Why is Art Important?
Lynn Robb, Co-Chair of the Santa Monica Malibu Arts Advocacy Team, blogs about the importance of inquiry, teaching art, and asking the Big Question.
Why is art important?
That’s a Big Question. Too big? I don’t think so. It’s one I’ve befriended and check in with quite often. Have you asked that question lately? Now might be a good time.
Why is art important? My love of looking at art, thinking about art and making art barreled along for years and that question never really came up. I might debate theories or discuss artists and artworks. But, for me, art’s importance was a priori.
Then, in 1995 my daughter entered Kindergarten. We were lucky - able to roll out of bed, walk a few blocks and find ourselves in an exceptional school. But...there was no visual art. So I began writing and teaching art lessons in her classroom. The principal, savvy at empowering eager parents, tapped into my enthusiasm and invited me to create a program for the entire school. I paused, took a deep breath and said ‘yes’.
The responsibility of bringing a meaningful art experience to 750 malleable minds was exciting, but intimidating! Where to begin? I stumbled around a bit and finally decided to back away from presumptions and examine art’s bones. This is where “Why is art Important?” became my essential question. It gave me a way to build on my passion by carefully adding clarity and definition to what I believed were art's key values - helping me focus and adding breadth at the same time.
Here’s an example of one answer to the Big Question: Art is important because it belongs to all of us as an expression of our innate, human drive to find and make meaning. How did this influence my program design and teaching? It clarified a core goal: Student encounters with art should develop and support their ownership of art. This led me to pair two practices - responding to artworks and making art - in every lesson. Experiences in various media, viewing master artworks, connecting to standards, were all grounded in this larger principle of ownership.
What happened in the classroom? I witnessed students from Kindergarten through fifth grade share interpretations of images; create expressive, thoughtful art works; and reflect on their own and their classmates work with confidence. All of this was, I believe, evidence of their ownership of art and a consequence of having asked myself the Big Question.
Leaping ahead to 2005: I joined a federally funded arts initiative as a master teaching artist and Site Coordinator. Here, as before, the usefulness and impact of the Big Question was vital: giving context when sharing the initiative’s principles, informing authentic connections in arts-integrated curriculum, and guiding my designs for professional development to support of teaching for understanding. Across the arc of the grant each powerful occurrence of adults and students learning in and through the arts offered another convincing answer to “Why is art important?”.
Currently I serve as co-chair of our district’s Arts Ed Advocacy Team. What part does the Big Question play? Pivotal, but with a change in timbre; less reflective, more urgent. At our meetings sharing art experiences and discussing our notions of the importance of art enriches the group. This forged conviction fortifies our support of school funding measures, informs our conversations with school board members, and fuels letter-writing campaigns. We use our shared vision as a fulcrum for leveraging added opportunities for students to participate in the arts across all grades at every site. And “Why is art important?” opens the best dialogues with our stakeholders as we advance our Arts For All strategic plan.
As I reflect on what led me to advocacy I find that it might actually be an inevitable result of repeated exposure to “Why is art important?” The question is the essence of inquiry - simple, open-ended, and capable of provoking deep thinking. And in each role I wrangle - artist, educator, and advocate - it has strengthened my understanding of art as a human essential. If you haven’t considered it lately, I encourage you to. Or, drop it into a conversation with a student or peers and see what happens. The answers could urge you toward advocacy, too.
Photos: Lynn Robb, provided by the author; Lynn in the Santa Monica Bus yard in May 2010. Lynn photographed and art directed this campaign for the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation - over 20 panels with images of students and their art work - as a fund raiser. This campaign was a direct outgrowth of the work of the Arts Advocacy Team.