Let the arts help heal our battered cities, NEA chairman Alexander tells Baltimore

January 14, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Early education in the arts can help reunite America' fragmented communities, contends Jane Alexander, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The 53-year-old actress, who was named to her post last fall by President Clinton, visited Baltimore yesterday. She briefly toured the Baltimore School for the Arts and delivered an address to kick off the 150th anniversary celebration of the Maryland Historical Society.

She also announced a $30,000 grant to the society from the Museum Program of the NEA, to support an exhibition and catalog of the society's collection of quilts.

"I firmly believe that getting our children involved in the arts can help ease some of the social problems they face," Ms. Alexander RTC said in her prepared remarks. "We can offer the children places of hope where they can turn away from the despair of the streets -- the crime, the unemployment, the drugs."

She urged everyone to "be a part of the cultural life of this community -- as an audience member, a volunteer, a grass roots organizer. Support after-school arts programs that combat the negative energy of drugs and violence and turn around the lives of children."

Ms. Alexander, who won a Tony Award in the "The Great White Hope," an Emmy for "Playing for Time" and memorably portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt in the television film "Eleanor and Franklin:

The White House Years," said she has begun a national tour to explore arts programs, particularly for young people. She intends to visit all 50 states and the six territories by the end of 1994.

"These are all probably areas that we've not addressed sufficiently, certainly within the last 20 years, and I think we're ready to talk about them again," she said in a short interview before her address.

"I think part of the problems of our inner cities have come out of a fragmentation, a sense of crisis of the spirit, the president calls it.

"It's a sense that you don't belong and you don't own your community and the community is not the extended family that it once was."

She said three elements -- worship, sporting events and the arts -- are ways to bring communities together.

"Particularly for young people, if they have the arts in the curriculum -- and I'm not saying necessarily all schools should be an arts school, I'm saying it should be part of the curriculum -- you give a child automatic self-esteem in the products or results of what he or she does in creating the art. It emanates from them."

"I think she's going to be a great chairman," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, who joined Ms. Alexander and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on the tour of the arts school. "We've got to energize the community, and the arts are definitely part of the strategy."

Mr. Schmoke, whose son, Gregory, is a graduate of the School for the Arts, met privately with Ms. Alexander and said later, "she has a strong interest in the arts and their impact on the cities."

And he noted the NEA chairman had discussed with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ways to use arts programs to address a myriad of urban problems.

At the School for the Arts, Ms. Alexander viewed a modern dance rehearsal and a dance class for younger students in the weekly after-school program "TWIGS" (To Work In Gaining Skills), toured the school's art gallery, heard a brief clarinet recital by senior Matthew Swallows and chatted briefly with eighth graders in a class in pastel portraiture.

"It's so nice to see someone involved in the arts. You can see immediately that they understand, that they're very warm to what you're doing," said David Simon, director of the school.

Ms. Alexander, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., said she vividly recalls the kindling of her own interest in the arts.

"It was [the ballet] 'Coppelia' and my dad took me after he'd come home from the war."

She said she was 6 years old when she saw the performance by the Royal Copenhagen Ballet.

"This was before television, you must understand, and as a young child during the war I wasn't taken to films, so this was the first experience I had in life with something different than reality. It was really important."

She said she talked her mother into ballet lessons, which lasted until she was 9, when she moved "on point," into classical ballet slippers, and soon moved on to acting.

"It was so excruciating," she said. "I don't think anybody outside of dance . . . understands the extraordinary pain that one suffers as a dancer. And it's not just ballet. You watch these kids at the school just now. Wow! every muscle in their body tense and sweat pouring off their bodies.

"It's far more comprehensive than athletics."

Ms. Alexander took over as NEA chairman in October, one month after Congress had cut the endowment's budget by $4.7 million, and said she "ached" over some of the programs that had to be eliminated, such as the 20-year-old Professional Theater Training Program, which supports 16 of the nation's premier drama schools.

"I have a lot to do," she told Mr. Schmoke during an elevator ride at the School for the Arts.

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