NEA Arts Magazine

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Building New Audiences for the Arts through Arts Education


Jazz can be used to demonstrate the connections between the arts and other subject areas, such as U.S. history. NEA file photo

According to popular wisdom, if you build it—or in the case of the arts, perform it—they will come. Or will they? Recent research, including the NEA's own 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, makes it clear that, overall, arts participation in the U.S. appears to be waning. While there are no straight line reasons for this erosion—certainly the down economy has played a factor—one contributing factor to disappearing audiences may be a declining focus on cultural literacy as a component of arts education in the U.S. While many ongoing arts education experiences are aimed at instilling student proficiency and skill in an art form, cultural literacy speaks to a deeper engagement with the art form that allows the student to see and make connections within a particular discipline, between arts disciplines, and between the arts and other subject areas such as the sciences and humanities. In other words, cultural literacy is concerned with the idea that art does not, in fact, exist in a vacuum but is a vital and vibrant part of our everyday lives.

According to Erika Floreska, education director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, a frequent NEA program partner, cultural literacy can be defined as "having the skills and a framework to listen, participate, respond to, and engage with cultural events and experiences that are all around us every day. So understanding that how people interact with each other, how they express themselves, how they express themselves through various forms of art, and how others respond to those expressions are all elements that create American culture, and create the culture in which we live." The hope in fostering cultural literacy in students is that if they understand the wider world of what goes into making an artwork—not just materials and a skill set, but a particular time in history or economic climate or prevailing set of social mores—they will be able to personally engage with and respond to the artwork in a way that resonates with their own values, history, and daily life. In other words, there's a world of difference between a student learning how to play "Summertime" on the piano and that same student learning how to play "Summertime" on the piano in context: What was the economic and racial climate in the U.S. when the song first premiered? How did the history of musical theater influence the song's composition? What's the historical tradition that influenced George Gershwin as a composer? What traditions have various interpreters from Herbie Hancock to Janis Joplin brought to the song?

According to Floreska, deepening arts engagement also equals deepening person-to-person engagement. As she explained, the arts gives us the ability to "tap into the creativity and the emotional capacity and the human interaction that goes on between people— regardless of whether it’s within an arts context or within a non-arts context. It gives you the tools to communicate with others, to interact with and listen to and respond to others." Floreska went on to say that through art forms such as jazz, we can also develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for our national history. "Jazz helps tell that story. And [it] tells that story in a way that's different than reading a history book and being told, 'This is what happened.' You can understand and relate to that [history] in a different way when you look at it through jazz, [a way] that supports the human piece of it."

An excerpt from the Teachers Guide to NEA Jazz in the Schools, which emphasizes using jazz to develop cultural literacy for students. Jazz can be used to demonstrate the connections between the arts and other subject areas, such as U.S. history.

Clearly an engaged population, one that understands how the arts connects to everyday life, is a population that will show up to be an audience. And as documented in the NEA's report The Arts and Civic Engagement, arts participation seemingly leads to other types of engaged participation—in volunteering, in sports, in the civic life of the community. In addition to supporting cultural literacy programs through Learning in the Arts grants, in 2006, NEA partnered with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Verizon Foundation to develop NEA Jazz in the Schools (JITS), a webbased companion curriculum that focuses on using jazz as a means to developing cultural literacy. One of the unique aspects of the JITS curriculum that particularly emphasizes the connection between the arts and other disciplines is that the program was developed primarily for use by high school history teachers, not for music educators (though the curriculum has been used in music, English, film, and other subject areas). According to Floreska, "There are stories of American history and jazz that complement one another in multiple ways of learning. So whether you're a musician or a non-musician, whether you’re a historian or a jazz person, there are ways to interact with that content and understand both sides of the issue in a deeper way through this engagement." The five-unit curriculum uses primary and secondary sources—including music and video clips, oral histories, and photographs—to address topics such as the U.S. civil rights movement, the "melting pot" character of American culture, and the effects of technology and urbanization on life in the U.S. Since its launch, it’s estimated that NEA Jazz in the Schools has been studied by nearly 8.4 million students in urban, suburban, and rural school districts nationwide.

An example of how the curriculum's cultural literacy focus makes unexpected linkages between arts and other subjects is the lesson that equates jazz improvisation with the practice of democracy. Floreska explained, "You can also see how jazz evolved to be a personal expression that is very much related to democracy, and how a voice within an ensemble, a solo within an ensemble, relates to an individual voice having to work within a community, to create their democratic voices. That’s all about engagement, and being part of a process. Improvisation is not 'make up what you want whenever you want and just play while the others play'—it’s a conversation...You’ve got to listen to multiple parts. You have to hear what [the other musicians] are doing and respond to it. You have to articulate your own voice when you're soloing in a context...and relate it to what all the other musicians are doing. That's the democracy metaphor, and that’s what makes jazz so relevant and American and complex and human. But so many people never understand that complexity. It's like, 'Oh, they're just making up what they want whenever they want.'"

So if cultural literacy is an important skill for making deep connections with others and with the world around us in general, why isn't it a core educational value? Surprisingly, one of the barriers to robust arts education programs in schools—including both skills proficiency and cultural literacy programs—is that many currently in school leadership come from the first generations for which comprehensive arts education was not necessarily part of their early schooling. Unlike generations past, which were expected to have a certain fluency at least in canonical artists, today's educators suffered from the cuts in arts education that started in the last half of the 20th century. Floreska suggested, "This next phase of leadership in public school education, certainly, are people who have become principals and have gone through the system, many of them without their own arts experience. So not only do you have to now help get the value of arts and cultural learning back on the front page, or part of the regular discussions of education, you then maybe have to train the leaders in education of its value at a personal level because they’ve never experienced that.... So it's almost two layers of education that are going on. And that will only become more challenging in the next 20 years...You can train as many teachers as you want, but if you don’t get principals and superintendents making decisions to prioritize those classes, it won't happen."

Jazz can be used to demonstrate the connections between the arts and other subject areas, such as U.S. history.

Floreska affirmed that arts education is key to rebuilding the arts audience in the U.S. "I think, without a doubt, you invest in arts education—quality arts education— and cultural literacy comes with that, and it will expand audiences and develop audiences for the future." She also added that the arts community has to be intentional about building and promoting cultural literacy. So will audiences come? If the "it" that’s being built is cultural literacy, they just might.