The ImagiNation

This post originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation blog Arts & Ideas on 12/17/2007

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  – Albert Einstein

Imagination: visualizing new possibilities for human thought and action and the use of materials.

Creativity: originality, flexibility and elaboration in making what was imagined.

The statement and definitions above were among several points of discussion at a meeting held last week at the Cleveland Foundation. We were the hosts for the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a national coalition of arts, education, business, philanthropic and government organizations that promotes the role of the arts in the learning and development of every child, and the improvement of America’s schools.

AEP was founded and is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. The Partnership is composed of more than 140 organizations that are national in scope and impact. It also includes state and local partnerships focused on influencing educational policies and practices to promote quality arts education.

The day-long meeting included local arts education specialists and champions from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Young Audiences, area foundations, the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, Playhouse Square, and Cleveland State University. There also were representatives from Columbus, Dallas, and the state of Oklahoma.

So what did we talk about? The discussion focused on AEP’s efforts to foster an affinity group for arts education, and to help all Americans – regardless of occupation, social standing, income level, geographic location, race, etc. – who believe in the value of the arts in children’s education form themselves into a collective force for change. Like those who self-identify as “environmentalists” or “soccer moms” (people who can see they are among many across the spectrum that share a core value), such an “affinity” group could come to wield significant influence in the coming election. AEP aims to create and position this cluster for arts education.

In their focus group work, AEP constantly heard people say that the current system teaches children to be “average,” at best. One passionate arts champion put it more colorfully: “We teach to the floor. At the end of the day, children are still under the table. We need them to be able to sit at the table.”

AEP’s polling and research confirms that more and more people believe our schools do not prepare children with the skills they need for the future. As Daniel Pink says in his recent book “A Whole New Mind” (which I am recommending to all of my colleagues), we are no longer in the knowledge economy. The economy of today and tomorrow is one of concept and imagination – of making meaning out of what we know and what we make. It will require students to acquire habits of mind and the cognitive capacity for imagination that are nowhere more effectively taught than through the arts.

AEP came to Cleveland because Ohio has established a Committee for the Arts in Education and is developing a state-wide plan for arts education. The arts are now a criteria for inclusion in the state’s STEM (Science, Technology, Math, Engineering) Schools Initiative.  And Cleveland is recognized as a progressive city in this area because of the passage of Issue 18 on a platform of arts education, our inclusion in a major Ford Foundation urban district arts education initiative, because our cultural organizations  have formed a coalition for arts education, and because of the long history of the ICARE (Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education) program that the Cleveland and Gund foundations, among others, have supported in Cleveland schools for more than a decade.

Oklahoma also has a state-wide arts education initiative, and the city of Dallas has made great strides in integrating the arts into its public school district, which is among the largest in the country.

The meeting held here at the Cleveland Foundation was an important step in crafting messages and interpreting research that will be used in AEP’s national efforts over the next year.  So you can expect to hear more about the value of arts-integrated learning as our presidential campaign unfolds, and perhaps you will be called on to declare yourself a member of the ImagiNation.

Family of man (and woman): Thoughts on global culture

This post was originally featured on The Cleveland Foundation’s Arts & Ideas blog on 11/7/2007

I just returned from conferencing and vacationing in the Southwest. While there, I got a jolt when someone mentioned that Taos, N.M., had recently celebrated its TRI-centennial.  That’s 300 years to Cleveland’s 200-plus-a-few.

We forget – or at least I hadn’t thought much – about how this country was settled by historic invaders that arrived from several different points on the compass. Our sensibilities here in Northeast Ohio lean easily toward an historical affinity for the culture brought by English settlers. We are the Land of the Western Reserve, after all, and were once “owned” by New England’s Connecticut colony as their land grant for western expansion.

But while the southwestern territories may have taken a little longer to join the union, the invasion of the Mexican and native peoples’ lands by the Spanish – and the cultural influences melded from those contacts – establish a more uniquely fused continuum of culture than the more European-focused and imitative aspirations of our colonial forefathers (my opinion, and for now I’m stickin’ with it).

While in New Mexico I visited several native American Pueblos and had the chance to experience the deep roots and the exciting fusion of the Indian, Mexican and Spanish culture of that region. Looking down through the eons of the Grand Canyon Gorge and walking the vast expanses of unchanging and untouched desert (plus a short encounter with two tarantulas) gave me a sense of timelessness that predates our man-made boundaries – physical, political, cultural and spiritual, for that matter.

All this is resonating for me as I contemplate the early-stage development of a new initiative in the arts that our board has just approved. Tentatively titled “Cultural Fusion,” it will attempt to “broaden the footprint” of global culture in Cleveland.

While still in the early, exploratory stage, this new program will provide opportunities for greater presence and impact to cultures not in the current mainstream here, fostering an exchange of ideas and sensibilities between artists of different cultures (here and elsewhere). It will also offer the community experiences that showcase both the rich differences and common human ideas that form the creative impetus across all peoples’ urge toward creative expression.

Over the next few months we will consider what funders in other communities are doing to support global culture and exchange, and we will meet with many, many segments of our local community – not just arts organizations – to listen and learn as the basis for shaping our program.

Although it’s still very preliminary, our core values for this initiative are collaboration, creative exchange and sustained impact. We are not looking to found new or grow existing nationality or culture-specific organizations. This will be a project-based initiative. The energy we hope to spark will be in the exchange and sharing – across cultural boundaries – of the richness of the human experience as expressed by the world’s serious artists.

Given the foundation’s emerging interest in international business attraction, we will be looking to align this initiative, in ways that make sense, with our economic development agenda.

Stay tuned: More about this initiative’s progress in future blog entries.

Non Sequitur:
My favorite new expression, courtesy of Arts Kentucky:

“ART is not a thing; it is a WAY.”

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