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With Schools' Budgets Tight, Arts Groups Should Step It Up

October 15, 2009

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    October 15, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

With Schools' Budgets Tight, Arts Groups Should Step It Up

Each year, Opera Carolina performs for tens of thousands of students throughout the Carolinas and northern Georgia, including half the elementary schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. With the financial challenges facing CMS, the traditional funding model by which groups such as the Opera provide arts programs to students has broken down so much that this year, students in our own school district may not have the opportunities given to students outside Mecklenburg County.

The good news is that, thanks to special funding we received from the Wachovia/Wells Fargo Foundation - in addition to support our education department receives from Bank of America, the ASC and the National Endowment for the Arts - Opera Carolina's in-school program Opera Express will continue this year in CMS.

The challenges our school district is facing has prompted us to re-examine the role we can and should play in supporting educators' efforts and to re-examine the funding model for those programs.

It is no secret that modern audiences' appetite for classical art, in all its forms, has decreased even among groups that traditionally attended and supported it. We may ask why this is. After all, Beethoven's symphonies have not changed; but our society has.

Since the 1950s, each generation has been exposed to less classical art than the preceding generation. With the 1960s cultural revolution and the explosion of the entertainment business, the change in our culture has accelerated to the point that today; our references to classical art are so few that it is irrelevant to the majority of citizens.

Organizations that produce classical art have not only a philosophical imperative to offer educational programs that enrich the opportunities of students, but a business imperative as well. The literature continues to accumulate documenting that arts curriculum enhances learning. From a business standpoint, such programming may, over the long-term, create a new generation of consumers for classical art.

Just as any for-profit business must cultivate new consumers, we cannot rely solely on the schools and the prevailing culture to create new customers for us. We are the ones who advocate the positive role the arts play in our community and schools. We are the ones who have a vested interest in realizing the goal of an intellectually engaged, enlightened populace. We are the ones who have the responsibility to transform the community through our artistic activity. Is it not also our responsibility to find ways to at least partially pay for these programs?

Some will say arts organizations raising money to replace payments from schools simply lets the school district and the community at large off the hook. Perhaps. But just as parent groups support organized sports to ensure these activities continue in the face of budget cuts, so too must the arts community step forward and support a vibrant arts scene for young people, and create a funding model that lets those programs have impact and be accessible to all.

The other option may be no Mozart in elementary schools. That should not be acceptable to any citizen.

By James Meena, general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina

To read the original article, visit the Charlotte Observer.