Connecting art to kids… Center for the Arts all in: Part 2

Leveraging learning and performances 

By Mark Reaman

(In this two-part series we look at how the community is working to expose local children to the artistic world. Part 2 focuses on how visiting artists interact with the Center and the local students.)

Many of the artists that come to Crested Butte understand the importance of exposing kids to their art. It’s not just about the performance. Many of the performers incorporate formal outreach programs geared specifically to kids and when deciding whom to book for the Center, that element is part of the decision-making process.

“We most often work with artists who already have an education and outreach portion to what they do,” explained Center for the Arts co-executive director Melissa Mason. “It’s often a piece of why we choose them to perform or present here. So, the Center brings in an artist for a Center production or presentation and asks them to stay on an extra day or longer to share what they do educationally with our kiddos or the larger community. That is a huge bang for the buck for our community as the major costs of bringing in such talent are already covered by the scheduled Center production/presentation (like travel, artist fees, lodging, etc.). 

“In the case of Opera Colorado, we’re talking thousands of dollars in fees that are already covered by their show, so to add on the educational portion with the school only costs $500,” continued Mason, citing a recent example. “This is the piece that is the true beauty to what we are doing. To bring these artists just to go into the school would likely be cost prohibitive—and definitely cost prohibitive if you add up the volume of opportunities we provide a year at these lower rates, were we to pay ‘full’ price for all of them. But when these artists are already traveling here, performing here, and lodged here, the financial lift is much more attainable.”

Opera, ballet, drumming and dance opportunities

“Annually, we reach more than 45,000 students and adult learners across diverse communities from the very remote to those in our backyard. We provide robust scholarship opportunities to ensure our programs are accessible,” said Opera Colorado manager of education and community engagement, Kassandra Mestemaker. 

“We have found that even the youngest of audiences (two-years-old+) are attentive, transfixed and engaged the entire time,” said Mestemaker. “For many, opera is a visceral, physical experience, with young listeners laughing in surprise, holding their ears during high notes and rubbing their arms with goosebumps. They often have lots of questions after a performance about everything from the set and costumes, to the artist’s practice schedule, to physical science behind operatic singing.”

Kaya Wolsey of DanceAspen said that early exposure is critical for kids. “It is paramount for DanceAspen to engage with young students,” she said. “This aspect of our organization is fundamental and integral to our mission, one that we aim to continually expand as the company evolves. We firmly believe that cultivating a love for the arts and performing arts begins at a young age. Moreover, we are dedicated to providing access to high caliber performing arts experiences to students who may not otherwise have such opportunities.”

Mestemaker said opera is just one avenue for cultivating appreciation and support for the arts. “Arts education is paramount for teaching students adaptability, creativity, innovation, collaboration, time-management and organization,” she said. “These are skills employers ask for and make hiring decisions based upon. Opera is a hugely collaborative endeavor with professionals in stagecraft, AV, tech, costumes, wigs, makeup, admin, security, marketing, music, orchestra and production (to name a few) all working together to pull off a grand spectacle. Exposure to opera at a young age can open a world of new professions and skillsets that students otherwise may not be introduced to.”

Angie Carroll with the Kissidugu Foundation agrees with that sentiment. “We believe that the next generation is our greatest asset and working with youth is the most important part of the Kissidugu Foundation,” she said. “The purpose and passion behind the nonprofit are to bring cultural arts enrichment and supplement movement and music programs into schools while simultaneously sustaining a school of music, dance and education in Guinea, West Africa, where there are no consistent educational opportunities for youth or educators. Our programs not only offer great music and movement experience for kids, but also give rural kids a chance to gain global awareness, work with educators of color and connect with the kids at the school in Guinea.”

Part of the consideration the Center has when booking performers is which artists have experience working with students. “As a former teacher myself, it is essential to me that we work with people who know kids,” Mason emphasized. “Just simply asking an artist to go into the school, without training, background, or a supported program, is risky. Presenting to kids is its own kind of art form, and we want to get it right. I wouldn’t ask just any artist to create a program for kids. I want to know that they know teaching and children, or someone connected to the program design does. If that’s in place then it’s super easy to work with these folks, as we can relax knowing it’s a good use of curriculum and school time.” 

Wolsey said the Center has been a great partner when it comes to coordinating with students. “The Center was instrumental in facilitating our outreach efforts in Crested Butte. When planning our tour, they prioritized coordinating opportunities for us to engage with local students,” she said. “This proactive approach was immensely beneficial, as it allowed us to seamlessly integrate our outreach activities into our tour schedule. The Center’s support and coordination ensured that our programs were accessible and appealing to students, further enhancing our impact within the community.”

Carroll said the Kissidugu Foundation has worked with the local kids long enough that they have several levels of classes. “We generally collaborate with schools to be able to provide the greatest reach and most access to a wide population of kids,” said Carroll. “Through classes, residencies and assemblies, we work on a variety of levels to bring the opportunity to work with, and experience, the visiting guest African artist educators to as many youths as possible.  We are on the fourth year at CBCS of a project-based learning curriculum called the Guinea Project, where we work with the second grade, starting with an informative slide show presentation, then a few weeks of kids doing research and work in their classrooms and specials classes, and culminating with a two-week residency working with artists and having a public presentation of work. 

“We also will be doing a weeklong residency with the high school jazz band this year,” Carroll continued. “And in the past have worked in middle and high school with music and hip-hop units. We provide full school interactive and educational assemblies that offer valuable cultural exchange opportunities and have done these for the entire CB and Gunnison elementary schools. We also work within music, physical education and other classrooms.  We offer youth camps to give kids a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the African Arts and a further opportunity to connect into their individual talents in movement, music, and creativity.”

Funding is a challenge

Mason said the Center staff and board of directors are all behind the outreach efforts. While they have always found a way to make those programs happen, figuring out how to keep funding them is a yearly struggle.

“In some years we had have private donors who anonymously underwrote all of these programs. In other years, a grant came through,” she explained. “Sometimes the Center found a way to just write the check, because we felt something was that important and our budget could support it at the time. But now, we are actively looking for more secure, long-term funding as we want to be as consistent as possible. Unfortunately, in this school year, we had to cut out support for a few of the after school clubs we have underwritten in previous years. We have several bigger grants we are writing right now, and if awarded them, we will be in great shape for next school year, but they aren’t definite. We have discussed launching an ‘Arts Education Fund’ here at the Center but that is something for the future.”

Mason said the programs fill in missing pieces not available in a small rural community. “We are honored to bolster the arts efforts at the school, which due to our low population density, is not able to offer certain arts experiences like choir, orchestra, or theater programs. And with an amenity like the Center’s Steddy Theater, students in our rural area can participate in arts experiences right here at home that they would normally have to travel large distances for, so it’s important that we capitalize upon that opportunity as often as possible,” concluded Mason. 

Jill VanTiel of the CB community school enrichment program echoed that sentiment. “We deeply value our ongoing collaborations with the Center for the Arts,” she said. “Together, we’ve been able to provide well-rounded educational experiences for all students and combat the limitations of rural education in these fields.”

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