PBS: Next "Golden Age" Of Arts In America

CJ Westerberg, March 5, 2010 7:56 PM


Spearheaded By The Surge In New Media,
PBS Prez Announces "Major Online Initiative" 

"I believe we have an opportunity to usher in another golden age of arts in America. I think in part, it begins with new media. . ."

"Advocates point out that art education boosts students' cognitive development,
improves their confidence, and strengthens their problem solving skills.
Students with a strong background in the arts tend to have better grade point averages,
score better on reading and math tests, and have lower dropout rates.
              --- Paula A. Kerger, President & CEO, PBS
Paula A. Kerger, President and CEO of PBS, shared her thoughts about the importance of the arts in public education while outlining the disturbing realities and statistics of U.S. committment to the arts compared to other countries,  In a speech delivered to Town Hall Los Angeles, Kerger asks us to rise to the challenge of bringing the arts to a new golden age in America.

One of the ways to bring the arts to a more mainstream audience may be a surprise to some since it involves utilizing new media.

Another surprise revealed by Kercher is the stability of participation in the arts.  The percentage of Americans who went, at least once, to an art museum or gallery, a ballet, a classical music concert, a jazz performance, or a play, musical, or opera - - clocked in at 35%.  She reminded us that the Great Depression produced the jazz of Duke Ellington, the films of Orson Wells, and the lyrics of Cole Porter, and the Federal Theatre Project and the Public Works of Art project were funded through the New Deal programs.

  Below are some key excerpts of the Kercher presentation, Encore! Encore! Using Media to Revive the Arts!:

 . .  .The historian Eldritch Willem van Loon called the arts "an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in Congress."  The late great Beverly Sills put it even more succinctly. She said, "The arts are simply the signature of civilizations."

So, it's important to take time to consider the state of arts in America. I think it's a story that can best be told with three numbers: the first is 1 -- as in 1 percent, actually less than 1 percent to be more accurate. The National Endowment for the Arts, as you know, is one of the significant grant-making organizations across the country, and last fall, Congress increased the agency's budget by $12.5 million -- which is terrific, but it's less than 1 percent of total non-military federal spending.

Contrast this with industrialized nations which place a premium on the protection and promotion of their cultural health; the NEA's budget increase means the United States will spend about $165 million on the arts this year. This equates to 54 cents per citizen. In the UK, the government spends $900 million on the arts, or about $15 per person; and the French government spends more than $2 billion on the arts, or about $35 per person.

. . . The funding statistics are discouraging, so is what's happening in our schools. These days, the emphasis on public education is on raising math and reading scores. Now, these are essential skills for our kids' future, but too often the focus on test scores mean art and music are relegated to the sidelines.

So, here's the second number to remember when considering the state of arts in America: 20 -- as in 20 percent. This is roughly the percentage of school districts in the United States that have cut art and music classes in the era of No Child Left Behind.  Science, history, and cultural disciplines are also suffering.

As David recently told a Senate committee, public schools aren't just putting history classes on the back burner; they're taking them off the stove completely. This is heartbreaking, and I think this is also a huge issue for us as a country. I had the benefit of a great public school education where I grew up in Maryland. Art and music were an important part of my school experience, and I can't imagine how my own life would have been had I not had an early introduction to the arts in my home and in my classroom, and I'm sure many of you feel the same way.

Advocates point out that art education boosts students' cognitive development, improves their confidence, and strengthens their problem solving skills. Students with a strong background in the arts tend to have better grade point averages, score better on reading and math tests, and have lower dropout rates. Our kids need the arts. As a society, stifling creativity diminishes our spirit of innovation and reduces our economic productivity.

Make no mistake, there are economic implications to all of this. The nonprofit arts industry supports almost 6 million full-time jobs, or about the same number as the residence of my home state of Maryland -- our 19th largest state. Nonprofits arts also generate more than $165 billion in economic activity each year - including more than $100 billion in spending by arts audiences. It makes sense. . .

I for one am not surprised the arts have remained stable. After all, the decade that ended 12 days ago was one of the most turbulent in American history -- and if history teaches us anything, it's that the arts actually flourish when times are tough.

The Great Depression produced economic hardship, but it also produced the films of Orson Wells, the lyrics of Cole Porter, and the jazz of Duke Ellington. It's also worth knowing that much of the great art of the 30s and 40s was funded through New Deal programs, such as the Federal Theatre Project and the Public Works of Art project.

 I believe we have an opportunity to usher in another golden age of arts in America. I think in part, it begins with new media. The NEA survey also revealed that almost 50 million Americans watch or listen to music, dance, or theater online each week; 50 million people, or about 1 in 6 of all Americans. They're finding an amazing array of choices including digitized museum collections, clips, and full length performances from organizations across the country. To cite one example, the LA Opera site offers audio and video clips, podcasts and video clips from its YouTube channel.

At PBS, we want to help Americans deepen their online experience with the arts. That's why I'm so enthusiastic about our plans to launch a major online arts initiative in April.

The PBS Arts Showcase will offer several innovative features, including broadband video that will function as a 24 hour virtual performing arts venue. You'll be able to drop in whenever you'd like to experience art of all kinds, including ballet, opera, theater, and more. The Arts Showcase will also be interactive, allowing you to engage with established and emerging artists. You'll be able to come to the Showcase to create your own art, whether it's documentaries, virtual theater productions, multimedia projects, or something else.

In addition, we want to use the Arts Showcase to make the arts a more engaging experience. The Showcase will allow you to engage directly with artists as well as engage with other art enthusiasts from around the world. Beyond the online Arts Showcase, we also plan to significantly expand the presence of arts in our primetime lineup.

. . . I think many of us in this room remember a time when our choices on television included the performing arts on a regular basis - after all, Ed Sullivan had a range of artists that he profiled --- everyone from Elvis and the Beatles, but also ballet dancers and opera singers and Broadway acts. I can remember, myself, Richard Kiley singing "Impossible Dream" from Man of LaMancha on Ed's show.

Over the years, PBS has worked hard to keep the flame alive on television, but to be candid, I think over the last years, we haven't done as good of a job as we could. I think we can do more. I want to continue cultivating new programs for our audiences, like "From the Top", which is a weekly showcase of young musicians. Last year, by the way, we won one of the Emmys that Jon cited, for best children's series. We'll also continue to offer signature series such as "Great Performances" and "Live from Lincoln Center", and we'll continue to offer special programming like our recent "Latin Music USA" series that aired in the fall, as well as forthcoming specials as "In Performance at the White House", a concert on the music from the Civil Rights era that will air on February 11th, and a program we'll be bringing to the Television Critic's Association tomorrow - Patrick Stewart's performance as Macbeth, which will air on public television on April 28th. Together, television and the internet will allow us to expose more Americans to the beauty and the power of the arts.

So, whether you live in Southern California or South Carolina, you don't have to leave home to visit Lincoln Center in New York, or to come to LA to see Disney Hall. It's a two-way street. I want to bring the arts from communities around the country - whether it's experimental theater here in LA or a poetry slam in Detroit - to audiences across the United States.

Indeed, providing a forum for emerging artists I think is vitally important. To cite one example, in my new hometown of Washington DC, we have Arena Stage which is in the process of reinventing itself and building not only a new theater, but creating what they are referring to as a cradle for plays and playwrights and new American voices, through their American Voices New Play Institute. We're working with Arena to showcase some of the work that is going to come out of this project, and I'm so pleased to be able to have the opportunity to bring that work to a national audience and give more exposure to that emerging talent.

American theater is producing exciting new voices around the country so I think it's important we think about whatever we're developing to look for ways to bring those stories to a wide audience. It all comes back to a core component of our mission which is using art to help Americans broaden their horizons. Indeed, I know what a difference we make. I experienced it myself. I grew up in Baltimore where my grandfather had founded a public radio station on the campus of the junior college where he taught. It's a classical music station, one of the few remaining 24-hour classical music stations in the country. The first opera that I ever heard, I heard on my grandfather's station. I remember watching dance as a little girl on PBS. For me, public broadcasting, both public television and public radio opened new worlds to me. For me, "Great Performances" and "Live from Lincoln Center" were an important part of my life before it became part of my profession, and I know I'm not alone. I get emails and letters and tweets from grateful people telling me how thankful they are for the arts programming that we bring to them.

Of course, the arts are just one way we're helping Americans broaden their perspectives and ignite their creativity. We're also focusing a lot of effort and attention on the work we do for children -- building upon the success of "Sesame Street" with a new generation of shows that help Americans exercise their minds.

Speaking of Emmys, "Sesame Street", by the way - a little trivia fact - has won more Emmys than any program in television history, and we're very proud of that accomplishment, but we're not sitting back with our pride, we're leaning forward and trying to look for ways to develop new programs that engage children's minds.

We're working closely with teachers to develop educational applications for technology to help them use video in the classroom and to access that video online and really engage their kids and bring lesson plans to life. Just last week, my colleagues were proud to be part of an event at the White House where President Obama announced a new program to honor America's most innovative teachers.
PBS is continuing to use journalism to engage Americans, and I think as we look forward, giving individuals in our country the information that they need to be better citizens is such a profoundly important part of our mission.

So, we're looking to do more in that area. We have reinvented our signature programs, such as the PBS "News Hour" and "Nightly Business Report", and we're adding new programs to our lineup. We're also working to bring new voices into public broadcasting. I'm very enthusiastic about the work that Tavis Smiley has brought to us and we're looking forward to working with him on a new series of primetime specials that are coming to us from our good friends at KCET. Each edition will examine a defining moment in American history through the eyes of the people who lived through them.

Our work in education and journalism, like the work that we do in the arts, allows us to help Americans achieve their full potential -- at least that's what I hope. Ultimately, our goal is to empower citizens of every age and from every walk of life and to help them to be more -- to be more informed, to be more creative, to be more curious.

While education and journalism are important parts of our strategy, it's the arts that I think give us the opportunity to make the biggest contribution to American life. As federal and state support for the arts decline, I think it is up to PBS and our member stations to keep Americans connected to the arts. It's also up to each one of us to ensure that the arts aren't left behind in public education. If our youngest Americans can't learn about Debussy, Degas, and Los Angeles' own Gustavo Dudamel in the classroom -- by the way we were very proud to broadcast his first concert in his new home -- then let's make it possible for them to come to PBS to experience their work.

At the beginning of my presentation, I promised I'd end with a challenge for each of you, so here it is: help us. Help us encourage the legislators on both Capitol Hill and Sacramento to keep funding the arts. Help us encourage them to restore arts and music classes in our schools. . . .

When you volunteer with a local arts group or any service organization, you not only help support the arts, you also honor one of the great traditions upon which America was built, and that is the spirit of volunteerism. Above all, just participate in the arts: visit a museum, see a show, attend a performance.

 When we work together, there is no limit to what we can achieve. We can usher in a great golden age of the arts here in the United States, one that inspires Americans of all ages and helps each one of us to be more . . ."

The full script in its entirety plus Q&A PBS.Kerger for distribution.pdf.

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It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
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