Off Stage – Arts Funding Is Critical

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Atlanta Theater Fans blog - Off StageWriting the Shakespeare Tavern article reminded me of my own high school experiences. For me, being in the drama club was a safe place. As a place where differences were celebrated and not shunned, I began to flourish as a person. But it was not just performing in the school’s productions, but it was the backstage camaraderie, where we bonded into a cohesive group. The same happened in the band and the chorus (many of whom were also in drama).

As I listened to the interviews while writing the article, the sense of community overwhelmed me. With teens feeling more isolated today, the importance of arts education in general is ever more important. The popularity of Glee and Disney’s High School Musical series has made show choir and high school musicals a popular destination with many students who are discovering the joys of being a part of the performing arts. Through programs that go into schools like Shakespeare Tavern’s Residencies and the Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens, as well as traditional drama clubs, students can find the place to belong that is desperately needed in today’s society.

Why then is arts funding the first to go? No political leader or school board member seems to give credit to the importance of arts education. Instead of cutting other programs, school systems are laying off drama teachers, art teachers and music teachers. Would they dare cut their cash cow: the sports program?

Yes, many sports can achieve the same function of providing a group to be a part of, but not everyone can participate in sports. On the whole, a sports team excludes many students, while the drama club, the band and the choir will accept everyone – even if there are auditions. Backstage is help is needed. Sets need to be built. The theater needs ushers. The chorus needs voices. The group numbers need bodies. More kids are able to participate.

Cutting the arts isn’t just in schools; it seems our elected legislators do not value them either. Georgia’s arts funding has dwindled (not that it was much anyway) during the past few years of budget cuts. The effect of which was largely felt by our professional theaters as well as the artists. To make it even worse, the state’s cuts put Georgia at the bottom of arts funding in the country. Yet, the state continues to fund useless, pet projects that score political points and votes. Remember Perdue’s Go Fish?

Whether you agree with his politics or not, one presidential candidate in the 2008 election cycle did voice a support for arts education and tried to bring it into the political conversation. Gov. Mike Huckabee proposed mandatory arts education as part of his education plan. Why? The arts, music classes especially, improve academic performance. For example, studies show students in band do better in math. This plan, however, never gained much traction in the political debate due to the country’s economic situation.

It is time for political leaders to start realizing the importance of the arts in our communities and schools. They serve important and unique purposes. Through the arts we understand ourselves better. We understand the world better. We become better people. If the arts die, then we lose an immeasurable part of human society that has been with us since the beginning of civilization.

Make your voice heard. I know that mine will be heard through the emails I write my legislators, congressman and school board member. However, the most impactful way to get our voices heard is to support candidates who support the arts. Every state legislator is up for reelection next year, and so is every congressman. The more we let our voices be heard, the harder it will be for the policy makers to ignore us.

– Kenny Norton