Armed with a $24-million special endowment, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has begun what its leaders say will be a long-term campaign to help plant visual art instruction securely in county public schools.
"Nationwide, I don't think there's another museum program on this scale" for bringing such teaching into public classrooms, said LACMA's director, Michael Govan. "We're trying to establish more and more things that lead the field."
"We've never done anything on this scale. . . . We've never done anything in this depth," said Jane Burrell, who heads the museum's $3.3-million-a-year education department.
Under the program, LACMA-paid instructors should become familiar presences in 18 elementary and middle schools that will be among the primary feeders for a Los Angeles Unified School District downtown arts high school, due to open in 2009.
The $1-million-a-year initiative, dubbed LACMA On-Site, will stay in the area, known as Local District 4, for at least four years. Each classroom in seven chosen elementary schools will get an intensive, six-lesson art sequence each year for two years; then the process will repeat in seven other grade schools. Comparable programs will take place in the four middle schools for all four years.
Hunger for art programs
Besides working with students, LACMA-sponsored artists aim to be mentors for regular classroom teachers, helping them gain the know-how to keep art learning going after the two or four years are up and the museum's caravan has moved on to a new set of schools.
Underwriting the plan is a large education bequest from Anna Bing Arnold, a philanthropist and art collector who was one of the museum's founding trustees. District 4 stretches from the Pasadena Freeway through downtown and west to Beverly Hills and will supply about 1,200 of the arts high school's 1,700 students.
Richard Alonzo, the former art teacher who is superintendent of District 4, said he pushed for the partnership with LACMA because "How can you have an arts high school that doesn't have children prepared to access world-class arts instruction?" District 4's enrollment is predominantly Latino, and last year nearly half its students were classified as English learners.
After LACMA received the Bing bequest in 2005, museum and school officials spent a year planning the program. Alonzo said that more than 30 schools applied for 11 opportunities in a highly competitive process he said reflected teachers' and principals' hunger for good art programs and their interest in using art to propel lessons in other subjects. Later, school officials decided to double the number of elementary schools involved while halving the duration at each one from four years to two.
LACMA On-Site was launched in January, but museum and school officials planned to tout it today at opening ceremonies for an art gallery at one of the campuses involved, Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park. The gallery, which dates from when the same building housed Otis Art Institute (an earlier name for Otis College of Art and Design), will be open daily at 2401 Wilshire Blvd. It features a mixture of works from LACMA's collection, displays of student projects and installation art by two LACMA-commissioned artists.
The initiative comes as California arts education advocates spot signs of daylight after a long dark night. Proponents trace the decline of the arts in public schools to Prop. 13, the property tax-freeze initiative of 1978, which in many districts led arts instruction to be jettisoned in favor of other subjects deemed more essential. There's also little fondness in arts circles for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has been in effect since 2002. Some detractors say the act gives school officials an additional incentive to marginalize the arts because they are not covered in the law's signature standardized testing.
A recent study by SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., research institute, concluded that, apart from some pockets of excellence typically shored up by donations from parents, "arts education in California is plagued by a lack of funding, under-prepared elementary-level teachers, and inadequate facilities . . . and is often crowded out by other curricular demands." Surveying elementary schools in 2005-06, the study's authors found that only 25% had a full-time specialist teaching art, music, theater or dance.
Last year, the state government, which provides most of the funding for K-12 education, earmarked a little more than $100 million annually for school districts to begin improving arts offerings.