Rembrandt in the Rust Belt - what makes art work in Erie may work in NEO

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 11/20/2006 - 18:16.

A friend sent me the folllowing article from the Wall Street Journal, suggesting it may be an excellent model for Northeast Ohio. I'll plan to make a visit and report further some time I'm passing through Erie, which is frequently. In the mean time, this article paints the picture well, and makes a good case for "Rembrandt in the Rust Belt"

It isn't easy growing up poor in the rust-belt town of Erie, Pa. But disadvantaged children there have one thing with a value above rubies. It's called the Inner-City Neighborhood Art House, and it offers free, after-school programs in the creative and performing arts. Since 1994, more than 3,000 children have signed up to paint, write poetry, learn to play instruments, act in plays or simply explore the works of past masters. This week, the Manhattan Institute honored the Benedictine sisters who run the Art House by bestowing on them a Social Entrepreneurship Award, given annually to "non-profit leaders who have found innovative, private solutions for America's most pressing social problems." That is a nice way to recognize the hard work of the Art House founder Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, the professional staff of 32 and 2,000 volunteers a year. Credit is due also to Erie's citizens and local foundations, who contribute 98% of the $480,000 annual budget. 

More broadly, the award highlights the value of an arts education for everyone. This at a time when arts instruction has all but disappeared from public schools. Where "music appreciation" classes still exist, they tend to eschew dead white males like Mozart in favor of "relevant" ones like Woody Guthrie. In the name of inclusivity and diversity, classical arts and masters of all kinds have been thrown overboard. They're within easy reach mainly of kids whose parents can afford private schools or lessons. At the Art House, however, every child gets a chance to nourish his soul with beauty. Tables are strewn with books of classical art and architecture. Kids can take professional instruction in air brushing -- used in commercial art. But they can also study violin under a graduate of a Moscow conservatory. The 30 activities and classes available every afternoon range from the readings of "Hooked on Books" volunteers, to museum field trips, to creative-writing exercises supervised by Sister Mary Lou, a former elementary-school teacher and a published poet.

While a few kids go on to careers in the arts, Sister Mary Lou told us that, for the majority, the experience has built life skills. "Doing videos together, or plays," for instance, has fostered "team work, self-confidence, discipline and a sense of community among the children -- who really discovered what was way down deep and were affirmed in who they were." Exposure to the arts helps children see everything in the ordinary world through new eyes, says Charlene Gehm MacDougal. She's a former ballerina now on the board of Lincoln Center's Institute for the Arts in Education, which serves New York-area public-school children. Studying, watching and discussing great art, she told us, develops inquiring minds, provokes "deep thought and concentration...and transport[s] us to greater heights." Speaking of heights, Howard Husock, vice president of programs at the Manhattan Institute, is particularly impressed by the Neighborhood Art House's commitment to high culture. Exposing children to the classics reflects "an extraordinary belief in Western civilization," he told us. Moreover, it repudiates the cruel notion that poor and minority kids can't relate to Beethoven or Rembrandt. "There is something transcendent about [great art], and it would be patronizing to deny it to people." Folks in at least 30 other U.S. cities agree. They've all visited the Neighborhood Art House in the hope of starting something like it.