Editor’s note: This article is the final installment of a three-part series examining the issue of exposing children to the arts and what’s being done to provide both arts education in the schools and opportunity for arts experiences for children and families.
Marilyn Whitchurch, an American Fork mother of three kids ages 11, 14 and 16, loves taking her family to artistic events and exhibits. When it comes to rounding up the entire family, she feels they aren’t without options.
“There’s more than you can possibly take advantage of, actually,” she said. “There’s a lot of good variety.”
Margaret Hunt, director of Utah Arts and Museums, thinks that the reason arts organizations so often target families is a no-brainer: Utah has large families.
“Trying to take a large family to an arts event can be maybe a little daunting in terms of what that cost might be,” she said. Whitchurch admitted that her family doesn’t get to go to arts events as much as they’d like to.
“It’s the money thing,” she said.
And Utah arts groups are not oblivious to this fact.
“I think our arts organizations are really conscientious and aware of the need to make their programs accessible,” Hunt said. “I think there’s just a strong sense of responsibility there.”
Lynne Larson, education director at Repertory Dance Theatre, fired off a number of educational, family-targeted events and performance deals.
“We’re trying to make it affordable enough that people can come and bring their kids and have an artistic experience, but yet not spend a hundred dollars,” she said.
Venues strive to offer family events not only in terms of cost, but also in age-appropriate appeal and programming.
“There are a lot of families who would like to introduce their children to concert-going and to classical music, but they might not feel their children are ready for a two-hour-long concert It might just be too broad a leap between kid entertainment and adult entertainment,” said Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach with Utah Symphony-Utah Opera. “We just try to fill in that gap. We see a need and a desire from parents for that type of programming.”
Vanessa Ballam, education director and performer at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, said that whenever they plan each season, the artistic staff asks themselves, “Is this something that will speak to our community?” The Utah community, she said, so happens to be a very family-oriented one, so they try to supply performances and programs accordingly.
The examples of such programming are seemingly endless.
Repertory Dance Theatre offers a monthly “Ring Around the Rose” series performance from September to May. They call their programs “wiggle-friendly,” and the cost is no more than $5. The Utah Symphony offers multiple concerts throughout the season either as part of its family series or “lollipops” series, which is geared toward children ages 5 through 12 and costs no more than $10.
The Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Springville Museum of Arts offer similar monthly family day or family night events that are free. Ballet West recently finished its 2011 run of “The Nutcracker,” which was recommended for anyone ages 3 and up, and hosted Sugar Plum Parties for children at a reasonable cost after every matinee. Hale Centre Theatre bills itself as “Utah’s Premiere Family Theatre,” and Desert Star as “Utah’s Funniest Family Theater.” And it’s not too hard to find some kind of family package deal just about anywhere.
Hunt suggested NowPlayingUtah.com, which has a whole “Kids and Families” category, as an excellent go-to source for any artistic or cultural happening in the state.
“If you go in there and just look through it, you’ll see that there’s quite a bit offered that is affordable and accessible for people from large families to people that are low income,” she said.
If parents simply take the time to look, they’ll find plenty of options for artistic endeavors for their families.
But persuading the kids to go may be a different story.
In a culture and arts survey as part of a group of studies run by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance in 2008, researchers found that nationally, mainstream Hollywood movies enjoyed an 81 percent attendance rate. Operas came at the bottom of the list with a 16 percent national attendance rate.
Which would your child more likely choose: the latest installment in the "Twilight Saga" or a performance of “Don Giovanni”?
Enter arts education programs — from outreach programs to field trips to school curriculum — with the goal of exposing as many children as possible to the arts so that an interest might be sparked.
“I wish every child could have a chance to hear our music or participate in the arts at any age,” said Beverly Hawkins, symphony education manager with USUO. The Utah Symphony in particular works hard to reach thousands of students each year, whether through visits to schools or the much-loved tradition of fifth-grade field trips to a performance at Abravanel Hall.
“Our hope of course is that the students go home and, when they’re having dinner with their families that night, can’t wait to tell about what they just heard,” Hawkins said.
Ballam discussed the effect of UFOMT’s outreach programs on families.
“I know for a fact that many of these students that are in the Opera By Children program share a lot of what they learn in the classroom with their family members,” she said, talking about how many children go home and teach their families songs they learned while working on their opera. The program also offers the students free tickets for UFOMT performances, and Ballam said they see some attend the performances with parents and family.
Education programs can help parents get their kids excited about the arts, but educators and arts professionals cannot be left to shoulder the entire responsibility of teaching children about art.
According to a 2008 national study of arts participation conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, one in three adults, or 32.8 percent, with children ages 5 to 17 said their child attended some kind of dance, dramatic or musical performance outside of school. The study cast that as a positive thing — but it also indicates that two-thirds of parents reported their children did not have arts experiences outside of school.
Families, Hawkins said, are “the beginning and the ending point of whatever happens in the schools,” arts included.
“Each of (the students’) families are going to be pursuing different things at different times ... but it’s that family that is starting and saying, ‘There is this whole community of opportunity out there.'” The symphony’s job, she said, is to simply help kids — and help parents help their kids — explore one of many options.
“Personally, I think all teaching begins in the home,” said Rachel Stratford, outreach coordinator for the Springville Museum of Art. She attributed her mother’s love of art and promotion of it in their home as one of the reasons she grew to love it herself. She could still recall details like a Monet painting hanging in the bathroom of her childhood home.
Hunt fondly recalled having first heard Tchaikovsky’s music from “The Nutcracker” on a turntable in the basement of her parents’ home when she was only 3 or 4 years old. It's true, she said, that parents play an important role in exposing children to the arts.
Hunt discussed the overall sense of community that’s created by participation in the arts. She described it as “symbiotic” — a culture of togetherness that Utah residents take from and add to.
“I think when you experience the arts with people — especially with family — those are the things you remember for the rest of your lives.”