Save The ARTist (Creativity Plus)

There is a great deal of concern and hand wringing over saving the arts. Recently, the Westchester County Arts Council sent out a plea for us to write to our congressmen about major cuts to the arts. I did is they asked, knowing that in even the smallest way our voices have to be heard.

I got an answer back not from the congressmen but from his assistant. there was a lot of blame and finger-pointing in this letter, it still talking how great Westchester County is in comparison to other locations. I will copy and post her letter, but before I do: I have something to say. Yes, big surprise.

With all the talk about saving the parts one very important component seems to be forgotten:


I am a performing and teaching ARTIST. I make my primary living from working in the Arts. My discipline is Theater/Drama, Storytelling and Creative Writing. I do not create “lasting” art in Fine Arts, but I DO perform a service in the Performing Arts.

When you cut the funding for the arts, you are not just cutting out a sculpture or a painting, or a dance or theater piece, or a choral work, you are taking money out of reach of PEOPLE who are trying to pay their bills and survive. by making these budget cuts to save organizations, you are also then putting more people on unemployment. This fall, I have been unable to find a job, mainly because in my field there’s much less work. There are also more people out looking for any work, so even jobs that I could fit into are inundated by other people looking for work.

Where would we be without ones like Van Gogh?

Is it just me, or does this just not make any sense? A good friend of mine has put it  very simply: at this point in time, if everyone across the board and that means the big boys in the middle management boys played fairly, more people to keep their jobs. It’s part of what I’ve been saying in that we need creative solutions and problem solving in place of the reactionaries.

I do not want to be on unemployment. I want to work. I feel there are ways that more people can work and keep their jobs. Today on the news from NPR I heard that more than 28,000 postal workers will be laid off soon. What jobs will they be able to get to support their families?

It’s very easy to cast blame and point fingers. As a country, we seem to excel at that.

Wouldn’t we be better off if we were creative problem solvers?

As stated above, here is the letter I got today:

Thank you for writing to County Executive Robert P. Astorino regarding funding for the arts.

Please be assured that Mr. Astorino has read your message and he has asked me to respond to you on his behalf.

The county executive understands and appreciates your concern for the arts.  While developing the proposed 2012 county budget, Mr. Astorino and his administration have given the arts the same consideration accorded to every program, service, agency and facility supported by county government.

As you know all too well, this is a very challenging economy.  There is a critical need to balance a $114 million county budget deficit with a responsibility to provide essential services and property tax relief, protect Westchester’s neediest residents, promote structural financial reform and reduce government spending at all levels.  One of the major roadblocks to maintaining the funding level for Arts Westchester and many other worthwhile programs and services, is the failure of the public employee unions to agree to make a reasonable contribution to their healthcare premiums.  Westchester County’s union employees are one of the few groups left in the nation that contribute nothing to their healthcare costs.  This ever-increasing financial burden necessitates reductions in other portions of the county budget.  The county executive, since taking office two years ago, has attempted to get county workers to agree to the same level of healthcare contributions state workers make.  While there is a reduction in the allocation to arts programs, the County Executive’s proposed budget includes funding for the arts at $750,000.  This action is in no way a reflection on the outstanding quality of exhibits and performances presented by the arts community nor the talents and efforts of all who labor to bring these offerings to fruition.  It is instead, a part of many across-the-board measures which must be taken during these difficult times.

Your views and those of all who live and work in Westchester are very important to the county executive.  Your input is both welcome and valued.

Again, thank you for writing.


Janet Lokay
Assistant to the County Executive
148 Martine Avenue
White Plains, New York 10601
(914) 995-2127

Here was my response to Ms. Lokay:

it’s not just the exhibits and performances.

You forget a very essential part: the artist has to live, pay bills, and be part of the economic structure. By cutting the arts, it’s not just the end product but the people who live through the process. Two very different things.

I am a Teaching Artist and a performing artist. My entire life is creative and my livelihood depends on schools, libraries, community centers and more have funds to hire me and others like me. I live for the educational process that is part of the learning process…and it does not seem politicians realize this.

Schools may not hire a full time Theater Teacher anymore (I have my NYS Certification in Theater), but they SHOULD hire me as a consultant, which is what a TA (teaching artist) really is. I integrate my work into the school core curricula, and it enhances, not wastes, the teachers’ lessons.

I would love to have a conversation  about this. Yes, many of us produce art that is seen; there are many more of us who produce art that is part of the educational process, for ALL ages, and we’re hurting, trying to make a living.

My thing: instead of telling me why something isn’t working, why are we not doing problem solving around the negatives out there. I’d rather know what has been attempted, or will be, instead of what is not working. I  work a lot with my students, when I get them, on problem solving.

I’m serious about talking with Mr. Astorino.

She gave me her phone number. If I don’t hear from them, and if you know me at all, they will hear from me. I will let you know what happens next. I’m tired of the excuses. Let’s get off of  unemployment


Creativity In Education: Guest Blog (updated)

It was by kismet-accident that I came across Sally “Alex” Poppe. While trying to find someone with a similar name on LinkedIn, I came across Alex’s profile and thought Comrade in Arms. We connected on the site and I had the extreme pleasure of meeting her for an enlightening meeting about  websites, SEO’s…and education issues. We found a lot of commonality and it is my pleasure to have her write this very positive guest blog.

Bio: Sally “Alex” Poppe is a creative instigator with broad experience across Marketing, Education, Theatre Arts, and Consulting.  She combines elements from all disciplines to develop strategy and exceed goals.  Having worked in the United States, Scotland, Poland, Turkey, and Ukraine, she brings a global perspective and cultural curiosity to problem-solving.  For a complete professional profile, please visit Sally “Alex” Poppe at LinkedIn.

Creativity is as important in education as literacy,” expounds acclaimed British educator and leader in the development of innovation and human resources Sir Ken Robinson.[i]  As an ESL teacher in the United States and abroad, I have used traditional theatre techniques and Theatre of the Oppressed exercises in addition to traditional grammar and skills teaching to foster second language acquisition.  These methods produce huge gains in communicative fluency and accuracy as measured by traditional test metrics and FCE, TOEIC, and TOEFL scores.  More importantly, they also encourage students to explore their cognitive potential and foster camaraderie and team work.  That is why I believe arts funding should come to the forefront of scholastic agenda formation.  It should not be treated as a budgetary leftover. The particular case study I will use for this discussion involves a group of ten 13 to 16 year-old Ukrainian girls I taught in a language school in Kiev during 2009-2010.  Their English class was in addition to their regular academic curriculum and afterschool activities.  In the spring, the school sponsored a project week where most classes make posters.  Using four 90 minute periods these girls created and shot a 20 minute film in English.  The entire process was conducted in English.

One of the reasons this project was so successful was because I had used theatre based techniques throughout the school year.  The students were eager to participate because the activities were engaging.  They could get out of their chairs, move around the space, become collaborators and architects in the progress of their own lessons.  This inspired their trust in me and also in each other. Strong friendships were formed that existed outside of the classroom, even though the girls attended different high schools.  I had similar feedback from my adult Ukrainian students which is remarkable because culturally students do not maintain their friendships outside the school. Getting the girls to agree on a theme for the film was a lesson in negotiation.  I moderated with very limited input.  Practicing speaking and listening skills, the girls brainstormed story ideas, met in small group to discuss story development, then voted on the plot they wanted to explore.  Within this class session, we studied the idea of a story having a beginning, a middle, and an end, thereby practicing reading skills.

Once they had agreed on a story idea, we set to work on character. During the next period, I led the class through a group of character building exercises based on theatre techniques developed by Tim Phillips (character as if), Moni and Mina Yakim (physical manifestation of character),  and Andrea Haring (vocal center for the character).  I used Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to discover what was at stake for their characters.  The girls were interested because it was new for them and participated whole-heartedly.  For them it was fun, and a break from traditional class work.

All creative work was practiced in the target language of English.  Their writing homework that  night involved creating their own character’s personal back story and imagining their character’s future.  The writing homework synthesized many grammar tenses we had studied in traditional ways throughout the year. During the next session, the girls broke down the story into scenes which they wrote outlines for and then improvised in rehearsal.  This session was gratifying for me because I could see them thinking and creating in the moment in the target language.  They weren’t thinking about grammar or translating.  They were creating in English.  The last session was the day we shot the film.  We did a rehearsal  of each scene and shot a take.  One student took the film home and edited it on a computer.

The story they chose to tell was a celebration of their friendship and a projection into the future of how their lives would be.  I was touched they chose to celebrate their friendship, for they had truly become a team.  The use of creative exercises had broken down physical barriers because they were often out of their seats doing non-traditional activities that required team work, trust, and cooperation.  The projection into the future opened up their minds to all the possibilities available to them.  I have since received poems and songs created by my students in their free time.

[i] Tischler, Linda.  “IDEO’s David Kelley on ‘Design Thinking.’”  Fast Company 1 Feb 2009.

Losing Our Precision: Arts In Education Cuts

“You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life” – Winston Churchill

The world is a dangerous place to live – not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.

– Albert Einstein

The Day The Music Died

What Happens When The Band Stops Playing?

Normally I talk about Theater Arts, as it is the discipline I am most involved in.  Theater is one of the first things to go in schools when budget cuts happen. Then the other arts slowly follow suit. Art is probably the last to go usually. Why? Because it can be displayed every day. It lines the hallways and shows off the student’s work, alongside their poems and essays and graphs and charts. It looks good, it is visually accessible. Theater, Music, Dance…not so much.

Sure, photos and montages of work can be exhibited. Static imagery of arts that are performed. It’s not the same as experiencing the students live, seeing and hearing their work, their efforts, their process put into a final product.

What about Sports? Well, it also is shown off in the school, but behind glass cases usually, with trophy’s, medals, the actual ball (signed), photos, more photos, and yet more photos. Maybe a retired player’s shirt. It’s static, but it’s given it’s place of honor. Theater, Music, Dance…not so much. Yes, they might win an award or two, but the arts overall are not (or shouldn’t be, in my opinion) competitive.

Why are the Arts Given So Little Respect?

In schools, one of the basic things I’ve heard is this: many parents, educators and policy makers do not feel that the arts can be assessed (which normally means Testing, in our test driving society. No, sorry…I will not get off that soapbox!). The idea that the arts lend nothing to education runs through most of the sectors that are involved in schools, and if you don’t think many school administration, fellow teachers and Those Higher Up feel the same way, you are sadly mistaken. It’s easily dismissed, and that’s a crime.

In recent conversations with others through social media, I have heard stories that echo what I heard from others and what I experienced. I am leaving all their names anonymous as I do not wish to cause them any repercussions. While some of you many feel that this is chickening out, here is the truth: if you open your mouth, right or wrong,  (especially right), you’re job is in danger in the school. If you have tenure, believe me, it won’t be pretty when you have a vengeful admin. Don’t rock the boat. Keep everything inside the walls of the school. Administrative and peer bullying is alive through many schools. That, in itself, is another blog.

From a Visual Arts Teacher:

“As an art teacher it amazes me how the Visual Arts are not taken seriously. If the students were tested about the knowledge they learned only then, it seems, the art would have merit. As a Visual Arts teacher for the past 16 years and counting I can say with confidence that my students grow leaps and bounds in my class in the understanding of how art reflects our emotional, social, psychological, philosophical, physical, political, and intellectual experiences and encompasses all the core subjects.”

From a Theater Arts Teacher:

I teach drama, to seven rotations of classes at my (now former) elementary school. I practically had to pay the other teachers and my principal to allow me the privilege of taking 45 minutes each Friday to deprive the  kids of their “instructional minutes.” I’m hoping and expecting that there is less ignorance with regards to the importance of the fine arts in schools out there in New York. How bittersweet it was to send in my letter of resignation from public school employment after a short but successful nine year career.

I realize that New York has just suffered a great blow in arts funding- I was taken aback when I read about this. I had assumed that the strong theater presence certainly must drive the performing arts into the hearts of New York citizens… does it not? I do also realize that legislators tend to not be true representatives of the public voice when they personally don’t agree with that voice. I’m so sorry for … the NY schools at this time. Perhaps, just as the massive cuts to the NEA were reversed a couple of months back, NY will follow this course. Although, NEA cuts and threats seem to be behaving much like a ping pong ball standing in for a tennis ball at Wimbledon… such is the vitality of the fine arts- the disgracefully unrecognized catalyst of cultural enrichment and innovative entrepreneurs- in times of financial instability.

Unfortunately, it’ll be an uphill battle for arts education for the foreseeable future. This country has become chaotically, illogically and ignorantly managed, (and) woefully divided.

A last voice, speaking on Music Arts Education:

What budget pundits and public policymakers want to ignore is the simple and compelling human need for the arts and the human endeavor of making art and that art adds immeasurably to individual and communal life on this planet. As with any human endeavor, we need to have hands on, first-person experiences as well as the best of our best to demonstrate what is possible and to inspire us to new heights.

Yes, we need to find common ground and a great chorus of many voices for promoting the arts as relevant to public life and therefore public education.

After our annual, free Arts in Education concerts, I received a letter from a 5th/6th grade split classroom teacher in a school where 73% of students qualify for the free / reduced lunch program. The school district like many is slowly hacking away at the roots of its once stellar K-12 music program. I think the closing statement of her letter will resonate and give us courage as we collectively reorient ourselves to new realities, new economies.

“If the cuts in the music program were to happen, I would continue to expose my students to music. Perhaps with your performances, students will be more likely to enjoy music, to want to make music, and will pester their parents to stand up for music in our schools. I want you to know that the Symphony’s school concert is wanted, loved, and needed by my students.”

It is really time for all of us to stand together and hold to our principles. I know we will not get anywhere if we remain reactive instead of proactive. We get hot under the collars when a Wisconsin debacle happens, but we soon go back to the shrug of the shoulders, our own daily lives, and then…something else happens.

Activism, which is what I feel is called for, is 24/7, every single day of the year. Right now, with so many teachers on vacations, what else is brewing behind the closed doors while school doors are closed (well, not summer school, but…)?

What Are You Going To Do?

Artists Supporting the Arts in Public Schools

Here’s ONE step. A small one, but a step. Do something.

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