Cultured classrooms Education: Cultural institutions are grooming the next generation of patrons with free events for families and programs for the schools.

September 30, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Through all the sounds of harmony -- the bravos ringing in Baltimore's concert halls, the appreciative murmurs coursing through its art galleries and the loud applause echoing in its theaters -- comes a distant but growing dissonance.

It's the sound of the younger generation, clicking on the television.

The World War II generation that has supported cultural institutions is aging and the baby boomers who follow are not prepared to take over, according to national and local studies, which show that younger audiences prefer watching a performance on television or listening to classical music on compact disc instead of buying a ticket and leaving their living rooms.

"It's up to us," says Diane Stillman, director of education and public programs at the Walters Art Gallery. "We have to raise future museum-goers."

Museums are doing that with free tours and activities for families, free gallery evenings for young adults and more services for schools.

Education is becoming a do-or-die mission for Baltimore's art organizations, from large to small. Their operating decisions are increasingly informed by research showing that arts enthusiasts are created, not born. Art education, in school, before the age of 18, is the biggest predictor of museum- and concert-going later in life.

"There is a definite trend to make education a much more important component of what an orchestra does," says Tonya Robles, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's coordinator of youth programs. "It's a trend here and throughout the country."

With school systems under intensifying financial pressure to cut back, cultural organizations are stepping into the classroom to help make sure children are prepared to soak up each exposure to a cultural event. They have found dollars go further when a direct connection between school curriculum and student trips exists.

"If children arrive prepared for the experience," Stillman says, "they'll get much more out of it. And if they get more out of it, they will become lifelong museum-goers and lifetime supporters."

Today, teachers and museum directors wince at the words "field trip," with their connotation of corralling children from a bus and filling them with an intellectually uplifting lecture before their feet get too weary or their behavior too boisterous.

They want children to have an arts "experience" and they talk about students feeling "ownership" for cultural institutions.

"It's not just a field trip," says Julia A. Forbes, manager of school programs for the Walters, "but a really meaty learning experience."

The Walters has partnerships with 40 schools in Baltimore and in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. A certified teacher on the Walters staff, Erin O'Connor, visits the schools, meets with teachers and calibrates each museum visit to what the children are studying in class. Before the trip, she'll teach a class, preparing the students for what they'll see.

The other day, she arrived at Centennial High School in Howard County at the end of the school day to meet with four teachers to plan the visits of ninth- and 10th-grade humanities students, so they'll visit the museum at the most opportune moment for their studies.

"Late October would be best for us," said Kathy Baer, 10th-grade teacher, "because Nan [Collins, the art teacher] will have just done High Renaissance. She already has us penciled in for Impressionism in May."

Even Howard County, with its resource-rich reputation, has to be nimble to arrange such trips. When a high school teacher takes a class on a trip, a substitute has to be hired to cover her other classes. Students pay for the transportation themselves, but there's no money for the substitute.

"We'll be creative," says Lynda Mitic, the principal.

Forbes of the Walters says Centennial is a great example of a good partnership.

"Erin saw the same students four times last year," she says. "Their humanities curriculum ties in perfectly with the Walters."

In 1992, the Baltimore Community Foundation published a study it had commissioned from Ernest L. Boyer, the late president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, on declining support for the arts in Baltimore.

"For years, the city's art and cultural institutions have served older, more affluent citizens," Boyer wrote. "What's been left out of the equation are the children, especially those from minority communities who often view Baltimore's major arts organizations as beyond their world, irrelevant to their lives. If this sense of alienation is permitted to persist, both the future of the arts and the quality of the community are at risk."

This year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported ominous demographic trends, raising questions about where the ticket buyers and donors of the future will come from. The baby boom generation is substituting television, radio, videotapes and CDs for live arts participation, the report says.

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