Community at MCLA

MCLA Works to Strengthen Youth Arts Education

As part of an Art Works grant from the NEA, representatives of area arts organizations, educational districts, transportation, business and social services got together recently to strategize ways in which a strong arts education might be created for local youth.

Students at Colgrove Middle School in North Adams are among the local youth who stand to benefit from an important conversation held recently, that explored ideas of how they might access a strong arts education to prepare them for work in the burgeoning creative economy the region is so well known for.

At the center of this discussion was Dr. Lisa Donovan (right), a professor in MCLA’s Fine and Performing Arts Department. The exchange marked the conclusion of a collective impact project made possible by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to support a collective impact project, “Leveraging Change: Improving Access to Arts Education for Rural Communities.”

“There’s so much conversation about the creative economy and understanding that the arts are one of the things that make this area unique and noteworthy,” Donovan said. “Yet, arts education isn’t often connected to this conversation. It’s important. It’s a capacity builder.”

The goal is to foster the development of young people’s creative skills with the idea that, as the arts and culture continue to grow and flourish in the Berkshires, as adults, they can participate in and support this expanding sector of the economy.

Through the project, MCLA – along with the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Berkshire Readiness Center – participated in the NEA’s first cohort of arts education collective impact grantees to focus on arts education programs.

“I think we illuminated creative strategies that are being used in rural areas to create change for arts education,” Donovan said. “One of the most effective things is to create a strong network –whether it’s professional development networks, or advocacy networks or cross-sector networks. We need to get people together to share resources, communicate, and find ways to support the work.”

For this final piece of the project, 25 participants – representatives of area arts organizations, educational districts, transportation, business and social services – looked at regional challenges for which arts could be a strategy, and ways that arts education could build capacity.

“It was wonderful,” Donovan said. “At the end of the day, we came up with six potential ideas that will activate our work across sectors.”

Their ideas included a creative youth development program that would incorporate the use of video, and link higher education with a career workforce development initiative of Berkshire Regional Planning, working with MCLA, Williams College, MASS MoCA and Colgrove Middle School.

Another plan has the middle school’s principal working with MCLA’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) coach, observing how each teaches, and integrating themes across the curriculum.

One group talked about creating a consortium or a collective of people who are interested in arts education and in sharing resources to build regional impact, instead of focusing solely on the needs of their organization. Additional conversations included ways to provide greater access and art education opportunities for youth in poverty, and an examination how to use the arts to keep young people in Berkshire County.

Donovan – whose background is in arts integration – instigated participation in the NEA grant not long after she arrived at MCLA to teach in its arts management program, and noticed a regional need to strengthen arts education. In collaboration with arts management consultant Maren Brown, the grant was developed to leverage change for arts education in rural areas.

“It was a natural next step,” Donovan explained, “to think about the need for all children, especially those who live in rural areas, to have equal access to arts education; especially in a place that’s touted for its arts and culture.”

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