'I live in an environment that is constantly changing, being renovated and deteriorating,' says Cook, who now lives on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard a few blocks from the Central City public school. 'I'm trying to make children realize their dark neighborhoods can be places of color and beauty. This is all about being in the dark and pulling in new light.'
Cook chose to make his home in the neighborhood where he grew up, but his work as an artist and dancer has taken him around the world, including stints in San Francisco and Africa. Back in Central City, he knows what he's up against when he goes into a classroom. He's competing with the allure of being 'ghetto fabulous,' of having the latest urban fashions and the flashiest gold. He's seen 15-year-olds rolling wads of large bills into their pockets and guessed without difficulty that it came from running drugs. He knows that to get through even to grade schoolers he has to prove his mastery of rap and dance. He counts it as a victory when he can get a fourth grader to question why she likes the same colors as Lil' Kim.
At the same time, Cook says, the school environments he's seen here are too much like prisons, with lockdowns and frustrated teachers and the LEAP test always looming. When he tells 9-year-olds that everything they do is beautiful, he says, they struggle to believe him. Cook, in turn, struggles to get them to draw outside the lines or color beyond the borders of a page -- 'to release their oppression,' as he puts it.
Standing in one of the galleries at Ash&233; Cultural Arts Center, it's clear that the artist did get through. Carefully, Cook lays out student drawings in which the loss and abandonment of this low-income neighborhood have been transformed to beauty. Starting with a Xeroxed photo of the abandoned building's single broken window, the younger children applied color to turn the shattered glass into something completely different: a pink puddle, a rainbow, an elephant. Older children recreated the Xeroxed image on a blank sheet, noting details of masonry and millwork as they did so. Others mapped their own jagged polygons by plotting dots and connecting them, then filled in the space they'd created with original designs. Fourth and fifth graders painted original houses -- some happy homes, others derelict buildings -- and wrote stories about them. Some of them were bleak, Cook says, but honest.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art funded Cook's residence for four weeks. He stayed for six. 'I had to,' Cook says, looking over the piles of colored drawings on the table. 'I didn't know they could draw like that. They didn't know it either.'
COOK IS ON OF FOUR ARTISTS THAT the Ogden Museum has placed as part of its 'Artists and Sense of Place' initiative, which pairs artists with schools in the neighborhoods where they live. The program fits into a suite of educational programs, including themed 'Ogden After Hours' evenings during which teachers can make their own art projects, tour the galleries and listen to docents' ideas on how to use the museum.
The Ogden, in turn, is just one piece of a mosaic of art museums, dance troupes, community centers, musical ensembles and grassroots organizations that give students in the city access to the arts. In many ways, the picture is encouraging. Just about every major cultural institution in town, from the New Orleans Museum of Art to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, includes education and outreach to young people as part of its mission. The Cultural Resources office of the New Orleans Public Schools scheduled 240 performances at schools this year. The office, under the direction of Janet Johnson-Dupre, also provides lesson plans and guides that connect those performances with class work and state standards. Schools have to pay for that service, signing up for a series of three performances at a cost of $500 for elementary schools and $1,000 for secondary schools.
Troupes that provide performances outside of the Cultural Resource series, such as the New Orleans Opera Association, the Delta Festival Ballet and the Kumbuku African Drum and Dance Collective, generally charge a modest fee for a school visit and presentation. After-school programs, including Summer Stages Children's Theater and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra's Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra, usually ask students to pay a tuition that, while far below costs, is beyond what some Orleans Parish families can handle. Like most fee-based programs, these organizations offer a limited number of scholarships.
Money is one impediment to getting kids together with cultural programs. The educational environment created by the high-stakes testing trend is another. At local schools, arts groups now have to fit their services into academic schedules squeezed by the mandatory literacy and numeracy blocks introduced under Superintendent Anthony Amato. Those groups also have come to understand that the period leading up to the March LEAP test is simply 'blacked out' for most art programs. Principals focused on raising test scores, meanwhile, hesitate to schedule field trips even when they can be worked around the block schedule. Faced with the need to justify every moment in the classroom, many teachers hesitate to press the issue by adding outside activities to already-loaded schedules.
That's a problem for museums and performance troupes that reach out to young people and underserved populations for more than altruistic reasons. 'Museums need audiences,' points out Ann Rowson Love, curator of education at the Ogden. 'And foundations support public education.'
To reach more teachers, Rowson Love presents them with options. The Ogden can print a docent script that will allow a teacher to lead a class through the galleries, or a docent can guide the group. For schools that can't visit, Rowson Love and her assistant, Debbie Randolph, prepare activities that can be used with reproductions of Ogden art. And rather than chafing against LEAP preparation, Rowson Love embraces it, reading through sample tests and looking for ways to connect the questions and concepts with visual images from the museum. A ready-to-use unit connects Mildred D. Taylor's novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which is set in the Depression, to the works of Southern artists William Christenberry, John McRady and Benny Andrews. The unit is available on the museum's Web site, as is another on the work of artist Will Henry Stevens. The choice of Roll of Thunder was not an accident; the novel is on the approved reading list for fourth through eighth grades in several Louisiana parishes, including Orleans.
At a time when terms like 'accountability' and 'highly qualified' dominate the educational climate -- at least politically -- smart museum educators defend their programs by tying them firmly to government-mandated standards and benchmarks. Really smart administrators are making those connections in areas that are not merely required by law, like art, but that are also tested and scored, like language arts and math. 'All museums are looking at state standards to see how to make rich connections to them,' says Rowson Love.
NOMA curator of education Kathy Alcaine agrees. Four years ago, teachers began telling Alcaine that in order to justify a student activity, they needed to know what standards and benchmarks the activity met. Alcaine complied. Now each activity she hands out in NOMA's free teacher workshops is keyed to the specific requirements set out by the Louisiana Department of Education in science, math, language arts and other content areas. But she notes that all museums in the city have experienced a falloff in school visits, probably because schools can work in fewer field trips per year. 'Teachers who get only one field trip a year have to choose, and lots of them take their kids to the zoo,' says Alcaine.
That means she has to look hard at creative, hands-on activities that really engage school kids when they do come -- and make them want to return. NOMA's 'Van Go' exhibit-mobile still travels to stir up kids in advance of a museum visit. But the visiting van with its touchable artworks has also become a stand-alone service for schools that do not schedule a museum trip. NOMA is exploring other options for working with the school system, including becoming a 'super-partner' for some of the new signature elementary schools that include field trips in their curricula.
But school schedules and diminished field trips aren't the only impediments. Another comes in the form of parents who are much more likely to take their kids to the movies than to the Contemporary Art Center, the New Orleans Opera or the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Many public school parents do not have a tradition of attending museums, and can't afford many classical music or theatrical performances. And if children aren't being drawn into theater, dance, music and art through programs at their schools, they're much less likely to draw in their parents.
SUPERINTENDENT AMATO CAN RELATE. 'I was dirt poor,' he says. 'I never had the opportunity to do what most middle-class parents do with their kids.' Much later, as an adult on a trip to Boston, Amato discovered a performance troupe that brought that city's Museum of Fine Arts to life. One troupe member would set up easels in front of a painting and encourage visitors to sketch; another would draw passers-by in to do crafts; another pair would stop people and talk to them about what they were seeing. Amato was so impressed he asked the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum in Hartford, Conn., where he was then superintendent, to bring the same group in. They did.
'I'd never seen the Hartford Atheneum that jumping,' says Amato, laughing at the memory of the country's second oldest museum jazzing things up. 'I wanted it to be our parents, people of color, people who are poor, people who would never think of going to this museum. Parents' associations brought parents. It went over great. They'd never had that opportunity.'
The Hartford program aimed to educate parents and get them involved in culture, Amato says. It also let families discover what it was like to go to an art event together. 'We started issuing family passes so parents could take their children back,' says Amato, who adds that he has approached NOMA director E. John Bullard about looking at a starting a similar program here.
NOMA spokespeople weren't aware of any new programs arising from that conversation. But the museum offers free admission to Louisiana residents on Thursday evenings. A grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation also gives 'Taylor scholars,' public school students in seventh grade and above with a GPA of 2.5 and higher, free membership to NOMA for a year. As members, they can bring one guest. Guests can include parents.
One challenge for cultural institutions is to bring their work out of performance halls and neighborhoods and bring it into the low-income neighborhoods where their would-be audiences live. The Ogden's 'Artists and a Sense of Place' program and NOMA's Van Go both do this. The New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) also provides a good example of how a single group can connect with inner-city kids. For 12 years, NOBA has partnered with the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) to make free dance classes available at NORD sites after school, on Saturdays and during the summer; the program is currently offered at five NORD community centers. The more advanced 'Step Up' track at NOBA/NORD gives talented students access to pre-professional training. A separate effort under the aegis of Creative Communities, a national collaboration between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts, supports NOBA dance classes in the Lafitte, Iberville and C.J. Peete housing developments. NOBA also takes dance demonstrations (and accompanying study guides) into schools, funds 9-week residencies for dancers in schools, and presents daytime Young Peoples' Concerts, with free admission for 75 percent of the audience.
'It levels the playing field so that all children have the same opportunities,' says Jenny Thompson, general manager of NORD/NOBA Center for Dance. 'We can't insure that any child is successful, but we can give them all the tools.'
SOMETIMES, HOWEVER, A PERSON GETS tired of waiting for the school system or established arts institutions to move on a problem, and decides to do it herself. That's what happened to Allison Stewart. A professional artist, Stewart and her husband, Campbell Hutchinson, started KID smART as a way of bringing art classes to kids in poor schools where no art programs existed.
'The catalyst was a symposium in Aspen, Col., in June of 1998,' says Hutchinson. The topic was the state of the arts at the turn of the millennium. A speaker named Bill Strickland galvanized their interest with stories of the Manchester Guild, an arts workshop that created a place for positive work in the heart of Pittsburgh. 'Allison and I looked at each other and said, &140;You know, we have the same problems in New Orleans. Who's going to do anything about it if we don't?''
Today, six years later, the nonprofit organization has professional artist teachers running after-school classes at Fischer Elementary, Guste Elementary, Crocker Elementary and G. Carter Woodson Middle schools. Artists are asked to commit for a year and are paid competitively to assure that commitment. Art classes change every six weeks to keep students' interest, and artists' residences are slipped into the schools' schedules when they fit. The group also runs a Saturday morning clay workshop at St. John the Baptist Community Center in Central City. Saturday students create original plates, which are sold to raise money for KID smART. The kids who make the plates are paid for their work, which they sign and label with a card describing their creation. Other opportunities include training sessions for artist teachers and scholarships to area art camps for promising students.
Once a year, the group invites art organizations of all stripes to set up booths at the 'Art Jam,' a fair where everyone can get their hands dirty. This year's Art Jam in Washington Square Park brought together Recycle for the Arts, the Louisiana Children's Museum, the Ogden Museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and several ad hoc groups of artists to make everything from second-line umbrellas to architectural stencils.
The point, says KID smART executive director Echo Olander, is to call attention to the need for the arts in all children's' lives. 'Not just in the lives of the kids who can afford to go to private schools, not just the Lusher kids,' she says. 'We want to focus attention on the fact that the arts are interesting and engaging and help kids learn.'
Walking from table to table at Art Jam, Olander sees that in their faces. 'They're excited. They're engaged. They're figuring things out, like, &140;How do I put the head on the doll?' or &140;How do I make the big drawing smaller?' In other words, &140;What thought processes do I need to use?''
TEACHER CHERICE HARRISON-NELSON grew so impatient with the rift between Oretha Castle Haley School and the music and culture of the surrounding neighborhood that she started dragging musicians and Mardi Gras Indians into her classroom. It helped that her father, Donald Harrison, was Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, and her brother, Donald Harrison Jr., was a famous jazz saxophonist. Muralist Richard Thomas connected his students at McDonogh 35 with the power to turn art into income through his Pieces of Power organization. As a result, his students can pass down North Claiborne Avenue today and know they helped turn the grey pillars under the expressway into paintings of ancient oak trees and Mardi Gras Indian chiefs.
Across the city, arts advocates such as Jerome Smith at Treme Community Center and Carol Bebelle at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center have become essential resources for their neighborhoods, where they keep African-American traditions of parading, drumming and dancing alive and vital.
Long before KID smART's Stewart grew impatient, these people grew impatient. But the steps they've all taken to make the arts part of young people's lives lack one important component: a strong mandate from the parish's education system. Instead of complementing arts education that's being done in the classroom, these after-school dance, music and visual arts programs inhabit a separate world. In private and magnet schools, students might experience the arts in the course of a regular school day. But for most students in most public schools, 'art' is divided from 'learning.' 'Offering a curriculum without the arts is like asking children to dance without music,' is an oft-repeated saying among local advocates. The present arrangement has kids marching during the day and dancing only during the evenings and on weekends.
There are some signs of hope. After years of seeing the arts omitted from training for new teachers, the Ogden's Ann Rowson Love got news this year that every University of New Orleans undergraduate education major must take 'Visual and Performing Arts: An Experiential Course.' The course, which Rowson Love designed and teaches, requires students to attend four art events, volunteer for an arts organization, react to art and make art themselves. It also requires students to attend panel discussions by arts advocates who discuss integrating arts into learning. As curator of a UNO institution, Rowson Love has the enviable position of training educators as well as shaping the Ogden's educational mission.
The question of whether arts groups are reaching new audiences and school audiences is more than a matter of taste; it's also an economic question. Four years ago -- the most recent year for which Gambit Weekly found data -- Louisiana's nonprofit arts sector created 18,220 jobs and had a direct economic impact of $202 million. Unlike many of our industries, 90 percent of the money spent on the arts in the state stayed in the state. The jobs reflected in those figures -- which did not include the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -- could provide futures for young Louisianans currently in school.
At its best, it's an unbroken circle: arts education creates future audiences for the arts. At present, the majority of arts education is being carried on by organizations outside the public school system itself.