Art and Community

ROZ HAMLETT

December 18, 1992|By ROZ HAMLETT

I was eight years old when I first heard the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during a class field trip in 1966. I clearly remember that windy December day when the brilliant song of the strings lit a fire in my heart. By intermission, I'd managed to stop coughing between movements, and by the time we left the Lyric Theater I had vowed to practice for the Saturday piano lessons my mother insisted I take.

I thought about that day recently when the Baltimore Community Foundation announced its intention to give $1 million to strengthen the arts and cultural programs in the Baltimore region. The foundation brought in Dr. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a former U.S. commissioner of education, to study the problem and make recommendations about how best to focus attention on the state of the arts locally.

His 42-page report found that the greatest threat to the survival of arts and cultural institutions is narrow-mindedness. Increasingly, the arts are regarded as a ''frill'' rather than as an essential thread in the fabric of community.

When I was a kid, most public schools had a music or arts program. One summer, young anti-poverty workers even came to my neighborhood with charcoals, paints and folk guitar

lessons.

I took it all for granted then. But not any more.

In the Baltimore City public schools today, arts education is spotty at best and in many cases nonexistent. Unfortunately, education has been turned into a utility, in which courses like math and English are perceived as ''real'' subjects, while music and art are not. Well-meaning parents advise their kids to study something that will earn them a living. Art is devalued.

If Baltimore City School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had to choose between hiring an art teacher or updating a school's science textbooks, which would get priority? Whenever schools

lose money the first things to go usually are the things that calm the soul. Tight budgets pit one subject against another -- to the detriment of the child. They force principals and teachers to engage in politics instead of teaching.

Dr. Amprey admits that Dr. Boyer's study has put pressure on him. ''We recognize that we are not educating the total child,'' he says. He would like to take a more holistic approach, requiring principals to define the arts more clearly in their instructional programs and putting at least one half-time arts teacher in every school.

The foundation's pledge of support comes at a time when the future of arts in Baltimore is imperiled by the threadbare budgets the recession. While non-traditional artists struggle for practically any venue, public and private funding is drying up for even mainstream arts organizations.

The 1993 CityArts grants will not be able to award any general funds to individual artists this year. Fees charged to ethnic festival organizers have been raised and corporate giving is down.

Dr. Boyer also discovered a feeling among African-American and Asian community leaders that the arts community is ''distant and disconnected . . . that those are 'their' institutions.''

That criticism rang true for me. Each time I've attended the symphony, I have been practically the only African-American in the audience -- except, of course, for the ushers.

The BSO is currently engaged in an aggressive attempt to build a more diverse following and break through the perception that only affluent whites appreciate classical music. For the arts to be a truly vital force in building Baltimore, their power must reach across race and class lines to win a broad constituency. And the logical place to start is in the public schools.

Dr. Boyer's report cites the Baltimore School for the Arts as a model institution in the way it integrates arts and academic education. Clearly other schools could learn from the successes the School for the Arts has had. Right now, it's all too easy for an enormously gifted child to slip through the school system unnoticed.

I was never such a child -- that is, my musical talent was very modest. But thanks to my mother's vision and the encouragement I received from my third-grade exposure to the BSO, today I can still peck my way though Bach's "Two- and Three-Part Inventions."

Does this soothe my soul, help me in my life? You bet -- whatever my next door neighbors may think of the racket.

Roz Hamlett is a Baltimore writer.

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