Government-Funded Art Programs Combine Ambitious Claims, Dubious Results

Published November 6, 2014

“Art education,” the U.S. Department of Education regularly claims, will help produce a happy and successful workforce of mathematicians, computer programmers, rocket scientists, and historians.

Acting on the premise preschool arts education will improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) outcomes, the department awarded a four-year $1.15 million grant to the Wolf Trap arts center for its Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts program, which DOE is promoting in mailings with an ever-present photo of a Wolf Trap teacher showing preschoolers a hip-swiveling dance move. September 2013, the Department awarded $2 million in grants to eight organizations and schools to develop model programs that “integrate the arts with standards-backed education programs.” The new standards, of course, are Common Core, the law of the land in 43 states for English and math, but so far voluntary for art instruction.

The department is also collaborating, for the second time, with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a 242-member group of 40,000 schools and community organizations. The project is called Museums: pARTners in Learning, according to a press release from the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, one of the “pARTners.”

Sixteen university museums were involved in the effort to produce award-winning student art. The exhibit is an 11-year tradition.

‘The Art Is Beautiful’

Opening ceremonies took place July 23 and were hosted by the DOE in Washington, DC. The display consisted of visual artwork and creative writing by students ages 5-17 in the arts education programs at 16 academic museums. During the opening ceremonies, Deputy Under Secretary Jamie Studley “emphasized the critical partnership for learning between art and other classroom subjects, such as chemistry and history.” Art, she said, “is a source of inspiration and a way to practice the discipline.” According to student intern/blogger Greta Oliveras, “evidence of creativity and learning in all fields” abounded, and guests remarked, “The art is beautiful” and “Wow!”

The press release that announced the pARTners program said it “celebrates the remarkable diligence and creativity of thousands of k-12 students across the country, and highlights the diverse ways in which direct engagement with the arts enriches students’ learning experiences, personal development, and critical thinking.”

Rebecca Martin Nagy, director of the Harn Museum of Art and a member of AAMD, the professional association for art museum directors, stated the obvious when she said art museums worldwide are committed to education. “It’s what we do!” she said.

‘An Eloquent Depiction’

The works of three featured artists suggest what AAMD and the Education Department are intent on promoting.

Blogger Oliveras stated “an eloquent depiction of ‘becoming educated'” came from an award-winning 10-year-old student artist from Meadowbrook Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida, who drew inspiration from Frank Hamilton Taylor’s “A Trip on the Ocklawaha,” a painting at the Harn, for his own painting, “La Florida.”

The student said he tried to depict “the untouched majestic beauty [of Florida] before the Spanish colonization.” He explained, “When Ponce de León discovered Florida, he called it ‘La Florida,’ meaning ‘land full of flowers.’ I believe each of our brains is a ‘La Florida’ as it is a place full of ideas like flower buds and, as people help us improve these ideas, they can bloom into flowers,”  Oliveras reported.

The poet-in-residence at the Harn, Anna Mebel, “touched on the different portrayals of her home state, Florida—a foreigner’s and a local’s—as she recited her original poem, ‘Florida,’ inspired also by a work at the Harn, the photograph by Karen Glaser ‘Within the Swamp, Roberts Lake Strand,'” Oliveras wrote.

Then there was the performance by Amanda Stambrosky, the Harn’s choreographer and dancer-in-residence. Her original piece, “Down to the Lake,” inspired by four Florida landscape paintings at the Harn, Oliveras decribes Stambrosky’s piece as thus:  

“Amanda incorporated her hair in her performance. Midway, she let it loose from the bun she wore as both an expression of ‘letting loose’ and a representation of the movement of the palm trees and wind. For her, concluding the piece by pulling her hair back in a bun portrayed ‘resuming life, yet kind of changed.'”

Grand Claims

Earlier this year, in March during the “Arts in the Schools Month” proclaimed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Doug Herbert, special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement, made grand claims for arts education:

“Arts-rich schools benefit everyone. Research increasingly shows that arts education heightens engagement for all students and can increase motivation and persistence for those most at risk of failing or dropping out of school. Learning in the arts also uniquely equips students with the skills in creativity and divergent thinking as well as problem-solving and teamwork that they need to be college and career ready.”

Herbert implied research proves these points, citing ArtsEdSearch of the Arts Education Partnership, which is supported by Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The student art seems to be in service, or in place of, the real study of other subjects that may not be so creative or fun, such as science or math.

Such undisciplined “study” will only impede students’ development of useful cultural knowledge. Real art is more than a matter of putting your hair in a bun.

Mary Grabar, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and is founder and executive director of Dissident Prof (  

 Image by johnanthoney.