Art education in American schools has too long been approached as a craft or therapeutic play activity and needs to be remolded into a humanistic discipline placing equal emphasis on art history, criticism and practice, according to a report released Monday in Washington by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts.
However, the report does not suggest what, if any, active role the fabulously wealthy J. Paul Getty Trust intends to play beyond preparation of a study and lending its prestige to promoting a particular view of art education.
"Basically, we see this as part of a long-term advocacy effort on our part," Harold M. Williams, Getty Trust president said, when reached by telephone at the trust headquarters in Los Angeles.
"There are other things we are doing, like a pilot program here in Los Angeles. Through our grants program we will be able to assist a school district that is out to design and implement our 'discipline-based' program. We are speaking here of modest grants in, oh, five figures."
The report, "Beyond Creating: A Place for Art in America's Schools," is a three-book study done for the Getty by the Rand Corp. and five academic researchers. According to Center Director Lani Lattin Duke, the project's purpose "is to draw attention to the need for substantive visual arts programs in our schools."
The findings are almost certain to be controversial in academic circles as they reverse a long-established approach to teaching art where "spontaneous creativity" takes precedence over the mastery of technical skills or the academic side of art. The report's attitude appears to coincide with a widespread conservative educational surge to return to "basics," although art is not usually considered among them. As a result, the subject has virtually disappeared from the curriculum in many primary and secondary schools.
"The nation's public schools have historically neglected art education," the report states. It cites two "pervasive attitudes" contributing to that neglect: "Instruction in the visual arts is not vital to a child's education and . . . not properly an educational activity."
The report goes on to argue that its study in fact contributes to imaginative cognition, appreciation of humankind's cultural achievements, deeper understanding of history and the sharpening of perceptive and analytical skills.
After surveying some 1,600 U.S. school districts, researchers came up with just seven that were already teaching art as a "solid" subject. They are in Palo Alto; Champaign and Decatur, Ill.; Hopkins, Minn.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Whitehall, Ohio; Virginia Beach, Va., and Milwaukee, Wis. Their programs were used as models and the surrounding communities were also investigated to discover the climate and circumstances where programs thrive.
"A shortage of money is a problem," commented Williams, "but other factors appear to be more important."
The study suggests that talented and courageous teachers are not enough in themselves to make a program work. They must have the backing of educational policy-makers and administrators who share common views about the value of art in the schools.
Even that is not enough, the report asserts, without "strong, politically adept advocates" in the community, financial backing and the support of teachers and parents.
Finally, the report recommends strong links between university faculty and public school people in developing programs that are as clear and rigorous as those in academic areas.