classes, fewer faculty, restrictions on repeatability, concerns about academic integrity.

Despite the general love for the arts, there remains an imbalanced perception of the intrinsic value of the performing arts.  We must be better advocates beyond the classroom if we hope to make changes beyond the safe zone of our rehearsal room, theater or dance studio.  We need to be firmly planted in the conference rooms in order to explain the value of our programs at every turn, or rather, in every campus, district or state wide discussion and vote. 

But, few of us want to step up.  Face it, as artists we like to spend our time practicing our art and teaching our art.  It is much more fun to be in a rehearsal than sitting in a tiresome meeting about budgets.  But, therein lies the problem.  Our desire to be in the creative fray is keeping our time tied up and keeping us out of the board rooms and off the decision making committees. 

Most dance programs at the California community colleges have 1-2 full time faculty. That means the success of the whole program relies on one or two problem solvers who have to make all the decisions and attend all aspects of getting the programs running and functional.  No wonder dance instructors struggle to find time to be on district boards. Directors and conductors probably feel the same way.  When you are prepping for a show, it is easy to feel that the committee meeting is little more than an irritant.

Plus, I am arriving at secondary conclusion that I feel might play even more firmly into the nature of performing artists not moving into administration.  Try this rationale on for size. . .

A dance instructor leads a personally rich and satisfying life.  We get to make meaningful art on a daily basis.  Our practice challenges us to grown as individuals and also gives us the pleasure of entertaining others.  We already have a strong sense of personal power and significance.  Performing artists exist in a world of creative power.  Therefore, we don't feel the need to exert ourselves beyond our domain.  We are already kings and queens of our world.  We don't need to be on a committee to feel like we can do something.  We are already deciders and producers. 

But, there is the rub. 

Our worlds exist in these little bubbles and risk imploding if we can't externalize their value to a wider audience.  If we don't transition (even part time) into advocates, we are doing a disservice to the future generations of performing arts education.  When I think about it, we are really, very lucky that people love the arts as much as they do.  Staying on the covers of catalogs and brochures is part of what is keeping us going.

Are you an artist who has moved into administration or advocacy?  Do you know someone who has?  What problems to do see for performing arts in making this transition?  
How might the performing arts education look different if we did have a conductor, choreographer or director at the helm of the division? The school? The district? The state? 

1 comment:

  1. I am in complete agreement with Beth's comments. About twenty years ago this became clear to me, so I decided I better step up to ensure that dance and the other arts programs at our school were represented "at the table." I became a member of the Academic Senate and ended up staying on the Senate for 12 years. For six of those years I was Academic Senate President; I attended State Senate meetings and engaged in critical dialogue. When it finally came time for me to retire from the Senate, I made sure that someone else in the arts was ready to step in. Our arts departments stratagize about committee representation, making sure that at least one of us is on each of the key decision making committees. It was a sacrifice... not nearly as enjoyable as teaching and choreographing. It took a toll on my dance program, which was unfortunate, but I could not do it all. I also believe that my leadership involvement was a good role model for my students during this time, as they observed me in a different way. They were not only able to see me as an artist, teacher, and choreographer, but as an institutional leader who spoke at Board meetings, led faculty meetings, etc. We as dancers are VERY articulate, on many levels, and our skills as organizers, directors, communicators, and so on, prepare us well for other domains. Sadly, many people (often administrators) do not take dance seriously, mostly because they are ignorant. We can change that perception by stepping out of our confort zone and taking on more leadership responsibilities. By being active participants "at the table" we become one of the decision makers instead of one of the fatalities.
    Leslie Saxon West - Mendocino College