Arts and Education

Autumn in Atlantic Canada is sheer splendour; the brisk fall air and the changing colour of the leaves bring an end to the carefree days of summer and another revolution in the life cycle. For many, it signals a return to their studies.

But with the region’s education sector undergoing a fiscal and demographic transformation, campuses across the East Coast are taking on a new, streamlined look as academic administrations seek to cut operating costs from already-dwindling budgets.

“Sadly, the arts curriculums are usually the first to go,” says Simon Brault of the Canada Arts Council. “From kindergarten through to university, budget cuts mean less teachers, classes and supplies - and that impedes development.”

Still, Brault – whose seminal book No Culture, No Future is required reading for those interested in better understanding the impact of creativity upon society - feels that the arts are still a viable career option for those with a vocation.

“And,” he notes, “as it is with any other profession, a formal education can go a long way towards securing a future in that field of study.”

"Kevin" is in his third year of schooling at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax. A native of Kingston, Ontario, he opted for a career in the arts upon his mother’s advice.

“She told me to follow my dreams,” recalls the 22 year-old. “Painting is my true passion, and there is nothing else that I want to do professionally.”

He says that his eye for aesthetics has been well-nurtured by his instructors.

“They have given me enough guidance to help me hone my natural abilities, and enough freedom to allow me to find my own voice. It’s a fine-line to walk for both of us, but I’m cool with the way I that I’m developing as a visual artist here and I’m stoked about my opportunities after I’m done.”

Sean graduated from Memorial University’s School of Music program two years ago. The 23 year-old multi-instrumentalist says that having his degree has opened many doors.

“People in this industry take you a lot more seriously with that little piece of paper,” he concedes over the phone from his home in St. John’s. “I get calls for studio work and live gigs all of the time – and it’s all because I can read and write music notation.

“And this winter I’m taking off for six weeks to play on a Caribbean cruise.”

While Sean is managing to make ends meet in the creative marketplace, others aren’t yet as fortunate.

“I haven’t been published yet,” confides Marianne, who studied English and Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

“I have written a novel and a book of short-stories,” continues the 28 year-old, who works for a local transportation firm to support her artistic endeavours. “I’ve shopped them around to publishers, but the industry is changing so much that it’s hard to know where to turn.”

Part of the problem, she concedes, is that the arts have become marginalized in our society.

“When someone asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them that I am a writer, their usual reply is, oh yeah, how’s that working out for you?”

Joy, a graduate of Holland College’s Culinary Arts program in PEI, has had similar issues.

“Up until recently, most people didn’t see cooking as an art form,” she shares via email from Charlottetown, where she now works full-time as a sous-chef. “But a lot goes into the preparation of food; the mixing of elements, seasoning, timing, service and presentation.”

She points to the growing popularity of food-media for the recent changes in perception.

“There are lots of books, websites and television shows out there now, all dealing with the art of cuisine. And someone like (PEI chef-extraordinaire) Michael Smith has given greater legitimacy and credibility to what we do as a profession. People are starting to understand that this is serious business that requires formal training and education.”

Training and education are hot topics for Dr. Laura Penny, a professor of Humanities at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. As the controversial author of More Money Than Brains - a scathing expose of the North American school system - Penny is concerned over what she sees transpiring in the country’s classrooms.

“The way our economic model is set up is no longer conducive to a well-rounded education,” she says with a sneer. “We have jobs to fill, and so what we are seeing now is more like training – students are encouraged to zero in on one skill set for a particular career instead of learning how to love learning.”

The result, she expounds, is a lesser society.

“Studying the arts makes us better informed of both ourselves and the world around us. We become critical thinkers, see the world differently, and make healthier choices for ourselves and our communities. When we marginalize the arts in our education system, we are actually harming ourselves as a species.”

Donald J. Savoie agrees.

“Self-expression is good for the spirit of both an individual and for our society as a whole,” argues the well-respected, albeit highly-outspoken political scientist and professor at the Universite de Moncton.

A self-professed “cynical pragmatist”, Savoie sits as the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance. His controversial 2010 book Power: Where Is It? explores the slow, sure transition of political will in Canada from the hands of everyday citizens to the corporate boardrooms.

“There is a reason why we see lesser arts funding to our schools than with other disciplines,” he notes. “Mostly it is because our politicians and business leaders have no understanding or vision as to its importance to our overall well-being, including our economic prosperity.”

The case for greater arts investment, including within the core curriculum of our schools, was first brought to mass-attention by American urban studies theorist Richard Florida in his bestselling 2002 treatise The Rise of the Creative Class.

In the book, Florida details how economies of the future will depend heavily on their communities having a vibrant arts and culture sector. With a large percentage of the population – baby-boomers - set to retire or downsize their professional lives over the coming decade, the world-wide battle to attract and retain top-level talent in the workforce is heating up - the key factors of which are lifestyle, arts and culture.

“This is also true in Atlantic Canada,” echoes Ramona Jennex, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education. “The arts sector is quickly becoming a key pillar of prosperity here.”

A former school teacher with over 30 years of experience in the classroom, Jennex knows how important the role of arts is in the life of young people.

“It all starts with crayons, scissors and construction paper right?” she laughs, “and then the sky’s the limit – anything can happen once you ignite the imagination.”

Despite all of the hoopla surrounding the recent restructuring of the province’s education sector, Jennex and her peers have a variety of strategies and agendas in place to ensure that art education receives the proper attention and support it deserves.

“There are scholarships, grants and loans available to those seeking a professional life in the arts, as well as a number of mentorship initiatives underway, including the various painters and writers in the schools programs and our ArtsSmarts partnership with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.”

Ultimately, however, Simon Brault believes that art education will flourish with popular will.

“The power is in the hands of the people; if the demand is there, then so will be the supply. But this is more than just merely about money. There’s no question that is a key component in the equation, but what of the many intangible benefits of a thriving arts sector; the identity and personality of our population? The colour and the flavour of our days? The spice and seasoning of our lives?

“The soul of our citizenry is nurtured in the classrooms.”

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