Raoul Dufy, Golfe Juan
Bekah S. McNeel

I was a lucky little girl. My grandmother brought me to The McNay Art Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and various other San Antonio cultural institutions. We saw the Nutcracker together. My mother, who is now an art teacher, shuttled me to ballet and piano lessons.  I attended schools, public and private, that offered arts education.

Usually that would be the preamble to “how I became an artist.” But it’s not.

Of course my life goal as a child was to live in the McNay. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It’s the story of how I became a patron and fan of the arts. I did not choose art, music or theater as an elective in high school; actually, I was a cheerleader. But I did seek out concerts, plays, and museums on the weekends.

My point here? Cultural literacy isn’t just for students who one day might become artists. Early exposure to the arts should be part of the core K-8 curriculum. It’s the only way to build a community that appreciates and supports the arts, which enrich all great cities.

I asked local cultural leaders to name the key ingredients in edifying the art community, and every one of them included education on their list. When the arts are part of life from an early age, they aren’t any more dispensable than family traditions or exercise.

One criterion on the Local Arts Index (LAI), created by Americans for the Arts, is membership in the four main professional associations supporting K-12 arts educators (Educational Theater Association, National Art Education Association, National Association for Music Education, and National Dance Education Organization).

This painting, “Dream Village,” hanging in the McNay sparked a life long love affair with artist Marc Chagall. I chased him all over the world. Photo courtesy of The McNay. (1929, Oil on canvas, Accession No. 1950.24)

The LAI measures the health of K-12 arts education based on the professionalism of arts educators. In a cross-county comparison, Maricopa County (Phoenix, AZ) is comparable to Bexar County in almost every criterion — except membership in national arts education organization. For every 100,000 people, Maricopa has 23.6. Bexar has 5.83.

It’s no secret that San Antonio faces huge challenges on the education front. San Antonio’s public schools experience high dropout rates and students struggling with low test scores year after year. When budget cuts go deep, arts programs are usually a casualty. While art is seen as ancillary or even distracting from core subjects like math and science, research shows how art can enhance learning in those areas.

School reform is another topic for another day, but creating avenues for children to interact with art is something that can be addressed now.

  • While the San Antonio Museum of Art makes field trips as painless for teachers and schools as possible (even going so far as to reimburse the district for the price of school bus transportation), SAMA education director Katie Erickson and her team appreciate the fact that not every teacher can make a field trip happen. The museum also offers “SAMA on the Go,” a program that brings docents and art into the classroom for interactive learning. Friday the Rivard Report will feature a more in-depth look at SAMA’s innovative educational initiatives.
  • The Oceanic Art gallery at SAMA is fascinating. It is like Where the Wild Things Are has come to life. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

    The Blue Star Contemporary Art Center hosts Family Day, an outreach initiative to encourage parents to expose kids to contemporary art. Participating families actually get to interact and collaborate with artists.

  • ArtPace’s Chalk It Up! program, which took over Houston Street on Oct. 13 this year, is another creative effort to engage children through family events where kids create hands-on street art.

The Blue Star’s Therese McDevitt was surveying the crowd on a busy First Friday and noticed a father who had brought his three young sons. As she watched, the boys visibly connected to the power of the art. Soon they were reading the artist statements, discussing technique with their dad, and wondering about the subject matter and processes involved. The father told McDevitt he thrilled in watching how art kindled curiosity and learning in his children.

I kept a postcard print of Raoul Dufy’s “Golfe Juan” in my journal as a kid because I liked the blue. Image courtesy of The McNay. (1927, Oil on Canvas, Accession No. 1950.38)

I grew from a lucky little girl into a lucky young lady. College and grad school took me to Los Angeles and London, two of the great cultural playgrounds of the West. I was a kid in a candy story, spending more of my time in museums, public gardens, art house cinemas and theaters than the university library.

By the time kids are in high school and college, their relationship to art is open to new possibilities. They become independent consumers. They are learning to create themselves, and to understand  the social benefits found in theaters, galleries, museums and cultural events.

Elizabeth Ward cut her industry teeth at Trinity University and the San Antonio Symphony. She went on to work for Americans for the Arts, the Pinkline Project, and is currently with the Denver Symphony.  She sees the collegiate student population of San Antonio as our greatest untapped resource.  She recalls her time in the Trinity “bubble” and wishes there had been more fluidity between the campus and other cultural institutions. Students are not collectors or donors, but they do contribute new  energy and they are fearless about challenging the status quo.

One of the many wonders of the Oceanic Art Room at SAMA. This one will stick to your imagination when you are about seven years old. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

During Ward’s time at Trinity, she played a large role in the birth of Momentum, the annual dance showcase that has overflowed the walls of the university in popularity, and become an example of students contributing to the artistic capital of the entire city.

For those who want to be artists, many get serious about craft by the time they reach high school. Blue Star’s educational initiatives intensify for high school students through their MOSAIC program, led by acclaimed muralist Alex Rubio. The goal of MOSAIC is to support young artists to venture into the professional art world by taking on actual commissions and bolstering their portfolio.

As a child, I would imagine adventures of all sorts taking place in the walls of The Majestic, under the starry sky. Still the best setting I know of for listening to classical music. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

It starts with getting students into galleries. Student discounts are a great incentive, but more can be done to create conduits between the schools and cultural institutions. The San Antonio Symphony, some time ago, began to rethink their marketing to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience.  Attic Rep, which has taken up residence at Trinity University, brings an immediate interface to students, and sparks awareness of further cultural offerings in the city.

Children ages 4-18 are more than just students.  They are future artists, patrons, and citizens who can be engaged outside the structure of schools. A vibrant cultural community aspires to universal arts education, and works to eliminate any cultural literacy gap among students from all corners of the city.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.Check out her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.