Quality arts education is on the decline in the United States. Publicly funded grants, from the federal to the local level, are on the decline, now standing at the dollar amount of the early Clinton years, despite the far greater number of public school students today.
Worse, state governments across the nation are trimming educational funding for the arts from their budgets. Those cuts are forcing schools to shutter programs that nourish young, talented artists-in-the-making and — as studies repeatedly show — help everyday students become more well-rounded individuals who score better on standardized tests and are better equipped to handle both college and the professional world.
In Wisconsin, school budgets were under pressure even before Gov. Scott Walker took office. Since then, he’s slashed public education funding, which has hit arts education especially hard. The onetime expectation that an average public school would have a basic level of art, music and performance programs is no longer true for most, if not all, inner-city and rural schools, where property taxes can’t make up for state cuts.
Hundreds of Milwaukee artists, musicians and advocates are fed up.
They’ve come together for Arte Para Todos, a weekend-long concert and art series championing “Art For All.” Bands and artists are participating for free, so every cent raised can go to three local schools to expand their arts education programs.
It’s an unprecedented show of support for education from the arts community.
Organizer Chuck Watson didn’t expect such a huge reaction when The Fatty Acids’ singer/keyboardist Josh Evert first brought the idea to him in early November 2014. His initial proposal was just a response to Walker’s re-election, a one-day set of shows meant to protest Walker’s anti-arts and anti-education policies.
But as they talked about it more, Watson says, they realized this could be bigger than a knee-jerk reaction to cuts by Walker and his political allies.
“(Walker) might not be our governor forever,” he says, “but these problems will always be here.”
The solution they came up with was to counter cuts to arts education funding the fastest way possible — by holding a series of benefit concerts, raising a bunch of money and giving it to schools that need it.
As founder of the cultural advocacy group Made in Milwaukee and its offshoot Bay View Gallery Night, Watson is experienced in this sort of thing. Like many events he’s previously organized, Arte Para Todos will pair visual artists with a set of headlining bands that cross-multiple genres, so patrons interested in a particular artist or band will inadvertently find themselves experiencing a wider variety of creatives.
The final result will bring more than 80 bands and DJs together with 15 artists at 18 venues across the city. It’s an unprecedented lineup for the first-ever installment of a Milwaukee music festival, especially since no one is getting paid for it — except, of course, the three schools selected by Watson and his fellow organizers.
Each of the three schools — Bay View High School, the East Side’s Tamarack Waldorf High School and Riverwest’s La Escuela Fratney — was selected by a member of the organizing committee who knew of their need. After basic groundwork on the festival began, the Arte Para Todos organizers contacted school administrators and arts educators to make sure they would accept the donations.
Organizers found that their aid was coming at a critical moment, according to La Escuela Fratney art teacher Sue Pezanoski Browne. Her school, and many within Milwaukee Public Schools, are in temporary budget limbo, due to looming further cuts. If Walker’s 2015–17 budget passes as written, Wisconsin’s public schools stand to lose a large per-pupil appropriation that helped fund schools already struggling with a freeze on raising property taxes (Walker’s proposed budget, in fact, decreases property taxes even further — a total reduction of $280 million).
For MPS, it amounts to more than $12 million, gone in a flash.
It’s a cut Pezanoski Browne says would certainly result in losses at La Escuela Fratney, and she and her arts colleagues could be the ones in danger. Her school has been operating without a reading resource specialist for years and currently has a music teacher come in just once a week. She’s lucky enough to have a full-time position now, but it’s no guarantee. After Act 10 was passed in 2011, Pezanoski Browne was let go after almost a decade of working at La Escuela Fratney. She was only rehired in 2013, when the school’s governance council was able to restore her former job.
Pezanoski Browne says she’s the exception, however. When she started working at MPS in the late 1990s, she says, parents could expect a complete team of full-time arts educators in just about every K–8 school in the district. By the time she was let go, there were only 11 full-time-equivalent visual art teachers working for MPS’ 117 K–8 schools, some of whom earned their full-time status by working part-time at up to five different schools in a given year.
Pezanoski Browne says outgoing MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton was working to increase full-time positions for art and music specialists year-by-year, and arts organizations have tried to pick up the slack by offering more community education programs to her school and the rest of MPS. But she thinks people don’t understand that isn’t the same as having teachers who can work with students directly and don’t have to split their efforts among multiple schools.
“It’s really simple,” she says, “Do we value having really full, rich experiences for our students? … And don’t the kids in the inner city of Milwaukee deserve the same thing as the kids who live in more affluent districts?”
Part of the problem, she says, is that one of the primary sources of funding for public schools in Wisconsin is property taxes. Schools in districts with high-value homes get more money, while schools in lower-income districts need other kinds of public funding, like grants or state budget appropriations, to make up the difference.
Or, in this particular case, a gift from musicians and artists who remember how important arts programs were to their own creative development and know how necessary they will be to cultivate the next generation of artists and art consumers.
“If we’re not educating in the arts,” Watson says, “we’ll have old musicians with no one to play to.”
Even with such an important goal, Watson says he was surprised to see so many bands and artists sign on for the fundraiser. As a musician himself, he says performing for free, or for a good cause, isn’t the sort of thing that naturally comes to ego-driven band members. But Milwaukee’s music scene has changed during his time in the city, with artists now more inclined to collaborate than they would have been even five years ago.
“It’s certainly a renaissance in my lifetime,” he says, adding that this is one of the biggest opportunities to leverage the growing spirit of community. “These are new conversations. Many of these performers are 20-somethings who hadn’t taken the time to think about (supporting the arts) yet.”
Once the weekend wraps up, Arte Para Todos organizers will divide the proceeds into thirds and gift them to each of the three schools to support the arts in some way.
There’s no restrictions on exactly what that means, and Watson suggests whether it goes to something small but vital like art supplies or a larger project may depend largely on what each school’s individual needs are, and how much is actually earned by the series.
Whether that number is big or small, Watson knows Arte Para Todos will be of great benefit to these schools’ arts programs.
“If you’re going to live in a city,” he says, “you have two options to fix a problem: Wait. Or do it yourself.”
Milwaukee’s tired of waiting.