Art Works Blog

The Arts and Human Development

Chicago, Illinois

Arnold Aprill (3rd from l) with fellow presenters on the Youth and the Arts panel at the NEA/NHS convening: (from l-r) Researcher James Catterall, Sarah Cunningham, NEA; and Jonathan Herman, National Guild for Community Arts Education. Photo courtesy of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education

The convening The Arts and Human Development: Learning Across the Lifespan initiated an important new discussion between the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The presentations by researchers and program directors of arts and learning initiatives expanded our collective thinking about what we mean by health, what we mean by services, and what we mean by the concept of lifelong learning. They did this by presenting what emerged as a consistent set of practices and principles across a wide variety of programs for young children, programs for youth, and programs for older adults.

Rethinking Health: All of the presentations saw health as more than a medical condition. All the programs and research redefined health to include social health through active engagement with others through the arts, moving from a practice of service provision to a practice of capacity building. For instance, Helga and Tony Noice presented studies conducted out of Elmhurst College with older adults confronting Alzheimer’s disease, in which their medical condition was addressed through social engagement in theater activities. Acting returned to these Americans a sense of agency that they had lost as their memories faded.

Rethinking Services: All the presentations described programming that conceived of human services as more than service provision. The service populations not only received services, they were consistently engaged in arts participation as a way of providing services to others. Several presentations described inter-age work, in which “discarded” individuals (considered too young or too old to contribute to society) created performances and arts installations serving others, including a ninety-year-old dancer who became a lead performer in an inter-age dance troupe.

Rethinking Lifelong Learning: All the presentations described programming that not only provided participants with increasing opportunities to demonstrate knowledge through the arts, but to also generate new knowledge through the arts. Eleanor Brown presented research conducted out of West Chester University, in which high quality Head Start programs that infused the arts into their programming were compared to high quality Head Start programs that did not, with the arts-infused programs showing significant gains in learner readiness for school. The study found that the arts focus provided learners many more opportunities to demonstrate what they already knew, scaffolding further learning. The Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) discussed how youth participation in contemporary arts practice (composing, designing, choreographing, playwriting, on-line distance collaborations, inter-disciplinary work) connects learners to the cutting edge of contemporary innovation, preparing them for leadership in a changing world.

These initiatives also involved program participants as collaborators in research on the impact of the arts, moving from a practice of “research on” to a practice of “research with.” In school settings this included embedding professional development services for teachers into the ongoing practice of the arts programming. The presenters consistently demonstrated nuanced attention to issues of cultural relevance and an understanding of the arts as providing varied channels into experience, expression, cognition, and social engagement.

In conclusion, Mary Wright from the Conference Board presented studies on the business world’s perception and valuing of creative thinking and practice. The dilemma the study revealed is that the business world reports placing a high value on creativity, but is unclear about whether to invest resources in preparing workers to be creative. There is an implied impulse to rely on the public sector for the creative development of the American public, without a clear picture of how this investment in creativity will be resourced.

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