Art is a human right.
That's a mantra Opera San Luis Obispo General and Artistic Director Brian Asher Alhadeff believes in.
"Right up there with water and clean air, but that's me as an artist speaking," Alhadeff said. "Kids deserve the right, the opportunity to experience the beauty of what it means to be a human being."
Part of that beauty is wrapped up in expression, which is a major part of what the arts are all about—understanding how to express oneself and how to empathize with others who are expressing themselves. As arts education has become less of a priority in schools, below things like science and technology, Alhadeff said nonprofit arts organizations such as OperaSLO have started steering part of their mission toward education.
Thirty or 40 years ago, he said, professionals in the arts industry didn't really have to consider education as part of the creative process—they could just create. But as technology and communication have changed, Alhadeff said it seems like there are fewer and fewer opportunities for families to get together in large situations to share experiences such as attending a play. Leisure time is spent more in solitude than it used to be, and the arts are having a harder time capturing the attention of children.
"We're losing connection to part of what makes the human experience so special," Alhadeff said. "Children should have the right to choose and be involved in those opportunities as opposed to being segregated into those communities that can afford it."
To give children that opportunity, OperaSLO participates in the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education Arts Collaborative, a program that county Superintendent Dr. James Brescia started three years ago with the help of a few small grants from foundations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Organizations such as Symphony of the Vines, Wine Country Theater, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, and Studios on the Park also participate.
"The county Office of Education has a collaborative that we started with the belief that the arts and the humanities shouldn't just be a commodity, but rather a necessity," Brescia said. "Artists, art educators, art supporters ... all dedicated to sustaining arts education in our county."
- Photo Courtesy Of Slo County Office Of Education
- STUDENT PERFORMERS Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo performs a scene from Peter And The Wolf at the Vina Robles Amphitheatre, which works with the SLO County Office of Education Arts Collaborative, hosting student performances like this one every year.
OperaSLO is the most active partner at the moment. The nonprofit brings professional opera singers into classrooms around SLO County, works with teachers, helps facilitate field trips, collaboration with other arts organizations, and tries to ensure that students get the opportunity to participate behind the scenes, on the stage, and in the audience.
How exactly OperaSLO participates on a certain campus is up to the administrators and teachers at the school site. The nonprofit has visited drama, art, and music classes, and has brought the whole school into an auditorium, which OperaSLO was able to do in Shandon, a school with about 300 students.
With any art form, Brescia said, there's an element of communication—whether it's solitary, like painting, or collaborative, like singing in a choir. Arts, Brescia believes, spark a certain creative intellect that you can't get with "pure academics," such as the capacity for asking questions, critical thinking, probing, empathy, and the ability to express oneself.
"I think that our school system, probably in the last 20 years or so, the pressure has really been to focus on what people see as pure academics, and the arts was seen as more of an enrichment or side activity," Brescia said. "Where I have always believed that education should have a humanities-based [component]."
He points to a 2019 study completed in partnership with the Houston Education Research Consortium that looked at how an influx of money for arts education in certain Houston-area schools affected students. The study found that students in schools that received more arts funding experienced a 3.6 percent reduction in disciplinary infractions. Students who received more arts education were also more engaged in their education, more interested in how other people feel, and more likely to want to help people who are treated poorly, according to researchers.
"There are strong reasons to suspect that engagement in arts education can improve school climate, empower students with a sense of purpose and ownership, and enhance mutual respect for their teachers and peers," researchers wrote in a blog post about the study on the Brookings Institution's webpage. "Because schools play a pivotal role in cultivating the next generation of citizens and leaders, it is imperative that we reflect on the fundamental purpose of a well-rounded education. This mission is critical in a time of heightened intolerance and pressing threats to our core democratic values." Δ
Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.