Invigorate Your Practice and Advocate Through Exhibitions

Posted by Chris Sykora, Mar 15, 2017

I am humbled and honored to be among my peers on a daily basis, since being an art educator is one of the greatest jobs on the planet. Along with the perks, though, come the constant frustrations of continued marginalization. Against the overwhelming evidence and support from educational scholars, the arts are still considered “special” or “a nicety” or, worst of all, “expendable.” Art teachers experience the difference that arts make in student lives every day. Yet we struggle to convince parents and administrators of the important links between art and brain development, life skills, and the economy.

This is the story of education in America—of the teachers making a difference, but struggling to garner support for their programs. This is also a story of advocacy through exhibitions, a refreshing and intrinsic solution that connects students and learning communities through celebration.

In an environment of consistent marginalization, art teachers continually fight for their district programs. We try to exhibit our students’ work as much as possible, function as college counselors (because conventional counselors are generally not art school savvy), keep our studios open late so that students can work, and deliver personal assessment that drives cognition on a daily basis. In the end, we get to change students’ lives in extraordinarily positive ways through the act of making art. At every moment, I am aware of how lucky I am to be a part of it all.

I am also reminded every day of the status the arts hold within our educational systems. This condition asks all art teachers to also be advocates. Many have answered the call, engaging with their local administrators, local legislators, and state boards of education. Many have exercised their civic muscles in the hope of changing the direction of conventional policies of budget-focused fears. It’s a heavy burden, and these actions often fail to produce results.

How do we speak to people who have never taken part in art education? If someone has not experienced the arts personally or effectively, words may not be able to explain their value. In order to speak constructively with opponents, we must provide an environment that cultivates the sharing of ideas. It just so happens that art exhibitions are the perfect venue for advocacy discussions. Art communicates in unique and non-literal ways, which facilitates an openness that allows people to form their own conclusions. Exhibitions provide opportunities to talk about curricular impacts through the work on display. Audiences can connect artwork with student educational experiences in direct and empathetic ways. And most importantly, exhibitions easily unite advocacy for art programs with advocacy for the most powerful evidence we have: the students themselves.

Think for a moment about state championships in any sport and the legitimacy these events produce for athletic programs. What if we could apply that to art, while taking it even further? A group of teachers decided to attempt it by creating the Illinois High School Art Exhibition. Envisioned as a monumental art experience for high schoolers, the IHSAE exposes and celebrates the mastery and extensive growth of our students while connecting them to opportunities previously untapped.

I co-founded the IHSAE and I have seen the show change students’ lives in profound ways. Through partnerships with colleges and universities in 2016, the IHSAE provided nearly $30 million in tuition scholarship offers to more than 150 seniors, and more than $100,000 in Early College Program Scholarships to underclassmen. The environment was ripe for such connections. We have recognized thousands of students with exhibition opportunities and monetary awards, and we regularly invite influential people to witness the event. Illinois Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti (an opponent of art education requirements) was a recent keynote speaker at an opening. We had 3,500 people in attendance for that exhibition, which showcased more than 600 of the highest quality student artists that Illinois had to offer. Imagine education leaders, state legislators, and parents walking into a professional gallery event, witnessing the tremendous awards being offered, viewing the mastery and beauty executed by these students, and feeling the power that the arts provide in building lives and educational experiences. This is the venue for advocacy discussions.

About a month after the 2016 exhibition, I had an advocacy meeting with Illinois Senator Robert Pritchard. The discussion was not going well, as he was very focused on the lack of budget and space for arts in schools. But when I mentioned the success of the IHSAE, and the $20 million in scholarships offered to our students the prior year, he became interested in what I had to say. He suggested if we could reproduce those numbers again, we could make a strong argument for the arts being a necessity. I told him we not only repeated our success, but increased scholarship offers to $30 million. Sen. Pritchard was recently added to an important committee that will work on education funding in Illinois. Meanwhile, the IHSAE has gone on to make crucial connections to other organizations such as the Illinois Association of School Boards. We’ll be exhibiting student art and presenting at their convention in November. These advocacy opportunities, and more, were made possible because of the exhibition.

Exposure leads to connection and understanding. We can bring our administrators, legislators, and communities together through exhibiting and recognizing student achievement. Instead of focusing solely on political action, we need to prevent teacher burn-out and let our students’ stories, as evidenced in their artwork, advocate for new solutions.