Imagination Celebration Reminds Us the Arts are Important. Are Schools Listening?

Photo courtesy of Arts OC

1000 Pieces of Art on display at South Coast Plaza.

Orange County’s Imagination Celebration, a gargantuan annual spring festival that celebrates the arts throughout Orange County and emphasizes the creativity of kids, is celebrating its 34th anniversary in 2019 – a remarkable testament to the vision and passion of people who believe that art makes a crucial difference in the lives of the county’s children and teens.

This year’s Imagination Celebration will last well over a month and features more than 100 events, most of them free, in 29 Orange County communities.

By far the biggest and most high profile part of the festival every year is the 1,000 Pieces of Art exhibition, a juried art show that celebrates the work of pre-K through 12th grade students from all over Orange County. The art includes traditional mediums, including photography; last year, digital and graphic design were added.

The winners chosen by the jury can be seen at the South Coast Plaza Crate & Barrel Wing through May 19th. It’s free to see the exhibit anytime during mall hours.

1,000 Pieces of Art Exhibition

WHEN: May 1 – May 19

WHERE: South Coast Plaza, Crate & Barrel Wing, Costa Mesa

TICKETS: Free

“We get about 4,600 works of art for the show, which we track with a computer data system,” said Steve Venz, Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education. “We take a day where we will have various experts in visual arts, teachers and artists. They go through everything and select the pieces to show in South Coast Plaza. At the same time they select other pieces that will then go to Festival of the Arts in Laguna.” All told, about 1,400 works are singled out for display.

Venz thinks 1,000 Pieces of Art epitomizes the goals of Imagination Celebration. “We like it because it’s an event that recognizes children throughout the county and, even more importantly, connects kids with arts and arts education.”

Arts Education Lights the Flame

While it’s hard to fault the organizers of Imagination Celebration and other community-level arts programs for children and teens, such huge endeavors could be seen as an indication of the shrinking role of K-12 education in the arts. How much do we value arts education if we leave it to well-meaning but often cash-strapped volunteers to provide it?

Imagination Celebration is just one of many programs offered by community organizations and not-for-profit arts groups to keep an appreciation for the arts alive; in many cases they are counted on to counteract public education’s diminishing role in the area. And after years of widespread cuts to public school arts programs in many communities, the question has become increasingly relevant: does learning about paintings, sculpture, music, theater and dance help children become better students generally?

Over the last 15 years, the evidence increasingly points to yes.

A 2006 study by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum found that arts education had measurable positive results in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a Guggenheim program that sent artists into the classroom.

In the study, hundreds of third grade students in the New York City school system were interviewed. Some had benefited from the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art; others had not. The former group scored better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — crucial cognitive areas such as description, hypothesizing and reasoning.

Another benefit of arts education, of course, is that it lights the flame – those exposed to the arts as kids are more likely to develop a lifelong love of the arts and participate in them more regularly as adults.

A 2008 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that arts education had a strong relationship with adult arts participation. “Having had any childhood or adult arts education was significantly correlated with attendance at ‘benchmark’ arts events,” the study concluded.

A more recent survey by the Brookings Institute, released earlier this year, offered even more dramatic proof of the benefits of basic arts education.

Using Houston’s public school system as its laboratory, Brookings helped to roll out the first two years of a program called Houston’s Arts Access Initiative. More than 40 elementary and middle schools with over 10,000 third- through eighth-grade students participated. Students at 21 schools received, on average, 10 arts educational experiences across dance, music, theater, and visual arts disciplines during the school year. Those at the control-group schools did not.

The results were significant:

“We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes,” the report concluded. “Relative to students assigned to the control group, treatment school students experienced a 3.6 percentage point reduction in disciplinary infractions and an improvement of 13 percent in standardized writing scores.”

Among elementary school students, the report noted other advantages among the kids who benefited from arts enrichment: “Increases in arts learning positively and significantly affect students’ school engagement, college aspirations, and their inclinations to draw upon works of art as a means for empathizing with others,” it concluded.

Many Benefits

So with all its apparent benefits, why did the arts fade from public education in the first place? Fingers are often pointed at school boards that are openly hostile to arts education, but according to the Brookings Institute and other sources, the shift in attitude is largely the result of fundamental changes in educational philosophy that took place over the last generation.

According to the Brookings and Guggenheim studies, the expansion of standardized-test-based accountability is a major culprit. The push for widespread testing forced schools to focus narrowly on the subjects to be tested. Since the arts were not among them, they were neglected academically.

A federal government report found that under the No Child Left Behind program, schools that were designated as “needing improvement” were far more likely to decrease the time spent on arts education.

Perhaps it’s unfair to think of Imagination Celebration and other community arts events as a substitute for a hobbled system of arts education in the public schools. 1,000 Works of Arts is a wonderful way for the larger community to acknowledge work that’s performed within the school system, after all.

But there’s a symbolic value to learning about the arts in the classroom rather than outside it. Among other benefits, it makes the world’s great artistic and cultural achievements as important as anything else that’s studied within the curriculum, and it presents the arts as the normal expression of a culture and a means of interpreting and making sense of the world.

Sure, improving math and language skills are important, and arts education does help with that. But as the Houston study proved, its more important benefits could be about making us more open-minded and compassionate.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.