Whenever education budgets get tightened, art programs are the first to get cut. Like the enduring popularity of reality TV, this never ceases to amaze me. So much evidence points to art's importance in a child's development - and not just in the development of abstract thought. Art is a critical component in a well-rounded education. Art is the level playing field - no matter how rich or poor, tall or short, pretty or ugly to the bone, if you can draw, you can find personal fulfillment and build self-confidence. Art is the highest achievement of mankind. And, when art is suppressed, so is the civilization that suppresses it. Remember the monumental Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in the months leading up to 9/11. Remember the suppression of art in Nazi Germany.
A Mother's Day art project from a Central Valley school.
Studies show that art-centered schools outscore non-art-centered schools in academic achievement scores. Art education can actually help the brain to rewire itself, to make stronger and more plentiful neural connections, and can help build memory skills. Self-discipline, intuition, reasoning, imagination, and dexterity are just a few of the other benefits of an art-filled education, especially for primary school students. According to First Lady Michelle Obama, "Learning through the arts reinforces critical academic skills in reading, language arts, and math, and provides students with the skills to creatively solve problems."
So, how is it that, when it comes to art education, California comes in dead last out of all 50 states - even below Guam? According to State Councilman Bobby Shriver, California's public schools no longer even offer arts education.
This is why, my personal love of art aside, Stewart and I have made a point of supporting P.S. ARTS, an organization dedicated to providing arts education to students attending under-served public schools. We were so impressed with the program that we've made it a part of our educational programs in the Central Valley in California , where many of our employees' children attend school. For many children in California, English is a second language, but art is a universal language.
Seeing some of the recent work from these budding Picassos and O'Keeffes prompted me to share with you their progress. The P.S. ARTS program was founded in 1991, and has been in the Central Valley since 2003. We've watched these children's imaginations blossom since their first few classes, and their progress has been inspiring.
Students' designs from a P.S. ARTS mocassion project.
If art means as much to you as it does to me, or even if you're just exploring the art world for the first time, I invite you to turn off the boob tube, pry the Wii controllers from your kids' hands, and drag them to a museum. You may be surprised to learn that many museums have weekend activities geared to families, and almost all museums now have or are planning hands-on exhibits and playrooms specifically geared towards their younger visitors, which help to enrich the museum-going experience. Your kids might feel more apt to try some art of their own after viewing contemporary works that are far less intimidating than those of the Old Masters.
Art is a great way of appreciating the other cultures in our society. When viewing the great art traditions of the Middle East, you may find a new respect for this ancient culture. Or when children view the historical works of their own culture, it builds pride in one's heritage. Art builds bridges of understanding.
Once you reconnect with the freedom and openness that come with art, you just might recall how satisfying it was to finish a paint-by-number or to bring home your macaroni opus to hang on the fridge. Memories of personal fulfillment aside, artistic expression has been proven to stimulate brain activity, and in our age of Tivo, iPhones, and technological doodads, we could all use some good old-fashioned cerebral stimulation. The next time your local school puts its arts program on the chopping block, I hope you'll consider all that's at stake: It's so much more than construction paper and pipe cleaners. It is the doorway to a whole new world of expression.