Back to School: Arts Education Podcast Round Up

By Carolyn Coons
Graphic image of adults and children engaging in art

My colleagues who work in arts education often say the arts are essential to students’ social and emotional learning. For those of us not steeped in the field, that means the arts can help foster students’ sense of community and self-worth. They facilitate exploration of emotions – helping students through collective and individual traumas. 

Arts education also helps students achieve greater academic and professional success. National Endowment for the Arts research has found that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who receive arts education set higher career goals, have higher STEM scores, and volunteer more than those who do not.  

Unfortunately, many students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds lose out on the benefits of arts programming due to systemic inequities. 

As we head back to school, it’s a good time to revisit the importance of arts education and the barriers to access that still exist for some students, teaching artists, and schools. The Arts Endowment podcasts below all address arts education in some way, and whether you work in the field, are an interested parent, or passionate about expanding access for marginalized communities, there’s a podcast here for you. 

Headshot of a woman.

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Donovan

Dr. Lisa Donovan, Professor, Arts Management and Co-director, Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network

Dr. Donovan joined the podcast to discuss her work to increase arts education equitably in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, using the collective impact approach. Collective impact involves institutions and individuals working together to create systemic change. 

For the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. As we just reached the end of the school year, I thought it was a good time to take a look at some of the work being done in arts education—most particularly, in access to arts education and the arts in rural areas. For that, I turned to Dr. Lisa Donovan, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) where she heads the school’s robust work in this area. MCLA is located in Berkshire county in Western Massachusetts—a rural area that happens to house many outstanding arts organizations. A recipient of three collective impact grants from the Arts Endowment, MCLA has led the charge to bring these arts organizations together with educators, business leaders, social and mental health workers to create a network that give students across the region equitable and sustained immersion in the arts. A lot of this work stems from a 2015 paper Lisa Donovan co-wrote with a grant from the Arts Endowment called "Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas," In doing her research, Lisa discovered that while rural areas tend to share the same challenges, each one offer unique assets on which to build. Lisa explains

Lisa Donovan: Yeah. It's interesting, you know, we thought we were going to be doing a literature review and there was not a lot of literature out there on rural areas at the time. And so we ended up doing a series of interviews, 14 interviews across the country with arts education leaders in rural areas. And we did find that there are a number of shared issues in rural areas and they include things like geographic distance, poverty and lack of economic opportunity, geographic spread, broadband, lack of public transportation,  out migration of youth, that youth tend to leave rural areas. And then we also found that while we share the same issues across rural regions typically, that the promising practices that people were sharing if they were to take root, they really built upon the unique context of those rural regions. So you have shared issues but the promising practices rely on what makes you unique.

Jo Reed: Would you specific and give me an example of something that would make an area unique? And let’s talk about the Berkshires, because that's where you do your work.  Before you begin, describe the Berkshires and where it's located and then let's get into the unique assets that it has.

Lisa Donovan: Great. So, yeah, so Berkshire County is in Western Massachusetts and we are right at the edge of New York State and Connecticut and it's 1000 square mile region. And so there's our big geographic spread going from, you know, all the way north, all the way south. And what's remarkable about our county is that it's fairly rural, it has two small cities but most of it is fairly rural. And with that, we happen to have the most robust set of arts and culture resources here that you really don't see in rural areas, so that's what really makes us unique. We have incredible history here. We have over 50-plus outstanding arts and culture organizations that have they're not just known regionally, but nationally and even internationally some of them. And so that's one of the things that makes us unique. And sometimes people will say when they're reading that ”Leveraging Change Report,” you know, well, this is all great, some of your findings, but we don't have those cultural resources. To which my response is, "Yeah, you don't-- maybe you don't, but you have something that makes you unique. Maybe it's your geographical features. Maybe it's a unique part of history, you know, something that you can capitalize on."

Jo Reed:  And you also found that educators weren't as connected and gain, we're talking about the Berkshires here, weren't as connected to those cultural resources or that cultural resources weren't connecting to educators as much as they might be, that they were opportunities that were being lost.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, it's interesting because we have 13 districts here and each district has its own superintendent and we have a superintendent's roundtable, but there's a lot of individuality to each district. And so what we find is that with all of these amazing cultural organizations, they're building relationships reaching out to schools that may be close by them but there's not necessarily a sense of how are we creating equity and access to arts education across these 13 districts. So when I was, you know, I've been here in the Berkshires for over 30 years and early in my career I was working in a variety of arts and culture organizations and we had a kind of network at that time and we would have conversations about, you know, how do you get into schools? Well, I left, I had went to Lesley University, for about 10 years --I never moved out of the region but I was working in Cambridge. When I came back I found that many arts and culture organizations had deep connections to schools, but again, it was, it tended to be sort of siloed, that it was built on your own relationship with schools. And so we really started to have this conversation about what would happen if we started to really think like a region. Could we connect the dots and get a sense of regional lift?

Jo Reed: I see. So in other words, District A might have enormous resources with cultural organizations but District D might have none.

Lisa Donovan: Right.

Jo Reed: Or very few.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah. It's interesting with our second Collective Impact Grant, we were doing some mapping.  And we found that almost every school, you know, had relationships with different arts organizations but we weren't really clear on the depth and I guess you could call it dosage. And so it might be a single field trip to Mass MOCA; or it could be a deep relationship with Jacob's Pillow. And so to really get to this idea of equity you'd have to drill down into, you know, how deep are those relationships? And you know, how much access does a particular grade or particular school have?

Jo Reed:  Well, let’s back for a moment and talk about the approach of collective impact to increase access to the arts and to arts education in rural areas. What is collective impact?

Lisa Donovan: It's a great question. So collective impact, I would define it as a cross sector approach to addressing complex problems, problems that can't be solved by any one sector working alone. And so one of the things that we were working on here is again, how do we increase access to arts education in this particular rural area. And in order to do that we can, you know, we can gather the arts and culture organizations together and have conversations and work together, but we're stronger if we're also in conversation with business leaders and social services and schools, educators, administrators. And so when you take that cross-sector approach, you're more likely to get to real change.

Jo Reed:  How does collective impact work in practice? How is it implemented?

Lisa Donovan:  There are a variety of I guess 5 different conditions for collective impact and we've been really working on those. And so they're things like can you have a backbone organization that's managing or coordinating your efforts? And in a rural area, this is another finding from leveraging change, rural areas don't usually have the capacity for a single backbone. And so we designed our network so it would serve as a collaborative backbone organization, so we were able to sort of meet that condition. There's continuous communication that in order to coordinate the work that you need to be communicating constantly about what's happening and that's been a huge issue in a rural area such as Berkshire County where there's a lot going on and you don't always know about that. So how are we tightening up how we're communicating? There are shared measurements and so one of the things we're working on right now are: are there indicators, for example, in our Creative Youth Development programming, that we could agree on no matter what organization you're working with could you identify a Creative Youth Development criteria that you'll collect in your data collection? And what would it mean to say, "Here's our findings," not just for your organization but across the region. So another important condition for collective impact is having a shared agenda. And so as part of our process, we created a blueprint for arts integration and education where we worked with our cross sector voices to really think about what are the issues in Berkshire County. And I'll tell you a little bit more about that in a second. But that blueprint became our vision for what we wanted, how we wanted to activate arts integration and arts education to help our region address some of its concerns. And then the last one is mutually reinforcing activities. And the idea here is that maybe one organization can only, you know, contribute certain amount of time and energy to activities or programming to help with change. But if every organization is doing that and we're coordinating, again, you get that regional lift. So I think that mutually reinforcing activities is something that we've been really attending to.

Jo Reed: That makes perfect sense. Let me ask you this about something that isn't unique to the Berkshires but is very specific to it. And that is it also draws a lot of people who don't live there, not just tourists but people who have their second home in the Berkshires. And I'm curious about the discrepancy between the way people who have a second home there and their buy-in as opposed to people who are there all year around and how cultural organizations program for people who are there the entire year.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, yeah. It's a great question. So this is one of the things we've really been focused on in the last couple of years, especially. O ne of the things that was a core strand of the blueprint was that there was an acknowledgement that we needed to do more around community engagement, that often people who live here year round don't necessarily see that the arts are for them; they tend to think initially, "Oh, that's really for our tourists." And so this is where education is so important that, you know, if we could work with our students K-12 and beyond, giving them access to the arts so that they understand that this is part of the unique place that we live, that we would develop a clear sense of a Berkshire identity. We have a superintendent who said to me, and I love this quote. He said, "You know, going to school in Berkshire County should be substantially different than anywhere else because of what we have here. And so a lot of the cultural organizations have been doing amazing work to create access through school opportunities whether that be field trips or bringing artists into schools, providing free admission to our cultural organizations. We've worked with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. They have a Cultural Rx program that allowed some of our medical professionals to give prescriptions for students who are in challenging situations to go to a museum as part of a prescription.

Jo Reed: They do that in England. Yeah, that's part of the National Health System.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. And I think it's been inspired in part by that. We are also working with different communities. Last night, we met with the Berkshire Black Economics Council. And the Black Arts Council, which was just being formed to really think about how does the Black community think about their experience with cultural organizations? And that conversation led to map about what our youth might need. A couple weeks ago we met with the LatinX community representatives and so they're saying things like, "Hey, we'd love to see ourselves more in the offerings. We'd love to see local artists presented." So I feel like there's a whole attending to listening to community and being responsive right now happening in the Berkshires that's really exciting.

Jo Reed: I’m sure it is an interesting conversation because   where there's such an economic divide between the second home people and the all-year-round people that t really can make things very tricky in trying to come up with a regional approach to things.

Lisa Donovan: Definitely. You know, one of the youth ambassadors last night was naming transportation. Now that's one of the shared challenges of a rural area. And she was saying, "We want to get out. We want to be interacting with the arts scene here. Sometimes it's hard to get there." And so how might we think about that? And so you find innovative solutions where Jacob's Pillow just has been renting out a bus and will take anyone who wants to show up on performance nights from Pittsfield, bringing people from the small city into Becket, which is a really rural region of the county. So, this community engagement piece is a central piece and it's very complex because it's about building relationships to a whole variety of communities and starting early through education, addressing discrepancies, as you're saying, coming up with shared solutions for issues whether it be transportation or I've not been to a cultural organization and I feel like I need to have a primer to sort of understand what that experience is and what the expectations are.

Jo Reed: And to be invited in.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. And to have a sense of belonging, I belong here.

Jo Reed: They want me here.

Lisa Donovan: Yes.

Lisa Donovan: Exactly.

Jo Reed: And also,  the cost. That, I mean, I love Mass MOCA. I really do. But $20 dollars for adults, that can be a heavy lift for a family.

Lisa Donovan: It can. I will say, I was just talking with a teacher who came to this event last night and she said she brought two classes, 52 students, <laughs> to MOCA. I think they were expecting half that and they got in free. And they all left with a pass to come back.  "When you come back, bring your family," you know. And so again, thinking about not just individuals but how are we building that sense of you're welcome. We want you here. You belong. This is for you.

Jo Reed: You’re the director of the C4 initiative. Describe what that is and it contributes to this effort.

Lisa Donovan: So, C4 is the, it represents our collective, the overarching collective impact initiative and it stands for creative compact for collaborative collective impact. And it really is, it has several pieces to it. The first piece is focused on career readiness. This is another issue that we've uncovered with the blueprint that in order to really connect deeply with our youth, to encourage them to not only see what's here but to encourage them to connect with it, to stay in the area, that there are internship opportunities at our arts and culture organization. Several years ago when we did a survey we found that only 17 percent of our guidance counselors felt that they had strong career pathways in the arts. And so we thought, okay, there's something to bite off. And so we've been actively working with our guidance counselors, with our superintendents' round table and through our arts educator professional learning networks to create a kind of clearinghouse for information about the arts. And so that includes a grid of here's all of our cultural organizations. Here's the different kinds of activities that happen there --if there's an interest in communications or marketing or the business end of things or artist liaisons, right. So we're trying to do a little bit more organizing, connecting the dots, having a shared template so that if you're going to create and opportunity for an internship for a high school student or a college student, that it's on the same form so that students don't have to go digging around your website. So career readiness is one strand of our C4 initiative. The second piece of it is the establishment of a network. One of the key ideas is that in rural areas one of the promising practices that we know works is networks. And so we've created a network called BCAN, Berkshire Cultural Asset Network, which is inviting all of our arts education and community engagement staff from our cultural organizations to be part of this network. We have three co-chairs representing a large organization, a mid-sized organization and a small organization because we've realized that everyone needs something different. And that network has allowed us to collaborate in new ways, to share information, to learn together and to again kind of activate that collective impact approach.  And then the third piece of the C4 initiative was to create a podcast class of all things, a podcast series. And this was really about establishing the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts where I teach as a backbone. So before this we had the collaborative backbone and this grant from the National Endowment for the Arts really allowed us to center the work at MCLA as we know it.

Jo Reed: The podcast series is called?

Lisa Donovan: "Thinking Like a Region." And we decided to do this because I'll just share one story that really struck home. I was meeting with an economics council here and I was presenting about why arts education, it was so important. And at the end of the conversation this guy says to me, "Okay, so just, I just don't understand. If you're going to be a plumber, why would you need a painting class??" And it sort of stopped me in my tracks. <laughs> I realized, "Okay this, there's something here to be learned.” And it's that we have a translation problem I think sometimes in the arts that I think unless you're immersed in the arts or have had an arts experience, it's very hard to understand how the capacities that you gain from being immersed in the arts or through arts education, how they might translate to other areas. And so we ended up having a conversation around “well, does a plumber, you need to be able to closely observe, have a sense of discipline, attention to detail.” And at that point, you know, I think the conversation shifted but it made me realize, okay, somehow we have to do more translating. And so the goal of this podcast is to center on the County and people who have relationships in the County and leaders in different sectors who have grown up with arts education or had immersive experiences in some way, shape or form that can talk a little bit about their current role and how the creative capacities that they gained through arts education or the arts in general, how that maps to their work right now. And it's been fascinating.

Jo Reed: You mentioned this was a podcast class as well as a series—so I’m assuming students are involved?

Lisa Donovan: Yeah, so we have run a podcast in class called "The Art of the Podcast." We've run it twice and we set it up as a dual enrollment class. So we've had both high school students and MCLA students participate. And so we have students, we brainstorm who we might interview and then students identify who they're interested in. The first time we taught it we did it as teams, so we had a high school student and college student interviewing together. That was their choice. And in this last class, we had a class of college students and we each of them did one interview. And they had to research the person that they were going to interview, design their questions. They had to go through the interview process and then they also had to learn how to edit the content and to write up the show notes.

Jo Reed: So they're getting an entire skill set in audio production.

Lisa Donovan: Exactly. As am I. <laughs> As am I.

Jo Reed: Yes. And "Thinking Like a Region," so we'll definitely have a link to that and how often do you anticipate the podcast posting?

Lisa Donovan: So we have 12 episodes right now. And so what we're calling it, we're doing it like a season and if we, if we're able to secure more funding and continue the process, we will continue; so we're just looking at that now. And we are releasing them once a month. So we've just released our very first one which was an interview with Tessa Kelly who leads The Mastheads, which is a program in Pittsfield. And so Tessa, she's trained as an architect and she talked about as an architect and designer that the skills that are required in terms of active listening and being able to listen to the goals of the folks she's working with and translate them in to design.  And you know, it's been interesting because each interviewee really brings fresh language to the table in terms of how they describe the impact of the arts and those skills.

Jo Reed:   There are many reason why the arts are vital for everyone –but particularly for younger people, I think  because art demands empathy.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: And, and it also really asks for curiosity.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: I think those are two traits that cannot be nurtured enough.

Lisa Donovan: You know, I totally agree. And it's interesting because, you know, we've started to expand the list of people that we're interviewing and one of our students interviewed this-- a student at MCLA whose name is Kyrie Clark and he's a photographer. And he really talked about the expressive quality of learning through photography and about his own background learning about being a photographer and how it gave him the opportunity to be expressive in new ways. And that he felt it changed the way that he interacted with people and that the arts could provide different ways to connect. So I really feel like that empathy piece, that sort of social, emotional learning connection especially now coming out of the pandemic, just really important.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I think it's key. Yeah. So how did you get into this work, Lisa?

Lisa Donovan: Well, in terms of the podcast or in terms of arts education?

Jo Reed: No, in terms of arts education.

Lisa Donovan: Ah. Good question. Well, I growing up, I fell in love with theater, you know. I was writing my own shows, creating snacks and charging my parents to come watch me perform.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Lisa Donovan: I knew from day one I wanted to be a theater artist and so, through high school I participated deeply in theater and I will say for me, you know, looking back, it's really how I found myself. I found that I learned so much about myself from stepping into the roles or people who were not me, characters I was embodying. And through that process, I learned who I was in different aspects of my identity and I also learned my, you know, I learned public speaking skills and leadership. And the first time I got paid to act, I realized it wasn't my jam.


Lisa Donovan: And I was surprised about that and what I realized is that the thing I loved about theater was the learning that happened. SO it was less about being an actress and getting paid to be an actress and much more about this curiosity as you're saying and personal exploration. And so I ended up being an arts administrator in my early career, but there was always something missing and it was that piece I needed to be deeply connected to the creative process, but always through learning. And so it took me a while to kind of figure that out.

Jo Reed: And now you're at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, MCLA. Just give us a teeny bit about that school and why you chose to work there.

Lisa Donovan: Well, it's a-- it is a gem, I have to say. It's a small liberal arts college in North Adams about a mile from Mass MOCA and what I love about it is I'm working with undergraduates and I get to know every single one of my students. And I get to really see them inside of class, outside of class. Because of where we are, it's a spectacularly beautiful area, because of the incredible arts and culture resources in the area, the opportunities for students, especially students in the arts, are endless. And one of the things that's really unique about the Berkshires in general is that with all of these amazing resources and the outstanding folks that we draw, you know, into our cultural organizations, it's very easy to access people. It's easy to each out to, you know, the Director of Education at Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the head of Jacobs Pillow or Mass MOCA and have a conversation or have students have a conversation. So I feel like it's a small school with lots of access to incredible arts and culture resources.  And Berkshire County was named the second most arts-vibrant medium-sized community in the nation by the National Center for Arts Research in 2018. And so we're recognized for our creative pursuits and to me, in addition to all that this region offers, I think that higher education can be a catalyst for change, especially in regional work, even more so in rural regions. And so really connecting the dots, we have this amazing, vibrant arts community and Higher Ed can help to amplify that. We can be a convener. We can help to connect. So I think we're an ideal backbone organization.

Jo Reed: And a program that you co-lead called BRAINworks is actually housed there. So how does BRAINworks fit into this equation?

Lisa Donovan: Yeah,  BRAINworks is an acronym for the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network. So as part of this collective impact initiative, a really central piece was to create opportunities to engage with educators to provide training in deep arts integration. And both in teaching them, you know, how to integrate the arts across the curriculum and also to do that in collaboration with our arts and culture resources. So BRAINworks is now a portal to everything arts education. We have a shared calendar there. We will be listing all of those internship templates there. We spotlight interesting arts educational work that's happening in the county. Our podcast series will live there. And teachers also developed curriculum to be shared. So it's a little bit of a treasure trove.

Jo Reed:  I’m glad you mentioned arts integration—I know you’ve written a series of books on the subject—so you can give us a working definition of arts integration.

Lisa Donovan: Yes. So I really think about arts integration as learning in, through and with the arts in collaboration with other content areas. So it's really cross disciplinary exploration with arts at the center. And the key focus from my perspective is that there's equal rigor. So if I am creating an infographic in math and I'm doing it using the elements of design and visual art, that I'm teaching the vocabulary of visual art and not just how we're using statistics. So there's equal rigor in both content areas and that means how you're teaching, how you're engaging students and also how you're assessing learning.

Jo Reed: As you do this work of arts integration and collective impact and expanding access to the arts in rural areas, what surprised you?

Lisa Donovan: That's interesting. Oh, so many things. I think the power of the network. So, some of these investigations have made me realize how embedded, you know, rural life is in me.  So I grew up right on the Hudson River in the Hudson River Valley. There's something unique and really special about rural areas where we know people in different ways. We're connected in different ways. We tend to play so many different roles. And how do we make that visible to those of us in rural regions and how do we capitalize on it, you know? So that's one piece. Another piece is that it is amazing to me to be you know, immersed in life in Berkshire County and see all that we have here and knowing that it could be even so much more just by connecting the dots, just by talking to each other, knowing what each other's doing and really thinking about how do we collaborate to make sure that every young person feels like the arts and culture are for them and that they have early and sustained exposure and immersion in that. That kind of thing. It's also made me realize particularly the collective impact approach and I love that this is a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts because I think the deep thinking and structure of the grant really honors the value of working across sectors and so often, at least in my early career, I was all about the arts and I was in my bubble and it wouldn't occur to me to work with someone in social services or someone in health or someone in business. And now that I see the potential for that I feel like arts can be a strategy for change for our region. And the things that we need here in terms of community engagement, in terms of pro social youth development, how are we keeping young people in the county? How are we supporting their needs? How are we preparing them for careers that they want to have? We can do that so well in the arts. I think we can do it better than anyone else. So, it's been really fun to discover across sectors where this work can take us. And each grant has allowed us to take the work just so far and now as this grant is ending, it'll end this month in fact, you know, we were saying last night to this group, we know the next steps. We need a youth council. We need to listen to youth at the county. We need to continue the podcast. We need to continue to develop these career pathways. And we can only do these things well, if we're synchronizing our efforts.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a great place to leave it. Lisa, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time. Thank you for the work you do.

Lisa Donovan: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

Jo Reed: That was Dr. Lisa Donovan—she’s a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, director the C4 initiative, and the author of an arts integration book series. We’ll have links to all of these and the podcast “Thinking Like a Region” in our show notes. 

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us where ever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


A woman cradeling an instrument in her arms.

Credit Robert Torres Photography

Ashleigh Gordon, Violist, Co-founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Castle of our Skins

Gordon co-founded Castle of our Skins to celebrate Black artistry in music, and today they have a concert and music education series that incorporates music with visual art, dance, history, and storytelling. She talks about this programming and how the organization is moving through “a health pandemic and a racial pandemic” on the podcast.

Music Credits:

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

“Love Let The Wind Cry...How I Adore Thee" by Undine Smith Moore, performed by soprano Sirgourney Cook and pianist Sarah Bob. Performed live May 26, 2018 at Hibernian Hall, Boston as part of Castle of our Skins's "Ain't I a Woman" project.

“Wade in the Water” from Spiritual Fantasy No 12 by Frederick Tillis, performed by Gabriela Díaz, violin; Matthew Vera, violin; Francesca McNeeley, cello; Ashleigh Gordon, viola. Recorded live in the Boston Athenaeum.


“Positive Negativity” by Gary Powell Nash, performed by Ashleigh Gordon, viola and Anthony R. Green, from Castle of our Skins's Black Composer Miniature Challenge.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

Ashleigh Gordon:  I would like to think that we encourage people to learn, and we invite people to do so in a way that is nonjudgmental. So, you don't need to be a musicologist or ethnomusicologist to come to our concerts and appreciate. You don't have to have prior knowledge or experience. You don't need to come with any kind of guilt, as-- you know, post 2020 guilt around, "I don't know. I've never heard this music, and it never bothered or crossed my mind to even question who I hear and who I see on stage," and sort of approach this with any kind of sense of guilt. But you can come into a space and know that there will be something for you to learn, and something for you to also contribute towards. So, I would hope that the space we create is something that we do with great care, and translates as being done with great care, and is able to provide an opportunity to really be curious; to learn and be curious.

Jo Reed: That is Ashleigh Gordon, she is a violist and co-founder and artistic and executive director of Castle of our Skins. Castle of our Skins is a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony Green—classmates from the New England Conservatory of Music, founded the Boston-based organization in 2013. It was born out of the desire to foster cultural curiosity and to address lack of Black voices in Western classical music. A recent grantee of the Arts Endowment, Castle of Our Skins aims to highlight the achievements of Black artists through creative concert programs which weaves music with visual art, dance, history, or storytelling, as well as educational workshops designed for both in and out of the classroom. By collaborating with arts organizations across Boston, and operating as a collective of musicians, artists, dancers, and historians, Ashleigh has amplified the reach of Castle of our Skins and brought many more Black voices into the spotlight. I know how difficult it is to start a successful arts organization—and it’s typically not the career path a musician takes upon completing her masters. And that’s where I began my conversation with Ashleigh Gordon….

Jo Reed: Ashleigh, when most classical musicians graduate from the Conservatory, they hope for a solo career, they hope to join an orchestra. But when you graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, you made a very different decision.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes, I did, and that decision took about, maybe, 10 years or so, to really live into and fully appreciate. So, as you had mentioned, being an orchestral musician, having that as a career goal, was definitely front of mind. One of the reasons why I even wanted to become a professional musician, was seeing a live orchestra. I remember second row, sitting in front of the violins, and being really enamored with the experience of live energy and live music-making. But I did not feel comfortable in that setting. I have a lot of ideas, and I wanted to be able to express those ideas. I am appreciative of having the space to be able to think and create and build out a series-- a concert series-- having social and political ideas that I can work with, in addition to music-making, and having that freedom to be able to have this sort of self-agency is something that I really appreciate, and didn't necessarily find a home in the orchestral sphere. So I very much, again, appreciate chamber music. Solo playing is something that I also recognized is maybe not necessarily my strong suit, but definitely a collaborative space, working with others; so, wanted to find a way to have a chamber music outlet that I could do professionally, and that could support me professionally, in addition to also having a space where I could educate. I really do appreciate one-on-one intimate opportunities, and being able to do that, professionally, in my work, is something that I've really tried to build out as an entrepreneur.

Jo Reed: And you and your fellow classmate at the New England Conservatory of Music, Anthony Green, founded Castle of our Skins in 2013. First, what is the significance of the name, Castle of our Skins?

Ashleigh Gordon: Sure, yes. Castle of our Skins comes from a poem by Nikki Giovanni, and that poem is called Poem (for Nina), as in Nina Simone. And to paraphrase, it says, "We are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins." And if that's the case, treat our skin-- this castle-- as being a warm, welcoming, invitational place to live. Adorn it with beautiful things, really celebrate and honor it. So, celebration, beauty, excellence, Blackness, are really wrapped up in that poem, and are really wrapped up in this organization, as being foundational to our mission. And Anthony Green-- pianist, composer, social justice activist, definitely a classmate of mine. Graduation-- Ashleigh Gordon, Anthony Green, we were literally next to one another, and I think the universe had positioned us to be classmates at New England Conservatory, to really found this organization, but very much wanted to have a space where we could support one another, artistically, as fellow Black musicians, pre-dating Black student unions, which I know exist now in a lot of colleges and conservatories, but definitely didn't exist when we were students, and wanted to have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, and about our ancestry and our lineage, as it extends, certainly, to New England Conservatory and the many graduates-- Florence Price one of them; Coretta Scott King; many Black graduates who attended the same hallways and walked the same paths we did-- having the space to honor all of that. So, very much an exploration, and now this sort of platform that is one for collaboration is really wrapped into the journey of Castle of our Skins.

Jo Reed: What was the goal when you and Anthony began Castle of Our Skins in 2013, and how it shifted and/or expanded over the years.

Ashleigh Gordon:   Our original mission was to celebrate African-American composers, and perform the music of African-American composers, and we have very much broadened that to celebrate Black artistry, and... I think the impetus behind that shift was recognizing that African diaspora contributions extended 500 years, <laughs> right, in the making, for classical music-- what we consider Western classical music-- and certainly beyond this country, beyond this continent. So, African-American composers, yes, certainly, we program, but there's Afro-European, and certainly African, and Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latino-- again, 500 years' worth-- and wanted to be able to holistically express Blackness as it's holistically expressed, which is music and; so, thinking of griots, thinking of storytellers, which use spoken word, which use movement, which use music, which use collective participation, communal participation: "I am because we are" sort of attitudes that are really integral to music-making in African diasporic cultures. So, the idea of expanding to really celebrate Black artistry in its wholeness-- music and, music plus-- is something that I think became very, very apparent early on, so we made that shift pretty early on.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it's very exciting. I mean, you collaborate across disciplines, and you collaborate with a lot of other organizations. "Partnership" could be your middle name.

Ashleigh Gordon: <laughs> Yeah.

Jo Reed: And I think one example is the incredibly rich and diverse show you put on a few years ago, in 2018, Ain't I a Woman.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes, that's-- that one, I'm very proud of. That had a brother presentation, I Am a Man, based off the sanitation strike in 1963, I believe, or '68.

Jo Reed: Sixty-eight.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yeah, '68 sanitation strike slogan, "I am a man." But Ain't I a Woman was a multifaceted project: music, obviously, as we are a music organization, but also included poetry by African diasporic women; a world-premiere commission by New York-based composer Jessica Mays, with original poetry that she also wrote. Since this was pre-pandemic, when we could be on site in spaces, we had an on-site-- Black market to support local Black female entrepreneurs; so, selling jewelry, selling handmade fashion design, selling handmade art pieces, and things like this. And then, as the whole entire evening was really in celebration of Black femininity, we had a pre-concert lecture to contextualize Black feminism, and a post-concert dessert reception of just pure celebration, pure indulgence, to celebrate, really, Black womanhood. The music was very expansive vocal traditions that extended from L. Viola Kinney, in the early 1900s, through, again, world-premiere composition. So, everything really rooted around Black feminism.

Jo Reed: As Artistic Director, you're the person who really thinks about putting the season together. What goes into that thinking and planning?

Ashleigh Gordon: Sure. I think, with everything that we have done, as has already been referenced, is done out of collaboration. So, if there is a visual artist, a dancer, a spoken-word artist, another music organization-- that is mission-aligned, I like to say, having a conversation and really just ideating together is how most things ultimately start. Same with venues, same with spaces: What kind of residency opportunities can be built out? And "residencies" being more than just a performance space, but what kind of educational opportunities, community engagement, workshops, sessions, can happen, to help build context around what it is we're trying to explore? And through that sort of iterative process, the tip of the iceberg is the season: what we're able to share and build out. So, next season, for instance, is our tenth anniversary, and we are literally starting with a ball. We're having a huge collaboration, celebration, with a visual artist here in Boston, where I am based. Daniel Callahan is his name. Daniel Callahan uses a unique practice he calls MassQing, which is based on indigenous practices of body decoration, using the face literally as a canvas to create these beautiful works of art, transforming our person into a work of art-- really, a walking work of art-- and having a huge celebration of communities of color. That will happen in July, at the Arnold Arboretum, which is also having many anniversaries, many celebrations, as it's a really important and one of the first arboretums, public spaces, in the country. That was a collaboration that has roots in a 2017 event that we also did, and even collaborations-- sort of ideations-- pre-dating that; so, many years project in the making, and being one that is something that starts from a simple conversation and, you know, "I enjoy what you do. How could we connect? Where are the overlaps?"

Jo Reed: Well, another collaboration was with the Stewart Gardner Museum, which was Witness: Spirituals and the Classical Musical Tradition, which is online for people who would like to see it. It's really wonderful, and I'd love to have you describe that show and how it came about.

Ashleigh Gordon: Sure. Well, definitely, the wonders of pandemic pivoting is...

<both laugh>

Jo Reed: A word I never want to hear again.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes. So, we were fortunate to have a great collaborative thought partner with the Gardner-- specifically, George Steel, who is the curator there-- and we did a program, pre-pandemic, with invited guest cellist Seth Parker Woods. Central piece: Julius Eastman, Holy Presence of Joan of Arc for 10 cellos, and a Boston premiere of Florence Price string quartet, and had a really great turnout and a really great energy around that collaboration, and wanted to do something the following year, the following year being pandemic year. So we couldn't do something in person, but George wanted to explore the archives of the Gardner; there was  lots of history around the usage of that space, one of which included having performances of H. T. Burleigh, and documents around African-American spirituals. So, he wanted to take that and extrapolate and create-- again, during the pandemic-- a video sort of docuseries around the Gardner, around spirituals, obviously having music, and wanted to illuminate its history in connection with the Gardner. So we were brought on board as performers, to perform works by Adolphus Hailstork, William Dawson, for instance, and perform in different parts of the Gardner, and help provide context around its historical significance.

Jo Reed: And I have to add Frederick Tillis...

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes, and Frederick Tillis.

Jo Reed: ... with Wade in the Water, which was extraordinary.

(music up)

 Jo Reed:  The performance was wonderful. It is a string quartet. You're all masked. How is playing with other people when you're masked? It has to be a change.

Ashleigh Gordon: Now it's so commonplace, it's almost like, when I'm in a grocery story, and I have my viola on my back, I don't know I have my viola until someone says, "What's on your back?" At this point, I don't recognize that I'm masked when I'm playing, because I'm so used to it. But definitely, early on, it was an extra barrier, where so much about someone's physical body expressions is how we engage as chamber musicians. So, a sort of upturn of someone's eyebrow can help foreshadow a ritardando, for instance, and being able to see their mouth and see their full face as being part of how we communicate... that was definitely something that we had to get used to. At this point, it's, again, commonplace, and something we are comfortable with. But certainly, early on was definitely something communicative that we needed to adjust to, and also acoustically, as sometimes playing with a mask can muffle the sound, ironically enough under our ears.

Jo Reed: We mentioned your educational programming. It's very robust, and I really, if you don't mind, would love to have you talk about some of it. You created something called Edu-tainment Recitals. So, who are these for, and what is it that you do there?

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes. I really enjoy Edu-tainment Recitals and our education-- I guess, what would be sort of traditional education or workshops, and things like that, for youth. Everything that we do, I consider educational. So, whether that's a sold-out concert or in a classroom, everything is foundationally related to education and fostering cultural curiosity. But the Edu-tainment Recitals are something that we developed as being more like tapas style, where it's a movement of this and a movement of that, and in the course of an hour, generally geared towards intergenerational, primarily youth, and then obviously youth and families, being able to experience a breadth of music-making. So, I had referenced 500-plus years of African diaspora contribution as composers, as creators, in what we consider Western classical music; so, being able to showcase that breadth in an hour, with a movement of this and a movement of that, and providing historical contextualization around why this particular piece, why this particular composer, and how this composer, who may have lived-- I'm thinking Chevalier De Saint-Georges, for instance, Afro-French, who may have lived in the late 18th century-- how that person connects to you today, and how their story and history and legacy connect with you today. So, sharing music and sharing educational information that is hopefully planting of a seed to encourage, again, intergenerational audiences to want to continue to learn more.

Jo Reed: Well, it's certainly first cousin to your Deep Dive series.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes. Those allow me to sort of nerd out. I also teach at the Longy School of Music, of Bard College, and I teach a course on composers of the African diaspora; so, sort of repurposing some of my lectures around certain, either composers, certain styles or groups of composers-- the AACM, for instance...talking about genres or styles of music. So, an entire lecture around African-American spirituals, an entire lecture around Black female composers, entire lectures around orchestral music versus chamber music, that type of thing, and being able to take a, well, as the name suggests, a deeper-dive look into certain thematic... yeah, areas of African diasporic music-making.

Jo Reed: What do you think Castle of our Skins does best?

Ashleigh Gordon: Hmm. That's a great question. I would like to think that we encourage people to learn, and we invite people to do so in a way that is nonjudgmental. So, you don't need to be a musicologist or ethnomusicologist to come to our concerts and appreciate. You don't have to have prior knowledge or experience. You don't need to come with any kind of guilt, as-- you know, post 2020 guilt around, "I don't know. I've never heard this music, and it never bothered or crossed my mind to even question who I hear and who I see on stage," and sort of approach this with any kind of sense of guilt. But you can come into a space and know that there will be something for you to learn, and something for you to also contribute towards. So, I would hope that the space we create is something that we do with great care, and translates as being done with great care, and is able to provide an opportunity to really be curious; to learn and be curious.

Jo Reed: I'm really curious about this, Ashleigh: What prepared you for running an organization, for writing the necessary grants, for being able to get permissions for music, for dealing with contracts?

Ashleigh Gordon: A lot of that was learned on the job, <laughs> on the fly, I have to say. But I think, to expand a little bit about that, I have always been someone who was interested in bringing things to life. Had I not done music, I would've done graphic design. I was quite serious in high school; you know, divergent paths of either visual creation or musical creation. And ended up choosing music, but have always really been a person who liked to imagine. So, I have children's books, for instance, that I wrote and illustrated as a kid, and... again, visual art, graphic design, seeing things, and creating it on paper. So the idea of creating a concert series, or facilitating a connection and bringing that to life, also, for me, translates in that way of ideation to realization. And that had sort of traveled along with me in various spaces. So, in college and in my master's programs, I was President of the American Viola Society chapter at my college, and had leadership in other organizations, as well, too, throughout my studies, that would allow me to gain necessary skills of production, of coordinating, facilitating, reaching out, sort of cold-calling. Various-- at NEC, New England Conservatory-- entrepreneurial type of opportunities in their Career Center. I was a work-study student in their Career Center when Angela Myles Beeching was part of the Career Service Center then. And remember, there was a wall of over 100 very, very colorful worksheets. So, if you want to start a teaching studio, here's a worksheet on that. If you want to write a grant, here's a worksheet on that. If you want to build a résumé, build a website, here's a worksheet on that. So there was a sort of a wealth of information that I was surrounded by, as well as my own practical skills that I had sort of amassed in other leadership roles, and really being able to connect with resources; ask questions and connect with resources. So, in Boston, there's the Arts and Business Council. There's no shortage of newsletters and workshops for entrepreneurial artists and entrepreneurs across various disciplines-- for profit and nonprofit-- to learn technology skills, to learn grant-writing skills, to learn sort of the non-musical skills. So, literally, the non-musical things that you need, in order to bring your ideas to life, are things that I had always sort of picked up and tried to find for many, many years, pre-dating my time with Castle of our Skins.

Jo Reed: The pandemic certainly hit the performing arts very hard, as we know, and I want to know: How did you cope, in terms of keeping the lights on, both literally and creatively?

Ashleigh Gordon: Sure. Multiple pandemics; so, certainly, a health pandemic, and obviously a racial pandemic. And as a Black arts institution, I do not speak solely for Castle of our Skins when I say it was extremely stressful. <laughs> And all of a sudden, in terms of the lights, I mean, they were hot spotlights, 2020, just blaring down on Castle of our Skins and other Black arts institutions. So, the external factors beyond our control just caused so much more attention to be brought to us, so that attention translated into financial attention and just people doing bake sales, and selling CDs, and all sorts of grants and organizations and individuals reaching out with financial support, with opportunities, et cetera. So there was definitely an overwhelming onslaught of that, given the racial pandemics... which added a lot of stress, to be perfectly honest, for a very small organization such as Castle of our Skins. So, we didn't have, like other, I guess, non-Black arts organizations, a difficulty with keeping lights on for financial reasons, and also keeping programming alive. It very much, as a, again, community-minded, collaboratively-minded organization, was never a question for me of stopping the work that we do. So, finding opportunities to continue to make music, and if not make music, being able to support our spoken-word artists with a sort of Nightcap Series, where, on social media, for half an hour, they can present a series of poems. Our composers-- we started, during the pandemic, a Black composer Miniature Challenge project for African diasporic composers to write 30-second miniatures, originally for viola and piano-- myself the violist, Anthony R. Green being the pianist-- and we would record them virtually, Anthony living in the Netherlands at the time, and myself being in Boston. We had about 19, I think, composers from North America, Africa, Europe, and I want to say Canada. Yeah, Canada and the United States. So that was a great project, which we have certainly continued, and, like other organizations, really pivoting and seeing how we can leverage this digital space that we're in, and also leverage the, again, really hot, intense lights that were being shown on us, to make sure that our platform was one that was even more expansive, geographically, in terms of the voices that were being represented, as well as the disciplines that were being represented.

Jo Reed: I listened to quite a few of the pieces in the Miniature Challenge, and I was struck by the range of them, first of all. And it was clear you and Anthony were not in the same place, and you managed to make music together on Zoom, and my hat is off to you. That is hard.

Ashleigh Gordon: <laughs> Yes, that is very difficult. Fortunately, we've known each other for many, many years, so despite being in different time zones, we could still connect and make music with one another. Yeah, it was a great project to, early on in the pandemic, I should say, still have reason to practice; <laughs> if for nothing more than 30 seconds a week, but to still have reason to practice, when literally everything else had dried up, and obviously be able to provide so much room. We had an 11-year-old submit, who didn't know how to notate his music on traditional five lines, four spaces, so submitted just a recording of himself performing on piano. And I remember that, and thinking that there would have been no other sort of opportunity or way to have even connected with him, had this challenge not been presented to him. And through the powers of the Internet and connectivity that we have, I think, found during this time when we are socially isolated, being able to connect with someone so young, and being able to provide an opportunity for him-- and the other composers, as well-- has been really meaningful, to say the least.

Jo Reed: You also received a grant from the Arts Endowment ARP money, and I'm curious what that has allowed you to do, or will allow you to do.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yes. Again, so many blessings out of this very strange racial and health crisises [sic] that we're dealing with. But, fortunately, we have been able to use those funds to expand our team. So, what has largely been, for myself, Artistic and Executive Director, a huge amount of work, really doing the work of many-- Anthony, again, having been remote, really, since the founding, and still being really actively involved with the organization-- allowed for us to, again, expand our team. So we now, fortunately, have a Director of Education. We have a social media manager, a Director of Operations and Community Engagement. We now have a publicist. We have a bookkeeper. We are working towards having a development consultant. And ultimately, for me, I would love to really bring on a general manager and executive director, to offload some of the responsibilities, as you would find in an ED, so I can be more solely focused on artistic direction of the organization. So, those funds have really allowed for us to expand our human resources, being able to also support more digital resources that, again,this time of social distancing has really required of us; so, the videography, live-streaming services. You had referenced licensing and sync-licensing, which is certainly no small feat to have to account for. So, to function during this time, certainly, for one; and then also to lay roots-- lay real roots-- that will help us expand and operate, maintain some of this energy that we have had to just sort of rise to, with the necessary humans on board to make it all happen.

Jo Reed: I wonder, when you're looking at the landscape of arts institutions, and during the crisis of the pandemic, during this racial reckoning that happened simultaneously, what could be learned, or needs to be relearned, that could be applied moving forward, so arts institutions aren't stuck doing the same old same old? As you say, there really are opportunities here.

Ashleigh Gordon: Yeah. I think, if anything, being able to listen. There have certainly been no shortage of conversations, no shortage of DEIA consultants, who have been brought on board. No shortage of lectures, workshops, talks, et cetera, around racial equity, around-- especially in our field of music; specifically, classical music. No shortage of these conferences and workshops and talks and lectures. So, listening, I think, very much so. And then I think, also, making sure that what we are hearing, the various suggestions that, again, have been echoed and referenced in many situations. I won't go into them now, because, again, there's just a wealth of information and conversations that have already happened, but making sure that those efforts are built into long-term plans, so any sort of predecessor, especially in senior leadership, won't affect the institutional missions and visions and DEIA work that needs to happen. So, whether that's 10-year, 15, 20-year plans that are built out into strategic plans that are referenced at weekly meetings, that are referenced at retreats, that are kept alive as a living document, and kept alive as living action, those shouldn't be attached, in my opinion, to your ED, to your board, to any physical person, but really through the life of the organization, to really make sure that this is a sustained effort. So many colleagues that I have had pleasure of being on panels with, and have listened to on various panels and workshops and things, reference the cyclical nature of these sort of geyser moments, where there is heightened awareness around racial equity and diversity and access and intersectional racial justice; these geyser moments, and then pretty sharply followed by collective amnesia. <laughs> And then we have these, again, decades later, these geyser moments. So, we are in, some may argue, on that decline to that collective amnesia, which, historically and cyclically, has happened. But I think if we really do build out these efforts to be long-term sustainable-- just, say, for the next 50 years or 100 years-- thinking about sort of seventh-generation mindset: What are you building now for seven generations in the future, to make sure that we are really stabilizing our field, and being consciously mindful, now, to prevent that steep decline, or make it a little less jarring for future generations?

Jo Reed: Okay, and I think that is a good place to leave it. Ashleigh, thank you. Thank you for the work you do.

Ashleigh Gordon: Oh, sure. Yeah. Thank you for reaching out. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk, and such thoughtful questions, as well, too, so thank you for your time.

Jo Reed: No, not at all. It's a pleasure. Thank you.

That was violist and co-founder and artistic and executive director of Castle of our Skins, Ashleigh Gordon. Keep up with the concerts and programs of Castle of our Skins at You can listen to their miniature concert series on YouTube.  We’ll have a link to both in the show notes where you can also find the music credits.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow Art Works on Apple podcasts or Google play and leave us a rating, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.



Agnes Chavez

Photo courtesy of Agnes Chavez

Ayanna Hudson of the National Endowment for the Arts and Agnes Chavez, artist, educator, and founder of STEMarts Lab

This podcast features our very own Ayanna Hudson! Hudson is Acting Deputy Chair for Programs and Partnerships and has a deep expertise in arts education. Focusing on the return to classrooms in fall 2021, Hudson’s segment focuses on the impact of arts for students during times of trauma and transition. Chavez talks about her organization, which uses the arts to help students develop their science and math skills.

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: This is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed. With the new school year upon us, this week we’re turning our attention to arts education and its valuable contribution to students’ creativity and well-being. Later on in the show, a look at arts education in practice with Taos artist and educator Agnes Chavez. But first, I’m joined by director of Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts Ayanna Hudson. I wanted to begin with Ayanna because the work and research here at the endowment and across the country bring the welcome news that the arts and arts education can play a singular role as students transition back to the classroom after a year of uncertainty.

Ayanna Hudson: We are really coming off of an unprecedented school year due to COVID and the forced virtual instruction that students had to learn through, as well as the forced social isolation. And any one of these situations would cause trauma and a traumatic experience for students, but all three combined is really, really unprecedented.

Jo Reed: And as students are heading back to school that really is going to be attendant with its own anxiety. And they’re going need a lot of support.

Ayanna Hudson: I couldn’t agree more. You know, as schools prepare for students to return to in-person instruction, we really have to provide support for students to help them deal with the collective trauma that they’ve all been through over the last year, year and a half. And we really must focus on their wellbeing and on their healing.

Jo Reed: And we know, the research is there, that the arts, arts education, arts integration in a classroom is amazingly helpful for supporting students’ wellbeing.

Ayanna Hudson: And, Jo, we know from our own research at the National Endowment for the Arts just how important arts education is to a student’s academic success, to increased graduation rates, to increased standardized test scores, as well as civic engagement. But I also want to talk a little bit about the role of arts education on a student’s mental wellbeing because that really, especially at this moment in time, that cannot be underscored enough. And it’s really through the process of creating art, whether it’s dance, music, theater, visual arts, even media arts, it’s through the process that students are able to express themselves. They’re able to get in touch with their emotions and their feelings, really in a way that they may not even be able to articulate. And this is especially true for our younger learners who may not even be able to form the words to express how they are feeling. And for any student, even if they’re not able to express verbally, it is through the arts that they can truly, truly express themselves and express their feelings.

Jo Reed:  You know, we’re all aware that the arts provide a creative outlet for students, but I think the fact that arts also can help students develop empathy and compassion is less known and so critically important right now.

Ayanna Hudson: And that’s why the arts are so critical, so key, and really the magic ingredient. In general for schools, but especially as students are returning from a year of, again, of virtual learning and forced social isolation. And, you know, it’s through the arts where students are expressing themselves, that they are able to cope and they are able to develop mechanisms for their own personal healing. And when we think about what students have been through, they’re really able, through the arts, to process in a new way the trauma of the last year, which leads, of course then, to their overall mental wellness. And this is critically important because students can’t learn if they’re anxious, if they’re fearful, or if they’re stressed. And it’s through the arts, as you just mentioned, where students really learn empathy for themselves to, again process the trauma that they’ve been through over the last year and a half, and then develop empathy for others as well, as they are supportive of their classmates as we all reengage with in-person instruction. And the arts really are, I believe, the tool that all schools should be using as a way to help students experience success, to help them to heal, to help them reengage in learning and in-person instruction, for many of our students for the first time in a year and a half. The other kind of magical thing about the arts is that it also helps students to reconnect with themselves and for the last year and a half, where students have been focused on, again, the trauma that we’ve been going through, it is also through the arts where we can not only heal, but we can reconnect and we can find joy in life again and we can find joy in our educational experiences.

Jo Reed: I think the other thing that is so critical about the arts right now is that for a year and a half, it’s hard not to be a passive learner when you’re on Zoom. All props to the teachers who, I’m sure...

Ayanna Hudson: Yes.

Jo Reed: …absolutely did everything that they could. But with the arts, with any creative process, you’re not passive, you’re active. You’re actively engaged.

Ayanna Hudson: You’re actively engaged and you are also actively engaged in the community. And I think when we think about reengaging with yourself and reengaging with your classmates, also reengaging with your school community, the arts definitely provide the opportunity, as you said, to be an active participant and through that active participation reengaging with your classmates, your teachers, and your school in an entirely new ways, in ways that you haven’t been able to do for the last year and a half.

Jo Reed: And that’s the joy you were referring to.

Ayanna Hudson: And that’s the joy. And that’s the joy.

Jo Reed: Ayanna, thank you so much.

Ayanna Hudson: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Ayanna Hudson –she’s the director of Arts Education here at the National Endowment for the Arts. If you go to and search for arts education, you’ll find a number of helpful resources. I’ll also provide links in the show notes. Next up—we’re going to hear from Agnes Chavez about some of the extraordinary ways art can be used in a classroom to open new worlds for students.  You’re listening to Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed—

Agnes Chavez is a sci-artist and an award-winning educator in Taos New Mexico. Now this needs a little unpacking—beginning with  sci-art which Agnes defines simply art that is created in collaboration with scientists or that explores science as a topic or as a process. In her case, she collaborates across disciplines to create data-visualized light and sound installations. Agnes is also an educator. In fact, for her, arts and education are one and the same. Back in 2009, having already designed a successful curriculum that teaches Spanish to youngsters through art, music and games, Agnes was looking for new ways to reach middle and high school students.  She decided to use the arts to develop science and math skills. The result is STEMarts Lab which designs and creates light and sound installations and then builds curriculum tools around the art. STEMarts Lab also bring artists into the classroom to work with teachers and provide hands-on workshops both in person or virtually. As it turns out, Agnes was able to evolve this innovative curriculum to directly speak to the students’ needs during the last pandemic year. 

Jo Reed:  You both create curriculum that uses art to develop science skills and you make that available for teachers to use in their classrooms. And you also run workshops yourself. So you work directly with students. And I’m curious about this past year when students were learning virtually and whether you developed programs to help students who were going through such a difficult time.

Agnes Chavez:  Yes, that has led to really interesting developments for the STEMarts Lab, because I had developed an online curriculum tool back in 2012, but it wasn't used as much as it's being used now. And so, the online curriculum tool is where I put the content that the teachers use whether they’re participating in an art workshop or going to a festival to experience the art of the festival, there's always this online tool that has all the background information, right? About the artist and about the science behind the art and the engineering that goes into it. All of that content is always there. So, with COVID, this tool became really valuable! More valuable than it was before. And the other thing that happened is… through a personal story that happened to me…So, one thing about STEMarts workshops, and arts education in general, is that we can teach the same students over time.  I've been working with the same group of students from 4th grade through 8th grade. They were graduating this year.  And I've been bringing my programs to this school, “Projecting Particles”, the Lakota Cosmology project. Basically, it’s learning about the physics, particle physics through Projection Art project. And then of course, Covid hits. So, in response to the isolation that students were experiencing from the lockdown and the switch to online learning and with field trips being cancelled, we created BioSTEAM International, a virtual international exchange program, and it connected a classroom in New Mexico with a classroom in Portugal to collaborate on a sci-art installation that is then presented at local and international festivals. The goal is to encourage intercultural respect, connectivity to develop creative expression and scientific literacy as students collaborate on a sci-art installation called "Space Messengers." 

Jo Reed:  Okay. Explain the project “Space Messengers.” I’m really intrigued!

Agnes Chavez: "Space Messengers" is a large-scale projection where the messages and voices collected from the youth participants are live-mixed and projected along with their video silhouettes onto buildings to create an immersive and interactive experience for the audience. So it was created in partnership with long-time collaborator Markus Dorninger and his team of projection artists and along with a team of programmers and sound engineers. We designed a collaborative platform we call the Space Board where students shared ideas and their process drawings, which were actually created through the workshop, and the students co-wrote messages that communicated the science they learned and their thoughts and wishes for a sustainable interplanetary future, that was the goal of the workshop, and then these messages are going to be seen floating on the wall along with interactive video silhouettes that are generated from all the images and videos that are captured from the workshop. And then to enhance the experience an interactive soundtrack will respond to visual triggers filling the space with collected space and planetary sounds from the NASA Library as well as water and earth sounds, and the voice of the students will be interwoven to accentuate the visual of their floating space messages.

Jo Reed:  This happening virtually—but is it also happening in a geographical space? How does it work?

Agnes Chavez: So, when the projection launches in Oerias, Portugal, for the Festival Internacional de Ciência, we are coordinating a global virtual reality day in Taos County. So, on the same day, October 15th, while the projection is happening in Portugal in Taos we are coordinating participating schools to set up virtual reality stations and then we, our creative team, has created a virtual reality 3D simulation of the site in Portugal where we're going to simultaneously livestream the projection into the virtual reality platform. So the students here will be able to at the same time experience the "Space Messengers," and  the virtual reality will also be interactive, they can send those space messages which appear on the wall in Portugal as well as on their virtual wall. So we basically created a hybrid physical online experience so that the kids in both countries can experience the installation at the same time. The final "Space Messengers" installation is participatory, as people will walk through the courtyard site there are sensor cameras that are going to capture their silhouettes which are then also seen projected onto the walls but they're filled with the mosaic of all the student-generated content, and the live audience can also send their own messages which appear on the wall in real time during the event.

Jo Reed:  This seems wonderful and complicated and I wonder how much the students were involved in the panning of it, the implementation of it…

Agnes Chavez: So the whole concept and the "Space Messengers" installation was developed with the students so they were part of the whole process in all its iterations, and then what was most exciting is that the kids were meeting each other from different countries and they were doing this project together, so art was the process through which we learned and we created together.

Jo Reed:  I know the culmination of the project hasn’t happened yet—that’s in October. But I wonder what the response has been from the teachers and from the students!

Agnes Chavez:  It turned out to be like a winning formula. It turned out to be so successful that the teachers told me that the kids had been hiding in their bedrooms and not showing up for their Zoom calls, and they were always muted and their cameras were off, or you'd just see the top of their heads. And with this program, they just came out of their shells and really connected with each other and with the program. So, that was a real experiment that was in response to the problem that I was hearing from teachers that the kids were not engaged, that shifting to this online format was just not working. And my question to myself and to my team was, "How can we use our creativity, our digital tools to come up with another way or a more engaging way to reach them?" And of course, the messaging is always to develop empathy and to empower them. So, we're asking always that question as we design digital tools.

Jo Reed:  Sure. It seems that during this time when all of us can feel so much out of control with everything that's going on, that that combination of science and art makes a really powerful tool for students. Not just to perhaps be empowered themselves, but also to be able to kind of express their own uncertainty about things. And by doing that, own some control over them.

Agnes Chavez:  Yeah, we did notice that that happened through this project, the Space Messengers.  And they were learning about science and art, philosophy, Lakota Cosmology, all of these complex ideas, but always asking the question, "What are your thoughts and wishes for a sustainable interplanetary future?" And so, it very much stayed focused that, "This is your future. You know? And now everything that you're learning here is to help you to think about ways that we can-- that you can make this work for you! That how can you make it better? Always bringing it back to, "You are the youth leaders, you are the leaders of the future." So, we're now giving them all of this knowledge, and we're bringing it all together in an interdisciplinary way. And it seems to really reach them and make them feel empowered, make them, make them feel like they're valued. And that seems to make all the difference.

Jo Reed:  And of course, using the arts to both understand and to explain scientific knowledge is key.  

Agnes Chavez:  Right, that’s right. The model is that we use the arts, meaning New Media Arts, to understand the science and to communicate the science. So, the first part is through the workshop, or through the art learning, we actually learn about, learn from the scientists, and then it's communicated through some kind of SCIArt installation or experience at a festival or real-world event. So, that whole picture, how that all fits together, that's the STEMarts model that I've been developing over the years, and now with COVID has a whole new level of implementation with the virtual component.

Jo Reed: As you say, this particular project was developed during Covid. And I wonder what your plans are for carrying this work forward. I assume you’re going to continue to use as students are heading back into a classroom.

Agnes Chavez:  Yes, yes, yes. What's interesting is that I'm so excited about working with them. And I feel like we started something during COVID that is just continuing. And it is COVID responsive. You know, I didn't say, "Okay, I'm doing this temporarily and now I'm going back to the way it was." On the contrary. So, we're just continuing this project called” Space Messengers” which has all these components that I described, right, this methodology, and so now what happens is that those students who were part of that workshop, now they're waiting for the culmination, which was delayed because of COVID. It was supposed to happen April, now it’s happening in October. So, the kids in Portugal and the kids here have been waiting for this. And so, we're excited, because this project is going to come to completion, but also it's going to travel. So, now the Consulate of Guadalajara, Mexico wants to bring it to Mexico to a school there. So, in February and March of 2022, we're now doing it again with six more schools. So, everyone's very excited to see where, you know, to try out all these new tools and these new ways of learning and communicating.

Jo Reed:  An integrated arts curriculum—especially one like yours where you ‘re using art to learn about science sounds like it just opens up new worlds for students and also really gives them an outlet to express their own knowledge in ways that really work for them.  It’s giving them an outlet especially right now that they so badly need!

Agnes Chavez:  Well, not only is it that they need it, but what I hear from the students I they didn't even know it was possible! So, they're used to arts being in the arts class or like isolated within a particular subject area called Arts. But what they tell me is that they never knew it was possible to combine, you know, Science and all of these different things together with Art. So, it is a different experience when they see it coming together in an interdisciplinary way. So, it blows their minds. And it does open their minds, and it's what I hear from them, that it really opened their mind to what is possible.

Jo Reed:   Agnes, as we're transitioning back to schools, it seems that arts education is really uniquely positioned to be extraordinarily helpful to students as they're facing this anxiety and coming out of being in lockdown for a year.

Agnes Chavez: Yes. And because of the lockdown, but also in general, we are living in this really extraordinary time where science and technology can often overshadow the art, right. So the STEM or the science and technology and all the advancements are very important to learn and to communicate, to understand. Just to expand our own understanding of the universe and, you know, on earth and now in space. But I think with the arts, why the arts are so important and new media arts are so important is because this is a medium where we can really go deeper into what are the ethics behind the science and technology, what are the impacts of it and to raise awareness to the importance of these issues that are coming up. I feel like the goal of STEMArts Lab is to use the power of immersive art to inspire our youth but also our communities and to become just more informed global citizens, and to reimagine our humanity, because that's what the arts can do better than anything else, is to let you imagine and reimagine what we can be, you know, in light of what's going on in the world with climate change and all of these challenges that we face, how can we reimagine our humanity.

Jo Reed: And so it provides students not just with the place where they can explore their concerns, it also offers them a place where they can begin to think about what they can do next.

Agnes Chavez: Absolutely. They learn from the very beginning that that's why we're here is to design new solutions or to imagine alternative futures. So one of the things that I'm getting into now that I'm learning about and sharing with the students is the idea of futures thinking, that there's not just one future that's destined. Now we are creating the future of tomorrow and that they are a part of that building and a part of that imagining.

Jo Reed:  How STEMarts Lab develop curriculum that really speaks to the very diverse cultural backgrounds in Taos?

Agnes Chavez:  Well, that is kind of what created that STEMarts Lab. Because I've been in Taos for 35 years. I came here when I was 27. And the first thing you know when you become a member of the Taos community is that you live in a very multicultural community and New Mexico, in general, is a very poor state. And so, access to knowledge, to technology, just even the isolation of Taos compared to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, all these factors make a difference. They impact the ability to access. And so, you're always, as an artist, trying to find ways to overcome that, right? Or as a teacher. You know, how do we get our kids to have access? So, that really is what created a lot of the methodologies that I developed out of necessity, right? So, this has been my community for 35 years. There are some strategies that I use. So, for example, and it's out of trial-and-error, so when I first started, I would try like maybe after school programs, right? So, just to start there. One of the things that I came up against is that after school programs require, in most cases, that the parent bring the student. And so, then you have a barrier, is the parent working? Which parents are going to be able to bring their kids, right? So, if you have parents that are not able to because they're working all the time, then that student's not going to have access. So, then I started to work within the school classroom time period. And then I had to adapt the curriculum and align it with the standards and make it easy for the teacher. Because otherwise what happened is, "Oh, well, the teachers don't have time to do something extra! Because they have to teach their core curriculum." And that's when I eventually aligned the STEMarts programs to the standards. So, they're now aligned to the Next Generations Science standards, of course the National Core Art standards, and to the partnership with 21st Century P21 standards. So that makes it easier for the teacher. And slowly, I developed this thing called a STEMarts Curriculum Tool, which has all of the tools and resources that the teacher needs so that it's super, super easy for them to participate and make it part of their classroom curriculum.  So, I always make sure that my programs are coming to schools that do represent the communities that I serve. It’s more like core principles. So, I don't bring my program to privileged schools or schools where the kids already have access to all the latest technology and science. I bring it to schools that don't necessarily have that access.

Jo Reed:  You also have a commitment to turning students from being sort of passive recipients of media to being actual cultural producers of it. And again, after a year of lock-down, it strikes me as particularly important for students.

Agnes Chavez:  Right. And that is something that I bring into the STEMarts Lab program. So, the students have access to these technologies so that they can tell their own stories. For example, the current project, Space Messengers, they're actually sharing their messages that they want to send out to the world. And that doesn't have a lot of technology but it's still the same concept. They're telling their story. So, yeah, I would say that that is a product of our times, and it's one of the most exciting things that we have at our fingertips right now is that we really can allow our youth and our communities to really be contributors to the content that's on the web, or that's just out there.

Jo Reed:   You know, in listening to you, it seems to me that if students are involved in passive learning, asking them to do it via Zoom is the kiss of death. But when it becomes interactive, it can be in a classroom, it can be in Zoom, if it involves imagination and creativity, students become engaged. And especially when they can speak to what it is they see around them. And I'm thinking of your program BioSTEAM,  which very specifically speaks to 21st century challenges that kids face.

Agnes Chavez: Yeah. That's right. And BioSTEAM is a program that also was developed during COVID focusing on climate change and how do we get kids engaged in using arts to learn about climate change and now pandemic diseases or whatever is going on in the world. And how to use the arts to design with nature. So if you're using new technologies, it's not just about blindly using any technology and not understanding the ethics behind it or the environmental impact of the technology. So all of the STEMarts workshops address all those aspects of technology and science, not just sugar-coated, and that engages them because they can-- they want to think beyond just the surface.

Jo Reed:  We tend see art as really having the ability to heal. And I'm curious how mindful you are of that as we're approaching this new school year and the big transition that's coming for students?

Agnes Chavez:   Well, during COVID, we had to be attentive to that because there was a lot of depression and anxiety and all kinds of, you know, even suicide that was going on, so there had to be a lot of sensitivity to that. So what I do to address that is I have very, very close collaborative relationships with the teachers. I never pretend to come in and know it all; the contrary. The relationship that I have with the teachers is integral. I consider them collaborating partners.  We're the support. You know, we're there to support the schools and the teachers. And that's always been my approach and I think that's really important because I think sometimes if you just pop in and pop out, it just doesn't work. And they know it.  I'm committed year after year after year. And, sometimes I feel like something didn't work, then I go and talk to them about it and how do we make it better. So I'm just with my team, we're always looking for using the latest technologies and ways to do it better, right. How do we do it better so that we can be engaging our youth and our communities through this art.  

Jo Reed: You are an innovative, wonderful artist. How did you become interested in arts education and bringing this into the classroom?

Agnes Chavez: Yeah. I think I've always been equally interested in art and education. To me, how do I explain it? And they were never really separate for me. So because art has always been about a way to inspire people, right, to communicate ideas, to inform, right. And education is also about that, right? You're, it's, to me, it's like art and science and art and education, they're all one for me. And I've always been interested in sharing what it is I'm learning and sharing it with other people and that process of learning, the learning process is part of my art. So for example, I do a lot of research for my art. I go and do science residencies at laboratories like at CERN where I did a research day to learn about particle physics to inspire and inform the work. And then I developed the workshop called Projecting Particles. And I remember the first workshop I did and I said to the kids, "Okay, I'm learning about particle physics because I think it's very important to understand the universe through particle physics and we're all going to learn together," I tell them, you know. And that's kind of how I approach it. And I do that with the teachers as well, you know. I tell them, "I'm exploring something new and I'd like to share it with you." So I like this process. I consider it all integral. And I've always done that. It's like what I tell the kids: How can we design with nature and build a better world?

Jo Reed: That was Artist and educator Agnes Chavez—you can find out more about the work she does and check out curriculum tools at Agnes was also contributed an essay to the NEA’s Tech as Art report called How Artists Can Bridge the Digital Divide and Reimagine Humanity” you can find it at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed—stay safe and thanks for listening.


Photo of Akua Kouyate Tate wearing a blue top, white sweater, long earrings and a matching necklace with blue beads.

Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap

Akua Kouyate-Tate, Senior Director of Education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts

Wolf Trap also incorporates arts with science and math learning, and Kouyate-Tate discusses the organization’s success with this approach in this episode of the podcast. The educational method is known as arts integration, and an independent study found that students enrolled in Wolf Trap's program outperformed their peers who did not participate.

Music Credit: Excerpt from Foreric: Piano Study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions.  Laura Schandelmeier: Now we’re going to introduce the concept of money. One day, Jack’s mother went to their treasure chest. Five, 10, 15, 20. Jack, my dear, we need some money. Now wait a minute. Say this with me. Five, 10, 15, 20. Jack, my dear, we need some money. Jo Reed: That was Wolf Trap teaching artist Laura Schandelmeier using theater, music, and dance to teach foundational concepts in math and science. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. We just heard a demonstration of an educational method called arts integration. Arts integration is an increasingly popular way of using the arts in the classroom to teach a variety of academic subjects in a way that engages students on multiple levels. The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts has long been in the vanguard of this approach to education. Understanding that the way we engage children in the first years of their lives has a profound impact on future learning, the Institute trains teachers to use the arts to tap into children’s innate desire for active, multisensory learning. In 2010, aware of the call to enhance STEM education—that is education in science, technology, engineering, and math—Wolf Trap began developing early childhood STEM learning through the arts. The reasoning goes like this: by ensuring first STEM’s learning experiences are effective and compelling through arts integration, you foster children’s excitement and cultivate their natural curiosity about STEM subjects. A recently released independent study about the program has proved Wolf Trap’s reasoning correct. Here to discuss the early STEM-arts program is the senior director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts Akua Kouyate-Tate. Akua, I’d like you tell me more about how Wolf Trap uses arts integration in the classroom. What ages are you working with? How old are the kids? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts is in a classroom with three-to-five-year-olds utilizing skills and elements of an art form—music, dance or drama—and connecting that with skills in learning for a particular subject, whether it’s math or it could be social-emotional development, it could be literacy. So when we blend those, we’re looking at how aspects of the arts can help to support the learning in those other subjects, while at the same time having learning in the art, itself. Jo Reed: So it’s really very different from art as the standalone subject. Akua Kouyate-Tate: It is different in the sense that we are looking to have the arts be a part of learning across subject areas in addition to learning in the art form itself. Jo Reed: And who do you work with? Various school districts? Who are you partnering with? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap partners with school districts, with early childhood education centers, with Head Start, with Early Head Start. Jo Reed: You call the classroom engagement with an artist a residency. Can you tell me what happens in that classroom? Akua Kouyate-Tate: A Wolf Trap teaching artist is paired with a classroom teacher over the course of 16 sessions. In that residency, the teaching artist and the classroom teacher will identify what are some of the learning objectives that the teacher wants to focus on while the teaching artist is in the classroom. The teaching artist then identifies what particular areas of their art will support the learning. At the same time, the teaching artist will share strategies with the teacher so that the teacher can learn that strategy. So first, there is a modeling with the teaching artist for showing how they’re using the art form. Then there’s a co-teaching where the teaching artist and teacher do it together. Then the teacher gets to lead using the strategy in the classroom. Jo Reed: When did the program begin and how did it develop? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Wolf Trap has been doing the Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts since 1981. And from the very beginning, we’ve partnered with Head Start, and we were asked to develop a program that would integrate the arts with learning at the early childhood stage. With that, we realized over the time that we could support teachers in that process, so it’s not simply teaching artists coming into the classroom and then leaving. But it’s really working with the teacher to identify specific goals for learning for the children while they’re there. So we align the work with the goals that the teachers may have in his or her curriculum. So we’ve seen from surveys, from past research how first with the teachers, they are really taking these techniques and strategies of the arts and they’re using them. They’re using them for instruction. They’re using them for classroom management. They’re using them to help children understand regulation. And they’re using the arts to help in specific subject areas, whether it’s learning emergent literacy skills or gross-motor or fine-motor skills or learning how to engage in a collective environment—so collaboration with the children, how they respond, how they can be creative in their thinking. Jo Reed: Just very briefly, what is a teaching artist? Akua Kouyate-Tate: A teaching artist is a professional performing artist who has chosen to support children’s learning across subject areas. With Wolf Trap, we bring teaching artists in. They have an audition process first. Then once we’ve gone through the process of auditioning them to see if they have that affinity to work with young children, we then take them through a rigorous professional training of learning how their art interacts with early-learning standards and guidelines and the process of transferring skills to the educator. We go through that intensive training with our Wolf Trap teaching artists. Then, whether it’s mathematics or STEM or maybe we’re talking about literacy, we want to make sure that our teaching artists have an awareness of what is happening in the field of early childhood education so that the work that we provide and the relationships that we build – we know that the content is appropriate for young learners so that they can access the information and the knowledge and be able to apply it. Jo Reed: Is the Wolf Trap Institute just in the DC region? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Well, we’re really excited, because it’s not only happening in this area. We have 17 affiliate sites across the country where we are engaging in the Wolf Trap program. So if you go on our website, you can actually see if there is an affiliate in your community. Jo Reed: Let’s talk specifically about the early STEM-arts program. How did it develop? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Back in 2005, we were focusing on arts integrated with emergent literacy, and there was an assessment that was done of the children’s learning. What we found in that one is that not only did the children show that they had gained skills in the emergent literacy area, but there was some indication that they had also gained in the areas of logic and math. At that point, we decided, “Well, let’s be intentional; let’s develop our performing arts, music, drama and dance content with techniques and strategies and experiences that are helping to support math learning.” And so, with that, we had to get a real clear understanding of what happens in math learning for young children, children from 3-years-old up to kindergarten age. What are the concepts; what are the skills. We worked very closely with early childhood specialists to understand that—those skills and developments that they’re looking for—and then we looked at the arts to see where did they naturally align or how we could demonstrate the relationship so that children could go from the abstract to the concrete to better understand a concept or a skill. Jo Reed: What is it, do you think, about the arts that enables learning in mathematics? Akua Kouyate-Tate: What the arts provide for young children is an opportunity to experience the concepts—to make them concrete—so that they’re able to use their bodies, their voices. They can embody concepts so that the learning through multiple senses. For example, let’s say that you want to teach children to observe patterns, because patterns are verily important in children being able to identify order and being able to predict what is happening. So you could have children engage in a movement. Let’s say that the pattern is where they’re moving low to the ground, then high up to the ceiling, becomes low and high and low and high. You can also allow their voices to experience the pattern. Let’s say the sound is quiet and loud, so it can be a quiet sound and a very loud sound, a quiet sound and a very loud sound. Again, the children are experiencing this concept of patterns multiple ways, so this is what you’re trying to get for the children to experience when they go through the arts. Jo Reed: Now I know there’s been an independent study of the program that actually assessed the students’ learning. What were the results? Akua Kouyate-Tate: In a recent study, we found that not only did the teachers utilize the arts to help support instruction in math learning—and they did it in very significant ways—the children who were in those classrooms with those teachers – they outperformed their peers in the controlled classrooms significantly when it came to math learning. The math-learning component was assessed by a national standard instrument. We also were looking at other things in terms of how teachers were integrating the arts in their instruction so that the assessments of the children and the teachers happened both before and after Wolf Trap was in the classroom, which really was important, because it showed that well after Wolf Trap’s teaching artists had left, the teachers were still using those techniques and strategies and the children were learning very well. Jo Reed: The study, in fact, shows that the students in the classrooms of the Wolf Trap-trained teachers gained the equivalent of more than a month of additional math learning. Akua Kouyate-Tate: Exactly. Jo Reed: This is arts integration; it’s educating the whole child. It’s not putting things in silos like, “Okay, this is the math part; this is the art part.” It’s really bringing it all together in quite the way we experience the world. Akua Kouyate-Tate: Absolutely. Jo Reed: Why is this not more widely embraced, do you think? And I know you’re speculating. Akua Kouyate-Tate: Right. I would say from my own experience with early childhood educators, they are welcoming this type of integrated approach. They realize, more than anyone, that children learn in numerous ways and that if children are going to be successful, then they have to be able to reach children at those multiple points of learning. They also understand that children learn by doing; children learn by being engaged. So we’ve found a lot of support for the arts-integration approach. The challenge that sometimes comes is when teachers sometimes feel that they may be in a situation where they’re having to address certain types of assessments or tests that may limit how they approach the instruction. So they are in a position where they’re needing very specifically to have the children respond to questions or information. Jo Reed: In a very particular way. Akua Kouyate-Tate: In a very particular way. We’re not saying that arts integration is the only way; we’re saying that it is another way that will support and will expand opportunity for reaching all children. And I think the early childhood community, more than any—and I might be biased here—is very, very aware of that type of approach of providing instruction for the whole child. And so I feel very confident that the early childhood field is very open to this. Jo Reed: But I would imagine that teachers also need a great deal of institutional support in order to be able to make this happen within their classroom. Akua Kouyate-Tate: Absolutely. Teachers do need the institutional support. And for that reason, we’re working also with administration. We’re not circumventing anyone; we’re really working with administration to ensure that we are addressing the specific needs that they see for their children and teachers in the learning environment. So a lot of our professional development can be customized for a particular school district, or a particular classroom, a set of teachers depending on what the focus is. Our intention is not to create a new curriculum; ours is to support the curriculum and the standards that the teachers are charged to bring to their classrooms. Jo Reed: I know this is a little bit far afield, but I’m thinking about it ‘cause my godchild is in his third year of high school and is being pressured to decide on his college major, so he can take the right classes in high school to be prepared for it. And all right, he’s not my child. I’m not his mother. But at the same time, I feel like I have to go to bat for the kid. And I say he’s 16; this is the time he should be exploring and sticking his finger in every pie. But I find children are facing this pressure at younger and younger ages. And it begs the question: is school about job training or is school about really opening the mind and learning how to learn? Akua Kouyate-Tate: I think you hit it right on the head, right there, when you talk about learning how to learn but also realizing that learning is really expansive. Learning is about multiple approaches to an idea. Learning has to do with looking at the various dimensions of how something is addressed so that when you are engaged in a project—let’s say a – project learning is happening quite a bit at the middle and high school level at this time; it really is gaining a lot of support. You will be able to see that not only are you engaging in some skills related to math, but it might be some social-justice skills; it might be some areas of collaboration; it might be some art forms that you need to communicate the concepts that you’re trying to get across. It could be multiple ways. This is life. And if we think about our life skills—what are needed for life skills, how we engage in any particular environment—whether you’re a scientist, or an artist, or you are a politician, you know that those skills all come into play. It’s not a single subject area that allows you to be able to engage effectively. It’s across the subject areas really developing those skills and the application to it. Jo Reed: What about for you? When did the arts enter your life? Did you come from a house where there was a lot of art? Was there art in your school when you were growing up? Akua Kouyate-Tate: We’re talking about a lot of years <laughs> ago, a long time ago. As a child, yes, in my family certainly we were raised in a community where we were part of our community block club, and we were part of our church, and there was always choirs. And even in elementary school, middle school, and high school, I was in the choral groups, and I was in the dance group. And in the community activities, I engaged with programs that taught me dance, and I really got into African dance forms and really, at that point, of course, there we go again, I started understanding more about culture and tradition. And so as I continued, I decided to move on that pathway. I went to school both at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the performing arts—first in dance and then in arts management. I also was a performing artist, myself, as a dancer. Then I, of course, I became a teacher, an educator. I worked with from pre-K all the way up through college age. And so all of my life, arts has been a part of me, of my family. My children are artists and art educators; it’s beautiful. And I got to tell you that it has opened up opportunities and possibilities and ways of thinking that are expansive for all of us. The arts have allowed us to engage across cultures, within our culture, understanding other people’s perspective, but also expressing our own point of view and really understanding how all of those things come together. Jo Reed: I think one thing that is often underestimated about the arts is the fact that it’s impossible to engage in the arts, I’d say, without having a sense of empathy—that probably more than any other thing it really triggers that. Akua Kouyate-Tate: I would agree with you. I think it opens you up to be receptive to things that not only are of you but also outside of you. So I think that it allows us to have a deeper appreciation of who we are as human beings. Jo Reed: I wanna know what’s next for Wolf Trap’s education program. Are you expanding arts integration into other parts of the curriculum? Akua Kouyate-Tate: Well with respect to our Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, we are developing more how the arts can help to support science and engineering. Of course, we will continue to work with the early-childhood specialists to understand, specifically, what are those concepts, what are those approaches to learning that are important for young children, that process of problem solving. And then we develop our performing arts—music, drama, dance—content to support that and to create experiences for young children that were really dynamic, that will allow them to embody that understanding and carry them as they continue their educational process. Jo Reed: Okay. Suppose I’m a teacher of young kids and I’m listening to this podcast, and I’m really interested in the possibility of bringing this into my classroom. What do I do? How do I begin? Akua Kouyate-Tate: You can do a couple of things. You can go to our main and find out about the Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts and see if there is an affiliate in your community. You can also, if you’re an educator, you can go to our site, and you can actually see some of the content, the lessons, the audio clips, the instructional modules that teachers have access to to integrate arts into their room. This is a supplemental support to teachers so that they can be a part of a community of learning. If you’re interested to having Wolf Trap come into your community, talk to your administrators, give us a call, let us see how we might be able to connect in your community. We are partnering with major organizations across the country. We’re partnering with Turnaround Arts. And so we want to be able to help communities to see how to bring arts integration and learning into the curriculum for young children. Jo Reed: Okay, Akua. Thank you so much. Akua Kouyate-Tate: Thank you. Jo Reed: That was Akua Kouyate-Tate. She’s the senior director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Brian Kisida
Photo courtesy of Brian Kisida

Brian Kisida, Researcher, Education Reform

Kisida is the co-author of a University of Arkansas study which demonstrated the causality between guided visits to museums and benefits such as increased critical thinking. He talks about the methodology and results on the podcast!

CREDITS Credits: Special thanks to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Excerpt from Foreric: Piano Study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions. TRANSCRIPT

(Music and children laughing and talking)

Jo Reed: Those are students talking about their class trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Those visits were the basis of a research project conducted by Brian Kisida and others that looked at the impact of art on students and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.We know several things about students who are engaged with the arts. They tend to  be more creative, think more critically and are more engaged with other people.   But it becomes a little tricky to suss out whether  this is causal, i.e. the arts lead students towards these outcomes, or a matter of correlation, i.e. students who  are more creative, think more critically, etc. are the ones drawn to the arts.Enter Jay P. Greene, Daniel H. Bowen, and Brian Kisisda.They recently published a study out of the University of Arkansas which demonstrates a causality, that students do accrue measurable broader benefits due to guided visits to art museums. Or in the title words of a NY Times article published about the findings: "Art Makes You Smart".Here's researcher Brian Kisida to explain.

Brian Kisida: We came to this conclusion through a large scale research project here that we did at the University of Arkansas with my colleagues Jay Greene and Daniel Bowen where we did a random assignment study of visits to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. And what we found was students had improved critical thinking when analyzing works of art. They exhibited greater tolerance, greater historical empathy. They recalled the information that they had seen on the tour about the paintings and the themes of the paintings at really high rates. And they demonstrated an increased desire to return to cultural institutions. So what we found were really positive results from, I think, is one of the most rigorous research designs of its kind to be conducted in the field. And as you said it made it into the New York Times and it was actually wildly popular. I think there's an audience out there that's really hungry for this type of information and maybe this type of scientific validation, right, that something that we believed to be true can be verified through science.

Jo Reed: I think there are a couple of things. I think that first of all many parents, many educators, many art lovers are concerned that the kind of fieldtrips that, in fact, you used as the basis of your study are becoming fewer and fewer.

Brian Kisida: They are and there's some evidence to support that. A couple of the major museums in New York have released data that shows a steep decline in fieldtrips, I believe MoMA and the National History Museum there. and the Field Museum in Chicago has seen a decline. And what this-- there's been a few surveys of school administrators and those types of groups that have found that they're less able to budget for fieldtrips. And the story that we've heard over and over, we visited 123 schools to do this research project. We surveyed 11,000 students and 500 teachers. So we got a lot of feedback while we were out there and it seems to be that schools are increasingly under pressure to maximize performance on standardized tests in core subjects which essentially means math and reading. So when a teacher wants to take her students to an art museum those benefits aren't being measured by the state accountability system. So the school administrators aren't incentivized to improve students on those measures. And that's really the story that we heard over and over as we visited these schools.

Jo Reed: Now, not to go too far afield but I know that your Ph.D. which you're receiving this year is in education reform.

Brian Kisida: True.

Jo Reed: Can you just give us a little bit of history on that? When did this pullback begin? And when did teaching to the test really come into play?

Brian Kisida: I think that we've been on that slide for a while now but I don't really have data to support exactly when this began. I can say that we can look at some things. The NEA's own survey of public participation in the arts has noted a decline amongst exposure to the arts. They suggest it started it in the mid-eighties. The increased pressure on standardized testing really ramped up after the passage of "No Child Left Behind" in the early 2000s and it's really only increased since then. Under Obama we've had the race to the top competition where states have been asked or encouraged to build more longitudinal data systems. And it really comes down to this push for more data and the fact that the data are really only being collected, typically math, reading, sometimes science that, you know, because schools aren't being measured in the arts or in the humanities they aren't incentivized to focus on them.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Well, let's talk about how your study came into being. It was the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. That was the museum that this study was focused on.

Brian Kisida: Right. And the museum contacted us. There was a person at the museum, the school programs coordinated Anne Kraybill contacted us at the Department of Education Reform because she had heard that we were good at measuring things and evaluating things. And she recognized that this was a one of a kind of opportunity. And by…

Jo Reed: Explain why it is one of a kind of opportunity.

Brian Kisida: So there's a few things that made it really special. For one, this is a museum that opened up brand new and there's really nothing like it in the area. It's a major addition to the world of art museums. It has an $800 million endowment and a world class collection. And the nearest museum before Crystal Bridges opened was two to four hours driving away. And so most of the students in this area had never been exposed to that. And if you want to study something, you know, if you can just imagine doing research on, you know, some sort of pharmaceutical drug, you would need a population that hadn't all ready been taking the drug. So what we had here was a population that hadn't really been exposed to this type of a cultural institution before. The second ingredient which we found out after we met with the educators at the museum was that they had an insane amount of demand for students to visit the museum. They have an endowment that allows for schools to visit the museum at no cost. So the tours are free. They reimburse them for the school buses and they even provide a lunch. So in the first year alone Crystal Bridges received applications for 38,000 students to visit the museum which was far more than…

Jo Reed: Thirty-eight thousand.

Brian Kisida: Thirty-eight thousands applications. And they could only handle 5,000 in their initial opening. So they had a problem. What are they going to do? Unfortunately, a lot of the times people have this problem and they'll solve it through first come, first served, which isn't necessarily a fair way to do it. A more fair way to do it is to have a lottery and we're particularly interested in any sort of lottery because that gives us the ability to do what's called the gold standard in evaluation research, a randomized control trial because we're able to randomly assign which groups got to visit the museum in the first year and which groups had to wait until the second year. And because we're able to randomly assign them then we're able to know that the difference in the two groups is that one got to visit the museum by chance and one didn't get to visit the museum by chance. Most research, most social science research, most existing research in the arts it's a rare opportunity to be able to do this, so typically they're not able to run a randomized experiment. And so what they're always plagued by is the problem of causality. So there's a lot of studies out there that are able to find that people who are involved in the arts are great in many ways. They're more tolerant and they are more creative and they usually have more healthy lifestyles, lots of good benefits are correlated with the arts. But we really aren't ever sure if these things are caused by the arts because it could just be that more awesome people are attracted to the arts naturally. So what we're able to show with this study is that actually the arts do in fact have a causal relationship to creating human beings that have broader thinking skills and are more tolerate, more empathetic.

Jo Reed: When you framed your study, were you looking for the specific traits that you noted a marked difference in which was critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance and the predisposition to visit museums again? Were you looking for that particularly?

Brian Kisida: We were. Those things were guided by theory and previous research that has found correlational relationships from those types of experiences. And we met with the museum and we asked them to articulate their goals. What are your goals for bringing students here? What are you trying to accomplish? And then we set out to measure the things that they were trying to accomplish. The number one thing they said they were trying to accomplish was to create the type of people that wanted to visit art museums and to come back again. So we measured that in two different ways, actually. We has survey items where we asked the students are you likely to visit a museum when you're a grownup?  And those results were statistically significant. They were positive. Students who visited the art museum are more likely to say that they want to go back. But we don't always want to just trust what people tell us. So we actually built in another measure which this is a behavioral measure, everybody who was involved in the study, the treatment group and the control group received a coupon to come back to the museum free of charge to see a special exhibit. And we actually coded the coupons so when they were turned back in we could know if it was from a treatment group member or a control group member. And when those coupons came back the treatment group was far more likely to have used their coupons than the control group.

Jo Reed: In other words, the group that had gone to the museum previously were more likely.

Brian Kisida: Right. And you might actually expect the results to go the other way. You might think they were just here, they're sick of it and these other students who never got to go might be more inserted in but that's not the way it came out. Actually, that initial visit seems to be a necessary ingredient to cultivate a taste for visiting cultural institutions. There's maybe an initial hurdle that has to be overcome.

Jo Reed: Why do you think that is?

Brian Kisida: I think that it's not something that we're necessarily born with an ability to appreciate or desire. So you might liken it to other acquired tastes. So I think if you-- if we polled the children do you want to go to an amusement park they sort of have a concept of what an amusement park is. They've seen commercials for it. It sounds like fun. It's accessible. Everybody wants to go. But when students are-- when they're contemplating the idea of visiting an art museum, it's not necessarily something they know especially in this area and there's probably some hesitancy. There may be some even class boundaries that they wonder if they're the kind of person that would be visiting an art museum. And I think a lot of it is probably an unfamiliarity with it.

Jo Reed:  Right. Do I know how to behave?

Brian Kisida: Exactly. It can be an intimidating thing, I think, to people who haven't been exposed to it.

Jo Reed: Well, let's look at some of the other findings that you had. And what I'd like you to do, if you don't mind, if first give us the way you're defining the term critical thinking and then how you demonstrated the fieldtrip's impact on critical thinking.

Brian Kisida: Right. So this was also something that the museum was very interested in because what they do with their tours is a progressive education model where the students really drive the discussion. And so they break up into small groups and they visit a small number of paintings and they sit down and they discuss and they interpret and dissect what they think the painting means. And they borrow a little bit from the visual thinking strategies methodology where they ask very open ended questions. So they ask, what do you think is going on in this painting? What do you see that makes you think that? So the students are asked to observe closely and then to provide evidence for their conclusions.  We had the students write an essay about a work of art that they had never seen. And then we had two coders blindly score the essays. So the coders didn't know if they were looking at a treatment essay or a control group essay. And then we tabulated the number of items that they had scored according to the rubric and we run a statistical model where we compare the treatment groups and the control groups. And the treatment group does significantly better on this measure. So if you want to understand the measure a little bit more, I can tell you on average the treatment group is more likely to make a higher number of observations, interpretations and evaluations about the painting. They think more deeply about it. they notice more and they draw more conclusions. They provide evidence to back up those conclusions. And this one of those measures where we had an overall effect that's nine percent of a standard deviation which is a statistical way of understanding in an education policy and lots of social science it's a way for us to put the results in perspective. And that would be considered a very modest effect. But for students in smaller towns, students at high poverty schools, minority students and students who had visited the museum for the first time we saw results that were two to three times bigger. And we think we have a good theory for why that is. It's because these students aren't exposed to these things and it's a new experience for them. And so their initial ability to look at a work of art and analyze it critically is really effected by this museum visit. Whereas, the other students who possibly have been to the museum before, possibly taken more art classes they were not as effected. And I think it really goes to show that if public policy is going to target, you know, where we're going to put our efforts into exposing more students to the arts, it really is in these disadvantaged populations where it's most needed and the most benefits can be seen.

Jo Reed: And did rural students and students who came from poverty as well as certain minority students, was there a marked difference in all of the categories or most particularly critical thinking?

Brian Kisida: No. It was really consistent across all categories. The one category where I didn't see it was in the ability to recall themes and knowledge about the paintings. Those seemed to be uncorrelated with these measures of disadvantaged status. But when we looked at tolerance and historical empathy we also saw the same patterns where the rural students and the students in higher poverty schools, sometimes the minority students, definitely had larger benefits, fairly consistent across it.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about historical empathy because that is an unlikely term for many of us.

Brian Kisida: It's something that's considered a goal in the teaching of social studies in history. So it's not just about the retention of facts, but actually being able to put yourself in another time and place and understand what it might be like to live in that time and place. So having empathy with history, essentially. And Crystal Bridges is really well suited for this. It's an American art museum and as you go through the collection you really do go through American history from pre-colonial times up through the modern day. And you experience history through the eyes of the artist and they depict everything from westward expansion to World War II. So we had items on our survey to get at this and so the items were things like we asked students to agree or disagree if they had a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt? Or if they could imagine what life was like for people if they lived 100 years ago? We aren't concerned with this measure to find out if they can remember facts about history but if they have sort of a sense and an understanding of how those historical people-- how they lived and what life was like for them. And yeah, this is one where we had fairly modest impacts for the full sample, the students in smaller towns and students who were visiting the museum for the first time saw the biggest impacts on this particular measure.

Jo Reed: And tolerance, how did you measure tolerance?

Brian Kisida: That's a challenging one because you're dealing with children and so the typical way that people have measured tolerance in political science and other social science methods can be kind of complicated. So we made it fairly simple for the kids. So we asked them to agree or disagree with statements like people who disagree with my point of view bother me. Or I appreciate hearing views different from my own. Or I think people can have different opinions about the same thing. And I think theoretically the reason that we would think that this might be associated with visiting an art museum is well, for one, the type of tour that they are involved in is all about hearing other people's opinions, all about the notion that there are multiple ways to look at something and you have to have some amount of respect for that in this environment that the museum educators were leading. Second, they're looking at works of art that are often very subversive and are often challenging their perspective of how the world might be and that can have an effect on their tolerance levels too. I mean that's sort of how the theory goes is that as education rises and as exposure to a diversity of opinions rises tolerance values go up and that's what we found and that's sort of how we think that that one works with the art museum.

Jo Reed: Did you find these differences in students no matter their age group? Or was it easier to see a change when they were a particular age?  

Brian Kisida: Well, we actually surveyed students as young as kindergartners and as old as twelfth grade. The kindergarten, first and second graders had a survey that was read aloud to them and they circled pictures to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement. And we had strong effects for the kindergartners. I actually felt like if there was a pattern, the effects were strongest at the lower grades. I think maybe this is because the students are more malleable at that point where they're able to take in new information a little bit easier than the high schoolers. We also had a lot more kids that came from elementary schools. They compromised a majority of the sample.

Jo Reed: How long did the fieldtrip take? How long were they at the museum? And was it just once?

Brian Kisida: It was just once and the students were there for, I think, on average about a half a day. So the actual guided tour experience is a guided tour for , I think, about an hour and an hour of activity and lunch. And then if the school had time they would stay at the museum for free time, free exploration until they had to get back to school. For some groups, I'm sure that that was longer than others. Some of these groups traveled two to three hours by school bus to come to visit the museum. Some only had to travel ten minutes. So between a half a day and a full day. They also received some pre materials that were sent out to the schools, a DVD that they watched in their classrooms to get them ready for how to behave in the museum and to expose them to some of the types of question they would be encountering at the museum and some post visit materials. So the full treatment is some pre and post curricular materials and about a half a day at the museum.

Jo Reed: Did they have a docent take them around? Or was their teacher their guide?

Brian Kisida: I think that's a really important question because it was led by a fulltime paid educator that was trained by Crystal Bridges. So I don't think that we can generalize our results to just any random visit to the museum. This was a guided tour with a particular perspective on how the tour should involve the students, how they should be interacting with the educators, with the goal of deeper understanding at the end of the tour being the thematic approach.

Jo Reed: What do you think is-- and I'm asking you to speculate here, what you do think is so special about the experience of physically going to the museum that has this impact where it wouldn't in a classroom let's say focusing on the paintings of James Whistler?

Brian Kisida: I think that we've talked about this and we've referred to this as possibly this is the cathedral effect. So it matters that you go to a large building that's been constructed sort of as a symbolic way of asserting that this is something that's important. And here's the things that are important inside hanging on the wall with security people around them and really nice lighting and we're being quiet and we're taking our time and we're observing these things closely. I just don't think that that can compare to a reproduction of a piece of work in a classroom. It's not going to carry the same amount of gravitas, I suppose, which is important. I think it's important for the experience. I think there's also probably something about a work of art being original. So, you know, the difference between going to a concert and listening to a CD, you can't really replicate that live experience. There's something special about it. And I think that's what art museums provide.

Jo Reed: Did you find any results that you weren't looking for? 

Brian Kisida:  I'll say that I was surprised that things came out as good as they did. So the norm in social science research especially education research and especially really tough research designs like randomized control trials the norm is to find nothing. It's really hard to move people and be able to measure whether or not they've had a change in values. It's a difficult process. So, you know, if you look at traditional educational research the journals are full of studies that find nothing. So actually I think what we were really amazed by is how even though I think these effects are really modest, the intervention itself was modest. So we were really, I think, really just surprised that it had this much of an impact on these students.

Jo Reed: Now, is Crystal Bridges going to continue to offer free trips to the museum?

Brian Kisida:  They have a permanent endowment to bring students in for no cost to the schools. It's a mission of theirs. The endowment came from a local philanthropist family-- sorry, you'll have to edit it. I have to remember. They have an endowment to allow for the school tours to continue. It's a $10 million endowment that will cover the cost of the tours, the educators and the school buses from a generous donation from the Walker Family Foundation.

Jo Reed: Well, as you said, there's such an emphasis on improving test scores in math and reading. Were you at all interested in seeing if there was any causality or even correlation between the trip to the museum and the kids' scores?

Brian Kisida: I think that's a dangerous way to judge the value of art. This is a debate in the field for sure. And there are a lot of studies that have looked at the effects of art on other core subjects like math and reading. I just don't think it's necessarily a strategy for making sure that our kids have access to the arts. There's not a good theoretical reason that I know of why there should be that much of a spillover effect. And it may not even be the best way to improve math or reading achievement. And I know another thing that we hear a lot about now is arts integration. That's a popular thing in school curricula especially among advocates of the arts and that concerns me as well. I think that we might want to hold on to the fact that we think art is important for its own sake. And it should not have to show benefits in other subjects to be something that we want or something that we consider valid. My fear is if you have enough arts integration that the policymakers and school administrator will say well, I guess we don't need art class at all anymore.

Jo Reed: And as we, as a country, move away from arts in the schools, I'm very mindful that I interview a lot of NEA jazz masters, people who have been given a lifelong achievement award for their work in jazz. Almost to a person they talk about the music classes they had as students in public schools.

Brian Kisida: Absolutely. I think that parents want this. My hunch is that there's possibly a disconnect from what schools are focusing on right now and what parents want for their children. So maybe we're just in a-- maybe this is a blip in the evolution of schools, where we've landed on these accountability measures on math and reading and that's where everybody is focusing on their energy om as far as policymakers and school administrators. But I don't necessarily think in the long term that that's what most people want their child's education to be composed of.

Jo Reed: Where can people read more about your study?

Brian Kisida: Right. Well, we've got a couple of publications out there. You mentioned the New York Times article "Art Makes You Smart", that's a very brief overview of the study. A deeper version you can find at the website for the Journal Education Next. And the title of that article is "The Educational Value of Fieldtrips." And we also have an article that just came out about the critical thinking skills in Educational Researcher. So people can look for those on the Web.

Jo Reed: Well, Brian Kisida, you certainly have given us much to think about and I thank you for that.

Brian Kisida: Thank you, Jo.

That was researcher Brian Kisida.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many thanks to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Headshot of a man.

Photo credit: Michael Benabib

David Rodriguez, Executive Vice President & Executive Producer of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC)

NJPAC is one of the largest performing arts centers in the country with a wide array of arts education programming. In this podcast, Rodriguez discusses those programs in addition to NJPAC’s other offerings and place in the Newark community.

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

David Rodriguez:  It is the 10th anniversary of the TD Jazz Festival, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival. One of the things that makes me most excited is to be able to work with Christian McBride, who is our jazz advisor. It brings together wonderful people, wonderful artists. The great thing about the festival is, one, you'll always see something new and, secondly, about half of the programs are free to the community. So, there's always accessibility to the programs. I mean, we like to feel that NJPAC's a place where no one's turned away because of an inability to pay.

Jo Reed: That is David Rodriguez the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center or NJPAC and this is Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

NJPAC was conceived when the State of New Jersey decided to build a world class performing arts center back in 1986. Newark was the chosen site for a number of reasons—population density and rail and highway access—but one crucial reason and a major goal of NJPAC from its inception was to serve as a cultural anchor and help revitalize downtown Newark through the arts.  Since it’s opening in 1997, NJPAC has become a vital part of Newark’s community as well as the most diverse performing arts center in the nation, from its artists to audiences, to staff and students.

One of the largest performing arts center in the country, NJAPC has four theaters bringing audiences to downtown Newark for concerts, civic discussions and celebrations.  NJPAC also programs throughout the city of Newark—presenting over 200 free community engagement events each year. NJPAC is committed to the next generation with one of the largest arts education programs offered by a performing arts center in the nation reaching over 100,000 students & families each year through about 3,000 classes & workshops.  And NJPAC also generates about 46 million dollars annually for the state of New Jersey.

David Rodriguez is the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Born in Newark, he came to NJPAC about a decade ago after a career as a musician and with a long-track record as a producer—including running the Apollo Theatre for close to 10 years. When I spoke with him, I was curious how NJPAC integrated its role as a cultural anchor of Newark into its relationship with the community. What does being a cultural anchor actually mean down on the ground….

David Rodriguez: I think a lot of it is looking at the many needs that we have within that community and we look at community in so many different ways. We look at it in our home of the city of Newark, we look at it to the people who come to our shows, which are probably an hour drive in any direction and then to the entire state. And we accomplish that through our programming as well as our arts education and our community engagement programs. I mean, a lot of what we do is taking a look at who lives there, what are their needs, how can we create a sense of home at NJPAC through our programming, wherever we may be presenting initiatives?

Jo Reed: Well, let's try to unpack the programming a little bit because you present live events that are world-class events. So, why don't we begin with the live events and then move into your robust and extensive education program and then, finally, the series that you've long sponsored.

David Rodriguez: Sure. We'll reach, as they say, the traditional audiences, as they say, “rear ends in seats” of about 600,000 people this year. A lot of that, probably 60 percent, happens at NJPAC in our three theaters, but 40 percent happens throughout the state, throughout the region and throughout the country. We also serve as a home for broadcast. So, we really, probably in the last 10 years, have shifted from an organization that's known for our wonderful facility, which it is truly wonderful and is a wonderful canvas to allow artists to present on and looked at content and looked at how we can leverage that content to make change.

Jo Reed: Your commitment to education sets a standard for other arts organizations across the country. Tell us a little bit about what you do.

David Rodriguez: Well, it's interesting. The first and foremost, as with programming, we take a look and see what's already in the state and then how we can augment that rather than duplicate it. So, a lot of our education programs focus on a maker strategy as opposed to a product strategy and when I say that, I mean that the journey is more important than the destination, I guess, is the best way to put it. A lot of these are pieces that are created by young people in response to the issues that they're dealing with at the time, which can range from teenage suicide. It can be drugs that might be in their community. Whatever it might be and they can create poetry, they can create hip-hop pieces, they can create jazz. Whatever it might be around those issues. It's a challenging time and the issues that young people are dealing with, particularly post-COVID, are more challenging than they've ever been. I mean, we have full-time social workers who work with us and the schools we deal with on a regular basis and for us, it's not just the schools, but it's that community around it. So we're not just in a family's schools, we're in their churches, we're in the libraries, we're in the community centers. We are different than, say, a Live Nation or an AEG where we come down and do a program. We create a commitment to a community, whether that's in Newark, whether that's in Asbury Park, wherever we are and do programs. It's not just the performance, but it's those ancillary tentacles that reach out, create change, create family and create a sense of ownership. So, hopefully, at the end of the day, they're not just coming to the artists that they're going to see, but they're coming because they trust the curation and they feel a part of what's happening at NJPAC.

Jo Reed: So, it sounds as though you're saying there's an organic sense. You commit, but then it's organic. It comes from within.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely and it affects the artist the same way. I mean, I think one of my first weeks in NJPAC, we were working with Chick Corea, God rest his soul, and he sat on the stage before his program probably for-- I don't know. It started out meaning to be for 15 minutes speaking about 6-2-5-1 turnarounds and it ended up being 45 minutes at the end of the day and the best thing about that is he remembers not that, "Oh, yeah, one day on my tour, I went to Newark." He remembers the kids whose lives he changed.  You know, I started out as a musician and so oftentimes you yell at the audience and say, "Hey, it's so great to be in," and you look at a little-- some piece of tape on the piano or on the amplifier or the monitor that says, "Oh, yeah, I'm in Newark tonight." People who come to NJPAC realize they're in Newark because, part of coming here, they create change.

Jo Reed:  The festivals that you produce speak to that as well.  You just completed another year of the great TD James Moody Jazz Festival which NJPAC has been producing for a long time and I know it means so much to the people of Newark.

David Rodriguez: It is the 10th anniversary of the TD Jazz Festival, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival and we are so excited about it. One of the things that make me-- makes me most excited is to be able to work with Christian McBride, who is our jazz advisor. It brings together wonderful people, wonderful artists. The great thing about the festival is, one, you'll always see something new and, secondly, about half of the programs are free to the community. So, there's always accessibility to the programs. I mean, we like to feel that NJPAC's a place where no one's turned away because of an inability to pay.

Jo Reed: I’d love to talk about the crucial part NJPAC played in the revitalization of Newark because of, in that beautiful venue that NJPAC built in downtown Newark so you could shine a spotlight on the art that’s there as well as bring new art in.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I mean, there were visionaries. When people said, "Let's build a performing arts center someplace else," The first executive director, Larry Goldman, as well as some people on our board,  they said, "No, it belongs in Newark," and it's evolved into something that isn't just, "Well, it's closer than going to Lincoln Center." It's more than that. It has a personality. It has a commitment to diversity and let's face it, Newark has its own history. In January, we're doing an 80th birthday party for George Clinton who started Parliament Funkadelic when he lived in Newark. We're renaming part of a school after him. He's going to be creating visual art live. He's going to have half a dozen guest artists on a special program and his program here will be different than any other place. When he comes, he's going to speak to multiple classrooms of children. I mean, it's just going to be a special, special event and I think that's what we try and focus on. We really want events rather than concerts.

Jo Reed: And this leads me to what NJPAC gets from the community. I mean, because it has to be a reciprocal relationship that you have with the community.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I mean, the soul of NJPAC is based on the people we serve. When we went to content, we looked at who is our community. I mean, our community is 80 percent African-American and Latino in the city of Newark. We have a community that is supportive of the programs that we do and, in response, we're about to build a 60,000-square-foot center for arts education across the street from the center itself, as well as hubs in various sections of the community where they can see regular programming. We will do 200 different community engagement events in the city of Newark in a typical year, aligning for COVID, which we hope soon we will reach a new normal and we can gauge those things a little differently.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Well, that's exactly what I was going to jump to next because, given the importance and prominence of NJPAC, its place in the community, not being able to have live events, not being able to go into schools-- schools were closed-- had to have been a real challenge and I know you did a lot of programming during the pandemic. So, talk about that pivot and the virtual programming that you did do and how long it sort of took you to get it up and running.

David Rodriguez: Sure. I think we took a different road than a lot of other performing arts centers and I'm completely sympathetic to whatever road an art center took just to stay alive during this difficult time. But We programmed our way out of the pandemic essentially. We knew that these kids needed programming, arts education programming, cultural programming, all of those various things. So, we doubled down and we kept our staff engaged. Over the course of the pandemic, we produced over 500 events not just for the New Jersey community, but at a certain point, we decided let's share them with other venues. So, for instance, we did a screening of the biography of John Lewis when he passed and had family members, the film director, so on and so forth be part of that and we provided it for free to 60 different venues throughout the country who were also trying to keep that connection with their audiences. So, it was a lifeline to other performing arts centers. We have a hip-hop "Nutcracker" that we tour around the country and it goes to about 50 markets and we turned it into a television show the year before COVID and it actually just won an Emmy award and during the pandemic we said, "Okay, let's do a virtual tour of it," and we shared that with over 10,000 classrooms around the country and it included masterclasses on hip-hop dance, but also discussions on hip-hop, on diversity linked to this type of family feature. And we did a survey and over half of the people who come to it, this is their first "Nutcracker" and so many of them are then interested in seeing an original "Nutcracker". So, in a sense it is a gateway to finding out more about culture and then that gateway gets us to other issues. I mean, we've linked that to a program called "Showtime for Shakespeare" that's linked to the "Magic Tree House" book and it teaches Shakespeare through hip-hop. So, in a sense, using a vehicle like hip-hop, it addresses arts education, it addresses literacy, it goes to spoken word, it goes to poetry, all of those various things that are important to the mission and really resonate in terms of the impact of the arts and the impact the arts have on all aspects of our lives all across the country.

Jo Reed:  You know, the pandemic, of course, coincided with a long overdue racial reckoning and a focus on BIPOC representation on stage, behind the scenes, at the front office, in the audience and given Newark's racial and economic diversity as well, NJPAC is not new to this work at all.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. Within those 500 shows, we started a program called "Standing in Solidarity" and it dealt with the basic issues. We don't take political sides, but we said we needed to get people out to vote and when vaccines became an issue, we spoke about the facts around the vaccine and allowed people to make the decisions they wanted to make, but it gave credible facts from doctors and scientists. But then we dealt with difficult subjects like white fragility, policing the police, those types of things and, once again, the partnering organizations continue to grow and we went to over 90 organizations and shared that content. So, in a sense, programming, we reached five times the amount of people virtually than we ever did in a normal sense. So, as we leave the pandemic, virtual programming is going to continue at NJPAC. When we present Alvin Ailey, on preparation for Alvin Ailey, we are going to do a premiere of the new documentary on great performances on Alvin Ailey and have Judith Jamison Robert Battle, the filmmaker and people who can discuss social justice in terms of Alvin Ailey as he was starting the company, as the issues that were there for people like him, people like Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem, all of those responses to civil rights in in the sixties that are still there now and those issues still remain where we're working on something for the jazz festival next year on Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite" and I had done the 30th anniversary program when I was at Aaron Davis Hall 30 years ago and I remember speaking to Max and Ossie Davis and Babatunde Olatunji and people like that, talking about that and now it's 30 years later and what I know is, while there's a lot of discussion, talk of change, all that type of thing, we really won't know if there's social change until five or 10 years from now. We hope the catalyst that's happening now creates that change, creates that equity, creates that understanding and I think the arts are a great vehicle to create a common ground where discussion can happen.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I completely, completely agree. Talk a little bit about reopening. You're reopened in full now, but you took it, as many, many organizations did, slowly and you also revamped your venue.

David Rodriguez: We did. We invested about $700,000 in new HVAC systems, touchless bathrooms, you name it.  NJPAC is by far the safest venue you can go to as we've gotten information about COVID and the such. It's also a challenging time because different places have different protocols as it relates to COVID and we know that as we tour projects around the country and it's a challenge because we want to keep those touring artists safe, we want to keep our staff safe and we want to keep our audiences safe. So, we hired a doctor of infectious diseases. We meet on a weekly basis to respond to what the most current information that there is and what that does is create change in some of our policies on a regular basis, but that's what's needed to deal with the pandemic and it's been very successful. Different audiences are coming back at different rates. I can tell you that communities of color are coming back at a much faster rate than seniors. I can tell you younger audiences are coming back at a faster rate. So, that changes programming. We have moved most of our classical programming to the spring. However, jazz and Shaka Khan and folks like that are selling quite well. Issue-based dance companies are selling wonderfully. We're coming into the holiday season and with all of those changes to vaccine mandates as it relates to young people, we're looking to be careful as we make those changes, whether it be for our performances or our arts education programs. First and foremost, we need people safe so we have those audiences for the long-term  and we may take some hits in terms of audiences in the short-term, but in the long-term, we're going to come out stronger than ever.

Jo Reed: Did you receive any PPP money or shuttered venue funding?

David Rodriguez: We did. We did. I think the arts has spent the last 18 months planning for the worst, but hoping for the best and in reality, those people who were awarded shuttered venues money and it was gravely needed and so appreciated because without it, there would just be an incredible void. There are lots of arts organizations who are not going to come back, but I can't even imagine what it would be like without that support. That said, I'm also convinced that we're not going to get back to normal, but we're going to reach a new normal and we're not there yet. So, we really don't know what's going to happen in the next six months to a year and then, after that, how long it'll take for audiences to come back. So, it's necessary for organizations to view things conservatively until we have the answers to those questions and, certainly, the PPP and Save Our Stages and all of that type of thing has been helpful to many not-for-profit and for-profit art centers to keep them open, whether it's Broadway, whether it's tours, whether it's community-based organizations, which is really at the heart of what NJPAC does.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. I mean, they were the first to close and the last to open. It's very, very difficult and anybody who thinks they're getting rich by working in the performing arts just needs a reality check. I mean, it's a hard life to begin with, with very little cushion.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I talk to young people who want to get into being an artist and I say, "You have to-- you have to need to do it like you need oxygen. You can't be in it for the money. You can't be in it for the glory or the applause. You have to be in it because that's what you need to do and that's what your soul needs to do and you feel like you want to make an impact.”  When I say people kept on working through the pandemic, they kept on working some with partial furloughs, some with severe salary cuts all the way down the line. When I look at our technicians and the lessened hours, even as we put hours out there to do renovations and keep things up and running, people had incredible hardship in the arts the same way they have throughout the country. It's been a difficult time. But working together, I think we're going to come out of this. There's a light at the end of the tunnel and I think the arts can help lead the way in a safe manner.

Jo Reed: I want to know a little bit about you. You're from Newark originally.

David Rodriguez: I am. I am. So, it's really special for me to be back. I was a touring musician for a while and then just decided there's a chance to build bridges between artists and presenters. There doesn't have to be that wall. So, it's been exciting for me because I still play a little bit here and there.

Jo Reed: You play the bass.

David Rodriguez: I play the bass. I'll be at Birdland in June, if you're in the New York area. But more than anything, it's to be able to let artists create their dreams. I mean, I was able to start out at Carnegie Hall, but then I started a lot of the New Works programs at Aaron Davis Hall for a while. I spent about 18 years in Harlem, including almost a decade running the Apollo Theater. So, for me, it's just really great to be back home in Newark and creating change.

Jo Reed: You also produced six seasons of "Showtime at the Apollo," which is just so way cool.

David Rodriguez: I did. I did. <laughter> I mean, that's really the cool thing about the arts, is there are ghosts in the arts. There's spirits.  I did 24 shows with James Brown at various parts of my career, including producing his funeral, I have to say. I was able to work with Prince. I was able to work with Michael Jackson for-- gosh, I can't count the number of times-- because they realized the soul that a venue has. We call them the ghosts oftentimes. You'd go down into the basement and you realize that Flip Wilson used to host amateur night for seven shows a day and slept in the boiler room and went out for sandwiches in between shows. Like all those old stories from a place like the Apollo or any of those theaters that were on the circuit. The arts are one of those genres or jobs where so much has passed down from generation to generation and those stories and that commitment to the history that exists in the arts, particularly in jazz and contemporary music, is-- I was really honored to be kind of on the sidelines and sometimes a part of it.

Jo Reed: You played with Max Roach. You weren't exactly a slouch.

David Rodriguez: I did. I did and even more so, later in life, I probably spent the last 15 years of Max's life, I was able to produce a lot of the things that he dreamed about, whether it was a tour with Max, Ginger Baker, Tony Williams to the Verona Opera Stadium. When he decided he wanted to do redo the "Freedom Now Suite." I was thinking because the hundredth birthday of Max is coming up in about two years and I was talking to some of his family members. I remember one night we did a program where we renamed a theater after Marian Anderson and he was doing drum and vocal duets with Jesse Norman. I mean, he was somebody who just thought out of the box. And there are these artists now, the Robert Glaspers, the Christian McBrides, the--that pioneering vision still exists and to be part of that and to see that passion still exist. It's not just about the next gig; it's about the next vision.

Jo Reed: Well, beautiful segue. Thank you, David. The next vision for NJPAC is, as you said, the Cooperman Family Education and Community Center and, in spite of the pandemic, is still breaking ground.

David Rodriguez: We are. We're breaking ground on a number of real estate projects. Just to the east of the building. We have mixed-use both residential and other businesses that are being added and right across from there is the Cooperman Education Center, which will have 20 classrooms, will have a black box theater, it will have rehearsal spaces that we can create new work. But in the same way, it's going to be an open door where people from the community can come in, whether it's art galleries, whether it's-- whether it's a local board of directors or community board, it really becomes a community space. I was talking to George Clinton last week and the thought was he should do a mural on the wall. He's doing visual-- he's doing visual art now as well. So, the thought is that it-- once again, it's a-- it's a canvas for creating art. So, we can just say, "Hey, let's do a whole wall, a visual art done by George Clinton." I mean, those are the type of ideas that a creative space should foster and we should implant that same freedom of creativity within our young people. That's that happy place. That's that hope. That's that looking at those positive values and structures that come from the arts, that come from music, the self-discipline, but the joy and the hope of creativity and that's what I think the Cooperman Center can lend to the people of Newark, but more importantly, that's what NJPAC can lend as a contributor to the arts society throughout the country.

Jo Reed: And one way that you are doing this is with this whole new spate of programming with the integration of the arts and wellness.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely, where it is still in development. But what I can tell you as a Latino male, the one thing that we don't want to know is we don't want to know, which means if we don't go to the doctor, we're not sick. So, how can we do something that can look at some of these wellness issues that are endemic to our communities and have them found out early? How can we look at not just physical issues, but mental issues? As you look at young people, the issue of mental wellness. Going through the pandemic has been huge. What happens when you take people, adolescents away from those safe spaces of their schools, all of that type of thing? How can we deal with that? How can we do with food insecurity? We're in a place right now where our arts education programs have a basis of children are not turned away because of an inability to pay, but we also find out that some of them just can't concentrate because they're hungry and we need to deal with that, too. We can't just deal with the art side of things. We have to deal with their overall wellness, whether that be physical or mental.

Jo Reed: Well, David, I really so look forward to see what NJPAC has in store for the next 10 years. I'm sure it will be remarkable.

David Rodriguez: Me too <laughs> and I can't--

Jo Reed: And I want to thank you so much.

David Rodriguez: And I can't thank you enough for having NJPAC as a subject to one of the NEA podcasts and also I can't thank enough the National Endowment for the Arts for that important programming that they lend to places like NJPAC. It's that seed money, it's that credibility. Having sat on those panels, sometimes people want to see that a group like the National Endowment for the Arts has looked at the financials, has looked at the credibility, has looked at the artistic quality and that's a signal to many people that it's okay to contribute and that this is a good investment and that's what the NEA does. It's a voice and a leader and continues to make change every day. So, thank you very much.

Jo Reed:  Thank you. I appreciate that.

That is David Rodriguez. He is the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Find out all about their programming at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.