The New Face of Cultural Infrastructure

Laura Zucker
Los Angeles County is called the creative capital of the world for obvious reasons, and that title is finally taking root in a sustainable way. For the first time in a generation, a significant number of L.A. County's school districts (there are an astonishing 81 of them serving 1.7 million students) are committing to arts education.

From Malibu to Compton, Palmdale to Palos Verdes, school districts are demonstrating a long-term commitment to including dance, music, theatre and the visual arts in the core curriculum and preparing their students to be more creative -- and thereby, more effective -- in the workforce. And they're making this commitment despite tough economic times.

Before President Barack Obama's cultural plan recognized that in order for Americans to be competitive, “America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills." The L.A. County Board of Supervisors began implementing an ambitious plan to do just that.

The just released 2008 Arts Education Performance Indicators Report shows that thirty-four area school districts -- representing nearly half a million students -- are building a strong infrastructure for arts education in partnership with Arts for All: LA County Regional Blueprint for Arts Education and that there is a clear overall trend towards building an arts education infrastructure in all school districts across the County. LAUSD, which serves another 700,000 students, is coming to the end of its first ten-year plan to bring arts education back to all students and is about to embark on a new planning effort.

While infrastructure doesn't sound as exciting as describing a dance performance or creating a visual masterpiece, it's exactly where we need to focus our attention for arts education. Infrastructure equals commitment, and it's something that arts education has been missing until recently.

So what does this infrastructure look like, especially during tough economic times? It reflects thinking, planning and budgets that value the arts as vital to a high quality education. It means that the school district has an arts education policy, a long-range plan and an arts coordinator. It places the arts as a part of the core curriculum with general funding support, instead of special-project funding. It demonstrates a commitment to the teaching of the arts by qualified teachers on an ongoing basis, instead of a one-time trip to the symphony or short-term mural project. It means that L.A. County has come a long way, with the number of school districts with these benefits more than doubling since 2005.

This positive change is taking root in meaningful ways: Six school districts -- Beverly Hills, Burbank, Los Angeles, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Monica Malibu and Whittier Union -- have met critical milestones in developing a sound arts education infrastructure. Compton Unified School District has mandated instructional minutes -- every week and for every student -- for arts education. And Culver City Unified School District is a center for arts learning as a partner in the Arts for All Professional Artist Training Program, which prepares teaching artists to work effectively with classroom teachers to support dance, music, theatre and visual arts instruction.

Maintaining the Arts and Music Block Grant from the state is vital to continuing the forward momentum for arts education; it's currently providing about $17 per student to support arts education programs in schools. But in L.A. County, we have also learned the value of building sustainable programs from the ground up. Just as our cultural organizations survive primarily as a result of local, individual supporters, arts education is improving based on the commitment of school districts to include the arts as a core curriculum subject and integrate arts education into their general fund budgets. This is a commitment to a better education, one that fosters critical thinking, develops observation skills and invigorates creativity-- all qualities that employers are seeking as the economy in our county, state and nation continues to evolve.

Tough times offer great opportunity along with the challenges. As California and the nation strive to invigorate the economy and grow the workforce, we look to the arts for inspiration and innovation. The arts connect us to new concepts, different cultures and powerful motivation. They lead us to transformational ideas, creative solutions and fresh perspectives. More and more L.A. County school districts are building creative capital and moving toward solutions for the future.

Laura Zucker is Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Director of the Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University.

The 2008 Arts Education Performance Indicators Report was released by the commission, and the report survey was conducted by Americans for the Arts. Results are based on self-reported data from 72 of L.A. County's 81 school districts. The full report is available at www.lacountyarts.org



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