The arts are an essential part of all students’ holistic education
Thank you, Dr. Wardropper, for that warm welcome.
My thanks also to Rika Burnham and to the museum educators, teachers, professors, and teaching artists who are committed to delivering high-quality arts instruction to our students.
It’s a pleasure to deliver the Samuel H. Kress Lecture at one of my favorite collections in New York City. Viewing exceptional works of art in this Gilded Age mansion always soothes my spirit and inspires my mind.
When I know they’re on display, I go directly to my personal favorites, the Turners and the Whistlers. Then I visit the concert garden to reflect on the art I just viewed. In a hectic city, having quiet places to meditate and contemplate makes us better citizens and better people.
There’s an additional beauty in being in the Frick. When I was a principal at P.S. 6 in Manhattan, I worked with this institution to create a teachers’ guide to visiting the Collection. In researching my curriculum, I immersed myself in the history of Henry Clay Frick.
I came to appreciate, that at a time when industrialists and financiers were not always seen in the best light, Frick designed this residence to accommodate his art collection—and left it as his parting gift to the public. We are all the better and richer for it.
I am especially honored to speak to you this evening, because the arts have always played an important role in my personal and professional life. My parents emigrated from Spain during the Spanish Civil War; they themselves had no more than a third-grade education. Despite their lack of a formal education, they understood the value of the arts in our cultural history. As a child, they taught me about Spanish music and dance. To this day, I have fond memories of my favorite bedtime lullaby, Ravel’s Bolero.
Picasso’s Guernica was another touchstone for me. I first experienced the painting at the Museum of Modern Art, and had a second chance to see it at the Prado in Madrid. Talk about a college course in one painting. I’d grown up listening to my father’s stories about his life in Spain and the politics and history of his home country, especially the fight for a democratic Spain. Through Guernica, I learned about my family heritage, about war, destruction, and loss in a way that was palpable and real.
My early exposure to painting and photography, music, theater, and dance taught me that the arts could enhance anyone’s life.
Later, as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor, I made it my mission to integrate the arts into every aspect of children’s academic lives.
Today, as Schools Chancellor, I share Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to a high-quality arts education for all of our students. The Mayor and I are adamant that arts instruction is not an add-on or a frill. The arts are an essential part of all students’ holistic education.
In line with this vision, the City has invested an additional $23 million a year to provide greater access to high-quality arts at all school levels. We currently have the most teachers of the arts in a decade. Through our Arts Matter initiative, new arts teachers are serving over 22,000 students in 113 middle and high schools in classes that did not previously exist. And we are providing unprecedented professional development for teachers in all disciplines, from dance and music, to theater, visual arts, and the moving image.
Our investment in the arts is one of the ways we’re increasing equity and excellence across the school system.
We also have hundreds of new or expanded, robust arts partnerships aligned to specific visions including: partnerships serving English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and pre-kindergarten students; partnerships to promote family engagement in the arts; and partnerships between elementary and middle schools to bridge and build on a continuum of arts instruction.
I’ll speak more about our partnerships later on. Before I do, I want to discuss five ways in which the arts play an essential role in public education, borrowed lightly from the esteemed author, teacher, and arts education consultant Jane Remer.
First, art for its own sake.
The poet Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Every museum represented here tonight has something beautiful in their collection that brings joy to my life and a smile to my face.
At the Museum of Modern Art, the Sculpture Garden nourishes my soul.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Chinese Garden Court brought me many Zen moments when I was a principal at P.S. 6. The knights in armor are still my go-to experiences when visiting the museum with my grandsons.
The opera, Carmen, for obvious reasons, inspires and re-energizes me.
The Brooklyn Museum was a fundamental part of my life as a staff developer. I remember visiting during Africa day—now I’m taking you back more than 20 years. Many of the teachers said it was the first time they’d been exposed to their own heritage in such a beautiful and meaningful way.
I also worked with Studio in a School and Arts Connection to create amazing arts Saturdays for teachers at the Brooklyn Museum. Through gallery walks, and hands-on visual and performing arts experiences, teachers expanded their own horizons. For many, it was their first intimate connection with the arts.
The point I’m making is that art has its own value and can be enjoyed apart from any themes it might address, whether social, moral, historical, political, or religious.
Art in its finest form transcends all of the distractions in our daily lives and allows us moments of bliss. That’s something that’s hard to come by in the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Likewise, art elevates school communities. I visit schools every week and, as most principals will tell you, the first thing I notice is whether the arts are integrated into the DNA of the school.
I want to see painting, drawing, and writing happening in classrooms.
I want to see students bursting with curiosity and creative energy.
I want to see imaginations soar.
The cherry on top? Seeing parents explode with pride as they watch their children express themselves in a play, in a dance performance, in a concert, or through painting, film, or photography exhibitions. I always tell principals that the arts are one surefire way to guarantee parent attendance at school events.
These experiences aren’t optional. All children must have opportunities to dance and be moved to joy, or even despair.
All children should experience the dedication, discipline, and collaborative joy of performing in a musical ensemble.
All students need opportunities to be working visual artists, exploring and finding their voices in various media.
And all children must have opportunities to participate in theater and lose themselves in a character’s passion or pain.
We also want to enable more of our students to experience theater live on Broadway. Through an innovative educational partnership, we’re doing just that. Thanks to the creator and producers of Hamilton, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 20,000 eleventh grade students will have an opportunity to study the hip hop musical and then see it at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. So far, more than 2,500 students from New York City public schools have been to a matinee performance.
For students, it brought history alive in a way text books never could. Students have written to me saying the experience was life changing. As one student wrote, “I heard the stories, watched the Tonys, and read the reviews; however, none of those lived up to actually seeing Hamilton live in the Richard Rodgers Theatre.” Another described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Prior to the show, students performed their own hip hop versions of American history for the cast. They unleashed such talent through expressive songs and dialog, and were totally immersed in the content, particularly of Hamilton as an orphan. Their performances moved the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to tears.
What a clear demonstration of how theater can motivate and challenge us to be the best we can be!
The second essential role of the arts is as an appreciation and execution of technical skill.
All great artists spend years practicing their craft, developing focus, skill, and stamina.
Likewise, through the arts, our children learn how to rehearse, edit, and revise, all in the pursuit of mastery. The concept of revision and do-over are often difficult to explain to students. Art makes this reality immediate and impossible to avoid.
And I’ll give you an example. On a recent visit to Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan, I enjoyed an energetic performance by the school’s samba band. Afterward, I asked the students how long they’d practiced the piece they played. In unison, they said, “over and over and over again.” And I replied, “That’s why you play so well.” In fact, these students have performed all over the world.
Practice does make perfect. Focus does reap rewards. Nothing really worthwhile comes easily.
These are critical life lessons for our students. They’re so important, in fact, that they’re embedded into our standards-based, rigorous approach to teaching the arts.
Our standards, which we call the Blueprints for Teaching and Learning in the Arts, help teachers develop curriculum in their art form, and provide benchmarks for what children should be able to know, understand, and do in the arts at critical junctures in their intellectual, physical, and emotional development.
Our Blueprints also highlight the ways teachers can integrate the arts into other content. Social studies is a natural partner, but the arts can also be embedded into math, science, technology, and of course, English Language Arts.
In addition, the Blueprints provide school administrators with tools to supervise arts teachers and share feedback with parents so they understand their child’s potential for achieving in the arts.
We want parents to understand that a child whose art work is displayed, who plays in a band, sings in a chorus, or acts in a play to thunderous applause, is a child who has the potential to live an extraordinary life.
The poise, self-confidence, and technical expertise students develop through the arts prepare them to excel in school and in life.
The third essential role of the arts is as a way of understanding historical context.
I believe that one of the best ways to help students make sense of the world in which they live is to integrate the arts into all aspects of instruction, but particularly history and social studies.
In fact, when I was a social studies teacher, I could not imagine teaching any history unit without integrating the arts of the era. There is no better way to give students a complete and human picture of the times.
When we studied the American Revolution, I discussed the portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who immortalized the wealthy and powerful, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Jacob Astor, and King Louis XVI of France.
I asked my students why only famous people had their portraits painted. “Because the rich needed to show off their wealth?” a student asked. Simply by observing art works, students learned important lessons about the American Revolution.
I also used the works of the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez to deepen students’ understanding of history. Because Velázquez had a royal appointment, I told students, he was spared the censorship that was rampant during the Spanish Inquisition. As a result, he was able to paint what is now his only surviving female nude, La Venus del espejo, Venus at Her Mirror.
At the same time, many of his contemporaries were painting pictures depicting the auto-de-fé, the ritual public penance of condemned heretics that took place during the Inquisition. Through these graphic paintings, my students journeyed to the past and understood what the Spanish people were living through during this dark era.
These types of learning experiences are critical for our students and they continue today. Through an after-school program called Teen Thursdays, our middle school students are taking advantage of rich learning opportunities at the City’s premier cultural institutions, many focused on American history.
Some of you here tonight are participating in Teen Thursdays. I love that the program engages small groups of students in relaxed settings. It was delightful to see students at the Museum of the Moving Image, learning about film, or at the Weeksville Heritage Center, exploring the community. Visiting the African American village in Bedford-Stuyvesant brought alive what life was like for African Americans 100 years ago. Many of our students had never visited this neighborhood treasure.
Part of our mission is to share these experiences with families as well. Last week, I joined parents for two events at El Museo del Barrio. The vast majority of parents were of Hispanic descent and said they were thrilled to have the opportunity to learn about their own personal heritage.
The arts help us all understand our place in history.
If we are to keep cultural institutions alive and well as a repositories of our history, it’s important that we create future patrons. Throughout the centuries, most patrons have some from the elite classes. It’s time to focus on a more diverse community of patrons.
The fourth essential role of the arts is as a tool for democracy and responsible citizenship.
Like you, I’m thrilled to see tourists flock to New York City’s arts and cultural institutions. Through exhibitions and performances, they can see how we represent ourselves and judge our values. In my travels, I too visit cultural institutions and use what I observe as a starting point for understanding other cultures.
As with history and social studies, democracy can be taught through art. Analyzing Emanuel Leutze’s painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware or Winslow Homer’s battlefield scenes during the American Civil War can lead to rich discussions of what it means to fight for freedom.
Songs, too, are powerful ways to learn about our democracy. Robert Trentham’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” poignantly reveals how families on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line during the Civil War longed for the war’s end. “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, written in 1893, and still sung today, can stir anyone’s patriotism.
I encourage all teachers to use the arts to promote civic responsibility and awareness, and to teach students to care about themselves, their community, their country, and the world writ large.
The arts are not a frill. The arts are not an ancillary curriculum. The arts tell the world who we are as a people. They’re how we promote our values, beliefs, and responsible citizenship. Now, more than ever.
This leads me to the fifth essential role of the arts, and that is as a career choice.
We all know that New York City attracts some of the most talented and productive artists in the world. Brilliant musicians, painters, dancers, singers, actors, and directors all want to work here. We truly are a global hub for the arts and entertainment. But careers in the arts also include museum educators, curators, press and PR people, or stage technicians. The list goes on.
As a school system, we’re committed to inspiring, identifying, and developing the next generation of artists and arts professionals. We believe students will be better prepared for careers in the arts if we begin exposing them to these career options early.
Just like we’ve expanded pre-kindergarten to build a foundation for over 68,500 four-year-olds, we’re building a better arts foundation for our youngest learners.
Through the Studio in a School program, students in our pre-K programs are learning to create using clay, collage, paint, and wood construction. They’re exploring color, shape, texture, and size. Through art, they’re discovering a new language and way of interacting with the world. And the motor coordination a child develops while drawing or finger painting translates directly to classroom activities like handwriting.
Children are natural creators and can make more complex connections than many adults give them credit for. At a pre-K in the Bronx, four-year-olds produced amazingly graphic paintings on climate change. The symbolism of polar bears struggling to sit on a shrinking iceberg was far more powerful than words. Although written language eluded these children, they were communicating volumes through their art.
Through our Pre-K and the Arts pilot, we’ve trained over 1,100 teachers in at least one arts discipline over the past two years. As we expand this program over the next three years, more of our young learners can experience the transformative power of creation and play.
Pre-K art also serves as a very productive assessment tool. We can actually use children’s performance in the arts to gauge how they will do academically and target needed supports early.
Thanks to these and other partnerships, students at all grade levels are participating in incredible arts opportunities.
Middle school students in our Shubert/MTI Broadway Junior Musical Theater Program produce a one-hour musical culminating in a final sharing on a professional stage.
We’re also encouraging middle schools to partner with elementary schools to ensure that students have four-to-five continuous years of art experience. Honing their skills in at least one art form will give them the option of making that a career choice if they wish.
We’re delighted to participate in the Turnaround Arts program, led by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Through this program, we’ve brought talented guest artists like Edward Norton and Misty Copeland to four central Brooklyn middle schools.
Ten new high school campuses are now participating in our SING Program, in which students write, cast, rehearse, and perform in a musical variety show, and compete to win “best act.” I was in the audience as three Brooklyn high schools—Madison, Midwood, and Murrow—competed in a sing-off. Their performances made it clear that the arts can be as exciting and as competitive as any varsity sport. I’d like to see the best singers and dancers in every school get varsity medals.
In addition to special arts programs, we have many art-focused high schools that are among our most popular and rigorous. They include names I’m sure you’re familiar with, including Brooklyn High School of the Arts, Frank Sinatra School for the Arts, and LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
Of course, many well-known artists and entertainers have attended or graduated from our performing arts schools, including actors Al Pacino and Claire Danes, singers Alicia Keys and Liza Minnelli, fashion designer Marc Jacobs, and one of my former students, novelist Jonathan Lethem.
To ensure that our students have the knowledge and skills to achieve their potential in the 21st century, we have also infused the arts into many of our Career and Technical Education and STEM programs. We believe there is an important place for the arts in science, technology, engineering, and math. Both STEM and the arts begin with an idea and come to fruition through creative thinking, good design, technical skills, and a whole lot of perseverance.
We are helping our students use technology as a tool for creative expression and problem solving. Through Computer Science for All, one of our new Equity and Excellence initiatives, students can participate in hackathons and designathons, creating amazing digital posters and video games. In the classroom, Computer Science, STEM, and the arts can come together: just watch students incorporate animation design into a biology class and you’ll never view art or biology quite the same.
Most importantly, these students are gaining real-world skills that will serve them well in college and future careers.
The extraordinary programs our schools are creating don’t stop when school ends. Because we know that learning should continue, we created the Summer Arts Institute. This is a tuition-free, intensive arts program for public school students in grades 8–12. Students in the program work with educators, cultural organizations, and guest artists to build their portfolios or strengthen their audition skills. Our goal is to help them take their art to the next level, either in high school or college.
Summer Arts Institute was so successful that we expanded it and opened the Summer Audition Boot Camp to prepare middle school students for audition schools. This partnership with Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Studio in a School gives students who are on the cusp concrete audition portfolio supports.
The programs I’ve described barely scratch the surface of our offerings. But I hope they paint a picture of a school system committed to providing all students access to a great arts education and talented and passionate arts teachers.
This leads me back to you, the representatives of the City’s premier arts and cultural institutions here tonight.
For those of you already partnering with the Department of Education, we are grateful for your support. You help us bring essential arts education to our students and families, and I want to thank you for that.
Our students and families are your future artists, art goers and patrons. We need one another. So I encourage you to continue to support our arts initiatives. And if you don’t have a partnership with our schools, I welcome your collaboration.
Let us not forget that we live in a diverse City, a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups. A City where the privileged and underprivileged often live side by side. Unfortunately, not all members of our communities feel welcomed or represented in the art world.
We must do better, because every student and every family should speak the language of art.
Every student should know the joy of creating, designing, or performing for others.
So, let me end where I began: The arts are not an add-on or a frill. They play an essential role in our public schools.
We need you as our partners. With your support, we can provide New York City’s 1.1 million students with a transformative arts education—and ensure the widest possible audiences for your institutions.
Thank you. It has been an honor to engage with the greatest arts community in the world.