State of the Arts Chicago is a city filled with arts and cultural programs to support it, but this support - particularly in CPS - is not equally represented across the city. Although the city boasts of increased funding to arts programs in its public schools it is not equitable throughout all schools - with higher funding flowing to the wealthier neighborhoods. Not only are lower class neighborhoods losing out on the funding for more diverse course offerings, they are stripped of the large scale benefits an arts education provides. However, the problem not only lies in the hands of CPS and government officials, but Chicago’s journalists as well. Large newspapers like the Chicago Tribune fail to so much as mention the inequitable distribution of arts funding in Chicago - focusing on the improvements to the wealthier neighborhoods of Chicago instead - leaving the investigative reporting to lesser known journals such as the Chicago Reporter. While there is increased funding for arts education in CPS, the recognition of where that funding needs to be directed lacks. Unequal funding and partnership opportunities weaken CPS’s curriculum and educational goals. While discussing Ingenuity's findings of CPS arts education, Chicago Reporter’s Melissa Sanchez says, “Lincoln Park and Lake View have more than 50 arts partnerships in schools, while some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in the South and West side have 10 or fewer” (Sanchez). Arts education and partnerships currently flow towards wealthier neighborhood - with more access to cultural experiences outside of the classroom as well - leaving the low-income neighborhoods with little opportunity for students to experience or take part in the arts. The city’s leading journalists do not aid the efforts to justify the inequity of arts educations either. The Chicago Tribune merely discusses the potential of music and arts education to aid young students’ minds and mentions that the Mayor said, “We have more work to do” (Rhein), but does not dig into the problems of teacher resources and distribution. While Sznewajs - the executive director of Ingenuity inc. Chicago - is simply quoted in The Chicago Tribune’s positive article about arts education in Chicago, he took to The Chicago Reporter to write about the inequity of arts distribution in Chicago, describing it as a “Desert to Oasis” (Rhein).
Every publication discussing arts education harps on its importance and necessity to improve grades, school attendance, and future job skills. In an article citing the significance of arts education for the city’s future, the Reporter says,
“70% of tomorrow’s employment opportunities will require that employees be self-directed, creative, collaborative, media-literate, and culturally sensitive. These capacities are collectively identified as 21st Century skills. [...] However, the singular challenge in teaching them is that they are not oriented towards predetermined outcomes. In other words, innovation, creativity, collaboration, etc. pre-suppose unexpected results that require imagination, adaptation, and flexibility in response [...] Without the skills acquired through artistic habits of mind, our children will be ill-equipped to compete in a global economy”(Taylor).
Taylor mentions “artistic habits of mind”, habits that must be instilled early on, long before the independence of college and the demands of the workplace. CPS has a duty to create students that can respond to non-predetermined outcomes, and that cannot happen without education and background in fields with project, group, and real time learning, not the passive learning that so often comes with textbooks, and stale math problems.
There is a positive side to arts in Chicago - however a negative side looking at the U.S.A’s attitude towards the significance of the arts as a whole. According to the Chicago Reporter: “CPS’s Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is the most comprehensive in the country [...] We have a creative universe of more than 200 arts organizations that have built partnerships with many Chicago schools [...] Arts integration, a strategy that marries the arts to teaching and learning across the curriculum, is more richly developed here than in any other city”(Sznewajs). The resources for successful, thriving arts educations in Chicago is present, and the plans for progress are being made, but they need to be employed.
Fight for Our Rights We “are fighting against domination” (Fitzgerald), stated a teacher during a community wide walk out on the south side of Chicago in 1968. Black arts and education were undervalued and unsupported, black voices were silenced, and their opportunities to flourish, squashed. Currently the view and support for black arts and arts education is not that of supporting the cultural identity that is represented through black arts but rather supporting the life improvements that can be made for students by having arts educations - improved attendance, flourishing in other academic subjects, better college results, and more leadership roles in postgraduate careers, etc (Rhein). However in the early to mid-20th century it was an argument about having equal representation, opportunity, and accessibility for black arts. The shared cultural identity that black arts created was fostered by the students and educators that spoke, wrote, and represented their lives through art around the nation.
The support for diverse arts was displayed largely by students nationwide with the opening - and rapid closure - of the Black Arts Repertoire Theater School, and Black Arts Theater, in New York City. This school had cultural community outreach ideas including addressing its productions to the needs of its immediate community (Neal). It was one of a kind in its mission and the quality of productions. For three months the theater presented a wide array of arts such as theater, music, and poetry that; “shattered the illusions of the American body politic, and awakened Black people to the meaning of their lives” (Neal). The arts and the way in which the arts were directed at the community - without bags of money or invasive government programs - gave blacks a new hope and outlook on life. However, the theater quickly came under fire by New York authorities and the OEO (the Office of Equal Opportunity) cut their funding. The theater had very different views about their community than war on poverty bureaucrats and although they did more to directly help their community than the government, the theater soon shut down due to the funding cut and internal conflict. With its closing a new sense of urgency in the black arts movement sprouted up around the country.
From the turmoil of the theater’s close the black arts movement spread; black arts groups were started around the country on college campuses. Notably on four midwestern campuses - University of Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota - the students did not simply ask for improved arts and education but made opportunities for themselves. These students were published about the “New Negro arts and letters movement” (Breaux) in popular and black scholarly publications. They inspired their fellow black students politically and artistically in their school papers creating a sense of community among them, and they challenged myths that questioned the intelligence of blacks (Breaux). LeRoi Jones - an instrumental person in the black arts movement - had long critiqued black writers saying that they were accepted by few more than the middle class which was a lame fight for mediocrity (Smith). He asked that black writers write truthful accounts of their lives - stories which he found the most powerful - not what they thought would intrigue whites, such as talking about social order and striving to achieve cultural privilege. These students did just that, they relayed truthful life stories in articles and art. While these students’ actions were sparked by the Harlem Renaissance and racial injustice in the country, the students on these campuses created a movement of their own by publishing the works, opinions, and actions of the students and young people supporting the movement. They are the voices that showed that educated blacks exist and are eager to learn and share their work.
Similar student voices rang out in the city of Chicago in 1968. On a Monday morning in October 3,000 students gathered at the Affro-Arts theater on Chicago’s south side pushing for improved black schools with black teachers for black students in black communities. They felt that they were, “living on borrowed time”, that Chicago’s government and elite were, “trying to destroy us” (Fitzgerald). While some feared that violence would break out at the protest, members of the community spoke out otherwise: It was their community that came out to protest, their community they protested in, and their community that they were trying to improve as a united front.
Often it seems students are little more than passive pawns in their education. Members of the government or adults in private institutions organize everything for the students and they have little more to do than show up and learn. But what happens when the students become unhappy and being to fight for their rights and improve their education? It was displayed in the mid-19th century and is being shown yet again. Students at the Affro arts theater fighting for equal education said they were “fighting for survival” (Fitzgerald). Today the same chants are heard when students protest and “fight for their lives” in gun control protests. When authority fails students take to their own skills to fight, whether it be for their lives, educations, or arts.
BREAUX, RICHARD M. "THE NEW NEGRO ARTS AND LETTERS MOVEMENT AMONG BLACK UNIVERSITY STUDENTS IN THE MIDWEST, 1914-1940." Great Plains Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2004): 148. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23533959.
Larry Neal. "The Black Arts Movement." The Drama Review: TDR 12, no. 4 (1968): 29-39. doi:10.2307/1144377.
SHERYL FITZGERALD Daily Defender,Staff Writer. "3,000 Students Gather at Affro-Arts Theater." Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Oct 15, 1968. https://search-proquest-com.proxy.uchicago.edu/docview/494373340?accountid=14657
Arts in the City, Today The Chicago Children’s Choir is one organization whose made it its goal to ameliorate the inequity of arts education and access across the city of Chicago. It was founded in 1956 by Reverend Christopher Moore to bring children of diverse backgrounds together through song. Today it serves 4800 children around the city of Chicago uniting their voices in song. Its mission is to inspire and change lives through music with excellence, expression, and education. The choir’s artistic director - Josephine Lee - embodies and executes this mission, and I was lucky enough to interview her.