In Praise of the Arts

This week brought one of the real treats of my time at Island School—the K-12 holiday concerts, on back-to-back nights. So much of those shows highlighted the very best elements of the way we work as an educational community. And at the same time, arts programs everywhere face fundamental challenges, regardless of their quality. Knowing the relatively long history of arts excellence here leaves me thinking that we can show the world what a difference those creative and performing experiences are in all our lives. Here’s what I mean:

First, a moment to elaborate on what was so great about the concerts—and admittedly I’m no expert, as a washed-up basketball and track and football coach, not an artist. Still, even I could see that the skill and passion of our teacher Ben Nause made some great things possible. Namely, he stitched all the grades together, so the olders could set a great example for the youngers and the youngers could remind the olders have far they’ve traveled. He crafted a program of increasingly difficult and varied pieces, so we in the audience could see the progression of skills students acquire. He made the performance about the students, featuring them, individually and collectively, at every turn. Teachers, past and present, played a key role in pulling it all together, supporting one another. And it was playful enough to ensure that we all had some fun, whether on stage or in the crowd.

The list could go on, but you get the idea—imagine if everything we did as a school did those things. Imagine if all our students could perform what they learned in some visible way. And yes, it does happen in robotics and Science Olympiad and Model UN and all kinds of sports. Still, all performance opportunities matter, and more is better. The arts offer a different kind of beauty, so why, to turn the corner a little, are enrollments in both visual and performance art courses struggling?

The answers vary by setting. Certainly the pressure for students in high-aspiring academic settings to rack up multiple credits in multiple departments has left less time to pursue arts interests. Pressure to specialize in sports and other pursuits has left less time to explore potential parallel interest in the arts. Media overload pushed out on all our small screens has made it hard on community arts organizations to draw support for their performances and openings. And our high-stimulus, low attention span pop culture means fewer young people are signing up to learn to play (and to love playing) instruments or to join theatre and dance groups—which makes me love our students’ visibility in Seussical and halau performances this fall even more.

What do we do about it? Think about a well-balanced diet of activities for your children and let them explore,  in the rich cultural landscape of this island. Make time away from screens for more active play. And here at school we need to celebrate and reinforce the importance of the arts, right alongside athletics and other academic competitions—finding and retaining great faculty for those programs remains an ongoing hill to climb. It’s not a zero-sum game- everyone can win if we cooperate, and we really have to as a small school. Special shout out to those who helped move a soccer game to another day so the HS choristers could be at full strength last Wednesday. It’s that kind of stuff. We need to see arts courses as real classes, with real importance in the development of young minds and spirits.

One task I’m taking on, even as a short timer here, is the dogged pursuit of a solution to getting the KCC Performing Arts Center, a building I’ve still never seen from the inside, open and functioning. And we surely will do our part to care for and support the success of that essential facility. Our limited on-campus capacity meant we missed the chance for larger crowds to appreciate the week’s concert. In that spirit, let me ask you, to do what you can in support of the arts in your household, starting with maybe singing a little more than usual for the holidays just ahead.

Feeling the joy,

Ps- Thx for the response to the Voyager Fund matching challenge. Stay tuned for word of a chance to expand it even a little further as December 31 approaches.