Engaging with Art

  • By:  Brandi Centolanza

Ever notice how engaged kids are when they draw or color? The same is true when children dance, listen to music, or watch a play. Studies show that including arts in your child’s education has a positive impact on their self-esteem, motivation, and grades. In addition, kids who are involved in the arts have improved motor skills and language development. Exposure to the arts sparks creativity and increases cultural awareness as well.

In spite of these benefits, many school systems have reduced funding for arts education. Fortunately, local arts organizations are filling the void by offering programs to encourage our youth to engage in the arts, especially those who might not have the means or ability to discover art in all its forms.

Since 2010, the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach and the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts Foundation have collaborated on the Access the Arts Education Program. Access the Arts gives local students in grades K-8 a chance to watch a matinee performance at the Sandler Center. The foundation’s funding initially covered students in Virginia Beach, but has since expanded to seven cities in the area.

“The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts was conceived and constructed to be a cultural center and community resource,” said Christine Layne, education and programs director for the foundation. “It was a natural fit from the beginning to include educational programs.” More than 50,000 students have watched performances through Access the Arts since it began.

“It’s neat to watch kids as they get off the bus, all dressed up,” said Lisa Baehre, executive director of the foundation. “Some have never been to a live performance. We are showing children the magic of the arts.”

Last year, the foundation began a partnership with the Richmond Ballet, in which students attended a ballet performance at the Sandler Center or watched a performance at their school through the “Sandler on the Road” initiative. More than 3,000 students who attend Title I schools saw the Richmond Ballet at the center and at seven schools in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk over a three-day period in April.

“It was a unique opportunity to reach them,” Christine Layne said. “We had a lot of positive feedback from that, and we are looking forward to growing our partnership with the Richmond Ballet. We are very excited.”

Danielle Roby, senior coordinator of music education with Norfolk Public Schools, often attends performances with students through Access the Arts. She says field trips to the Sandler Center enhance the students’ arts education. “It offers enrichment and exposure to the arts, venues, and styles we may not be able to provide during the school day,” Danielle said. “The students love to get out and see the various arts venues. It’s exciting for them.”

Seeing a performance by the Richmond Ballet, for example, “is eye-opening for some students,” she continued. “It allows students to dream and plants a seed for them. It also facilitates a great conversation with the parents about what opportunities there are for students. The arts bring families together.”

The Sandler Center for the Performing Arts will partner again this school year with the Richmond Ballet. As many as 14 ballet performances are being planned. Other curriculum-based Access the Arts matinees for the 2017-18 season include My Father’s Dragon; Miss Nelson is Missing; Let It Shine: The American Civil Rights Movement; The Lightning Thief; Nugget and Fang; and Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey. Standards of Learning information is integrated into these performances.

The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Virginia Beach also offers a variety of educational programs for children, teens, and families. The 3,800 sq. ft. facility is home to a year-round Studio School with classes for children as young as two, including spring break and summer art camps.

Pre-K Art Day is an art class for 2-5 year-olds that combines gallery tours, literacy, creative movement exercises, and hands-on art making for parent/guardian and child. 1st Art, a similar program, welcomes children ages 2-5 to create art in a studio designed just for them. Besides having fun, the students also improve motor skills and self-confidence.

Teens also have dedicated programs. The popular Teen Apprenticeship Program (TAP) is a unique opportunity for 12 high school juniors and seniors to learn about contemporary art, MOCA, and related careers in the arts. These students plan Teen Takeover Nights, during which teens from local schools gather to enjoy an evening of art, music, mocktails, and free eats.

MOCA also offers activities and programming at area elementary schools, numerous festivals, and local libraries. The museum teams with the Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast to provide opportunities for girls to earn badges.

“Education is core to MOCA’s mission,” said Dot Greene, public relations and marketing specialist. “We are particularly honored to educate close to 12,000 local students each year in grades one through five, using ten different outreach programs.”

In addition to children’s programming, MOCA features a variety of exhibition-inspired classes, events, films, and workshops for adults, including artist talks, master classes, panel discussions, and hands-on mixers like Art Crush.

Art Crush “is a gallery-centered experience,” said Truly Matthews, MOCA’s associate curator of education. “It’s a fun way for adults to engage in art, spend more time with a piece of work, and talk about art with other people.”

The museum is partnering with the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News for one of its fall exhibits, Wayne White: MONITORIUM, a unique perspective on the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads through oversized props, puppets, sounds and lighting. Nine Virginia artists, meanwhile, will be featured in the second fall exhibit, Small Works, Tall Tales.

Besides bringing high caliber arts performances to our region year round, the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk also offers outreach programs and maintains an on-going partnership with the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts.

“We believe that the performing arts are beautiful, enriching, and life-affirming, and we want to offer the arts to people in our community of all ages,” said Christine Foust, director of education and community engagement for Virginia Arts Festival.

“With younger students, we want to expose them to the arts as early as possible, and not just any art but to the world-class artists that the Festival brings to Norfolk,” Christine continued. “For students in middle school and older, we want our programs to encourage them to play an instrument, sing in the choir, join a theatre or a dance program because we know that creative activities are good for kids.”

“For all ages of students, the arts have a huge impact on motivation,” she noted. “Students involved in music have better overall school performance. And sometimes it takes seeing an arts event to open a student’s mind to this kind of pursuit.”

Recently the Virginia Arts Festival offered a Master Class program with Urban Bush Women at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk.

“Bringing in programs like this gives the students the opportunity to broaden their horizons,” said Tamika Steeley, director of dance for the Academy of the Arts program at Booker T. Washington High School. “In a lot of cases, students cannot afford to take classes outside of school or go see these shows. Having the opportunity to have such outstanding groups come to the schools is a very, very important thing for them to expand their education in the arts.”

An arts education can especially benefit students in an urban school district. “We know that in addition to making students into complete, well-rounded individuals, the arts can also help combat some of the specific issues in an urban school system and can drastically improve graduation rates and civic engagement,” Christine added. “High school graduates who were involved in arts programs are more likely to volunteer in their communities and more likely to vote.”

In addition to partnering with local schools on arts programming, the Virginia Arts Festival also has an in-house program, The Rhythm Project.

“This is the festival’s year-long community engagement program, in which over 200 students participate in our nine steel drum ensembles,” Christine explained.

Virginia Arts Festival started The Rhythm Project in 1996 in Portsmouth. Today it also serves students in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Four elementary schools and three middle school percussion groups feed into the program’s premiere drum ensemble, the All-Stars, which is a year-round program for high school students. The group has been recognized internationally and opened for or shared the stage with famous artists, including Gladys Knight, pan artist Victor Provost, and the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra.

Elly Carlson participated in The Rhythm Project during her senior year at Salem High School in Virginia Beach after hearing about the program through a friend.

“What originally drew me to the art form was the energy [of] the group,” she said. “I had never seen any type of music where you actively physically expressed it while playing. I wanted to be a part of that force of energy. My favorite part continues to be dancing, smiling, and playing with my friends, who love it as much as I do.”

“Art is an amazing form of expression,” Elly continued. “Rhythm Project gave me the opportunity to study under phenomenal instructors. I traveled and played with world-class artists and was able to soak up tons of knowledge along the way. This group completely changed my life. It heavily influenced my decision to continue my education in music. I can easily say that I would not be the same person without this amazing program. I have loved every second of it and highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to join.”

For more information on any of these programs, visit www.sandlercenter.org, www.virginiamoca.org, or www.vafest.org.

Brandy Centolanza is a freelance writer who covers health, travel, parenting, education, business, and community issues for several publications. 

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