Article by Lara-Sophie Boleslawsky
Photos by Noriko Nasu-Tidball
Dancing leaves twirl gently in the wind, and as they fall, they become forever imprinted in the landscape around me. Art. It can be found within the halls of a museum, or it can be viewed in the delicate veins, the webs of interconnectivity, on a fallen leaf.
In recent years, the reality is that art, as a subject in school has been suffering. Often, the arts are seen as ‘extra’ versus ‘essential’ in schools in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the victims are students. Sitting down with artist, arts-educator, and activist, Maggie Milne Martens, I learned more about the current context in classrooms, and also, about the creative approaches that Maggie has engaged in order to address this issue.
Before delving into a deep discussion, Maggie points out the significance of raising awareness about the lack in arts education: “We need to have this discussion before it’s too late. We’re at a critical juncture. We’re at this point of realizing how the arts and humanities play a huge role in our society and how necessary it is, especially when we’re addressing issues such as social justice and inequality in our society.” Her sage words remind us that even just raising an awareness is one step towards finding a solution.
To get a better overview of the situation, Maggie tells me about her research and the staggering results she and her colleague, primary school teacher, Colleen Mieczaniec have found: “The cutbacks to education, especially arts education happened 25 years ago, in the early 90s. You find the cutbacks not only in K through 12, but also in the Universities.” Maggie continues, “It is particularly bad in BC but it’s an international problem. And in some ways it’s a result of the view that economics drives education.”
Maggie adds, “The arts and the humanities are stifled, because of the common view that they have little economic function, even though I don’t think that the arts should be pursued for those reason. However, people don’t know that the arts are actually the largest growing economic sector in Canada, and in BC.” Addressing and ultimately altering this perception is difficult, but once again, raising awareness of the benefits of arts education is the first step.
And yet, perception is not the only obstacle. Arts Education requires investment. Not only funding, but also time, effort, and passion. Maggie points out that the cutbacks in the 90s have ramifications, especially in our current day and age. “People were left on their own, money for specialist teachers was reduced. In most elementary schools, you would have had a music teacher and an art teacher. You would have had a music room and an art room. And if you look at a lot of the older schools in Vancouver you can see that they were designed with that in mind. Now they are used as classrooms, or storage rooms,” Maggie adds, “There’s this huge vacuum of knowledge.”
Enter Maggie and Colleen, with their initiative to bring arts education back into schools. “I think that partnership with artists, collaborating with schools and teachers is the way to go,” Maggie remarks. “I started going into the schools because that access to arts education was not there,” Maggie recalls, “I started volunteering in her classes at first, then I would help out with collaborative projects in the schools.” But the big breakthrough occurred when Colleen started working at Florence Nightingale Elementary in Vancouver’s East Side.
“Colleen got a job at Nightingale Elementary. And a few years ago she called me up and said, ‘There’s an art room here that’s being used as storage and a photocopying room. Would you be interested in seeing if we can get some grant money and restoring it as an art room, and you could be funded as an artist in residence?’ and I said ‘Ok.’”
Maggie and Colleen’s initiative led to the introduction of Maggie as an Artist-in-Residence at Nightingale, allowing her to teach kids visual arts in an unhindered creative atmosphere. The studio is called The Art and Discovery Studio. “We wanted to create a space where art is alive and happening for students,” Maggie reflects, “And also to demonstrate what happens when the arts are part of the community.”
However, running the Art and Discovery Studio is not without its challenges. Funding is an inevitable reality, and Maggie reveals that “Funding is really tricky. In the first year, people were really supportive and although we didn’t get a major grant, we cobbled together enough to see it through.” Luckily for Maggie and Colleen, they soon found funding in the private sector, and are now sustained by a third partner. Maggie observes that she learned that “there’s no real way to make up the loss” and that ultimately it’s up to public education and government agencies to make sure that access to the arts is fair and equitable.
“There are huge inequities in access,” Maggie reveals. With little arts education available in public schools, parents are forced to look for external arts programs, at higher costs. Often socio-economically disadvantaged youth are unable to seek external arts programs.
In addition, Maggie recalls her own upbringing and the impact of the arts on her life: ““I grew up in the UK, and I came here as a teenager. I participated in arts all my life. But it was never foregrounded as an important thing in my house, it was always academics in the forefront.” Indeed, it was while in the midst of pursuing a degree in science, that Maggie realized that her passion lived in the arts. After switching faculties, and completing a degree in printmaking, Maggie found her true calling. Her advocacy she says was inspired by, “doing some work running art programs for kids in Camden, New Jersey for socio-disadvantaged youth. And it was there that I saw just how kids have an ability to change through arts education.”
As our interview draws to a close, Maggie concludes, “We need to remember why the arts are important. There’s a lot of research now on the impact of arts on youth who are socio-economically disadvantaged. And then you combine that with the huge impact of arts worldwide. It is academic, but it’s also socio-emotional.”
As we become aware of the realities of public arts education, we realize the capacity of community support to re-integrate arts education in the classroom. Enough voices can create a stir, and move us to seek the best in ourselves by sharing our skills and art.