In my opinion: Time to face the music

February 8, 2011
Haley Simons

As a 7,000-strong advocacy group from Calgary asserts, the fine arts programs in our schools are in jeopardy.

The SOFA (Save Our Fine Arts) advocacy group was established in response to the Alberta Education curriculum framework draft document released in September 2009 and its potential negative effects on fine arts education.

On January 25, SOFA and Education Minister Dave ­Hancock met publically in Calgary to discuss the future of fine arts education. More than 650 people attended the meeting at Central Memorial High School.

Minister Hancock’s opening remarks, made just hours after the announced resignation of Premier Ed Stelmach, garnered applause when he stated he was looking forward to the evening’s discussion as a departure from the usual “art of politics to the politics of art.” He challenged SOFA to consider changing its acronym to signify “Support” Our Fine Arts—a change that Bill Campbell, SOFA’s cochair, wasn’t eager to accept.

The speakers were Minister Hancock, two arts educators, two head administrators from Calgary’s school boards and Sam Gregory, a student representative and SOFA cofounder. 

Dr. Malcolm Edwards, a retired professor of music at the University of Calgary, made a poignant declaration about the potent role that the arts play in society. Fay Kerwood, former principal of Monterey Park Elementary School, presented compelling evidence of the positive influence of a comprehensive arts curriculum, and Sam Gregory spoke about the myriad life skills he has gained through his fine arts studies.

Despite the harmonious love-in over the value of arts in education, some red flags were raised. The phrase “exposure to the arts” was conspicuous and frequent and sounded ominous, like being “exposed” to a deadly virus. (I’ve never heard reference to any such perilous exposure to math, for instance). The arts sounded like something to guard against.

References such as these underscore an implied separatism and elitism that has been the hallmark of a dated system. Academic subjects reign supreme whereas the arts, traditionally seen as frills or worse, are considered a waste of time and left to fight for their lives. 

Although everyone agreed that the arts are important and worthwhile, no one actually came out and said to what extent they were valuable. And this should be a major concern for the advocacy group, because fine arts classes continue to function within such an either/or hierarchy of subjects and are susceptible to the whims of educational policy and budget constraints; in short, “money talks, art walks.”

I’m concerned that no matter how many voices are raised in unison, no matter how many trumpets sound the alarm, no matter how strong the arm of arts advocacy becomes, this same arm is still vulnerable to being severed. Death by a thousand cuts may very well be dealt in a single blow.

Until we actually see concrete plans for comprehensive implementation of this undeniably vital component of education throughout our school districts and the dollar commitment to back it up, I’m with Bill Campbell—best keep the acronym as is.

Haley Simons is a classically trained pianist by profession and the cofounder of Creative Alberta, an organization whose mandate is to encourage and support creativity as an essential component of education and society. Simons is interested in the arts and how they harmonize with our most creative impulses.