Arts education is a bigger deal than you think

Jim Eaglesmith & Mark Vollmer recording their video from inside the train car in Victorian Square in Sparks, NV - photo: courtesy of Sierra Arts

Behind a new series of arts education videos for kids, advocates are trying to solve a wide-reaching problem.

What happens when a child memorizes a song about Ruth Bader Ginsburg in social studies? Or learns a dance about the lifecycle of a plant in science class?

“Children are not able only to recite them at Friday’s test, but able to recall them years and years later,” said Tracey Oliver, Executive Director of Sierra Arts. This kind of instruction is called “arts integration.” It involves teaching traditional school subjects (and meeting the state’s existing curriculum standards) using visual and performing arts. And it’s one form of art instruction that Oliver would like to see more of in Washoe County public schools—along with classes in painting, drawing, music, and drama.

Tia Flores, Sierra Arts’ Program Director—who grew up in Las Vegas in the 1960s and ‘70s, in a single-parent household with no budget for extracurriculars, and is grateful for the art instruction she received at Ronzone Elementary—said she’s never heard a school administrator say they didn’t want arts in their school. “All of them see value in the arts,” she said. But not all schools in the region have it.

Among the reasons for that are lackluster budgets, high staff turnover, and already-overworked teachers. There’s also some bureaucratic history: In the 1980s, the state offered school districts a choice of electives for elementary students. Clark County chose music, PE, and art—and to this day has the state’s strongest public school arts curriculum. Washoe County chose music, library and computers—and to this day has a spotty patchwork of art education offerings.

As of 2019, Cannan and Veterans were the only two of WCSD’s elementary schools to have an art teacher employed by the district, and they split one full-time teacher. One Reno charter school, Doral Academy (which is not a part of Washoe County School District) offers a full arts integration program for grades K-8. Flores said that some WCSD schools with active PTAs or other outside support provide art classes, often taught by a parent. And groups like Sierra Watercolor Society, Arts for All Nevada, and Sierra Arts send artists into schools for occasional art lessons.

“There’s not a curriculum that’s being developed by that,” said Flores.

With American schools chronically underfunded to begin with—and saddled with a long list of additional challenges brought by the pandemic—she understands why it’s difficult to drum up support for arts education. But, she said, inconsistent access to arts education is a bigger problem than it might appear to be at first glance. It’s a matter of equity that reaches far outside of the realm of crayons and children’s songs.

In Nevada, arts and culture is a $7 billion industry, according to pre-pandemic research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2017, the arts here accounted for 5.5 percent of the gross state product. That includes things like symphonies, museums, architecture, film and design. Jobs on the production end of these industries all start with basic education in subjects like drawing or music.

Related, the state of Nevada, the City of Reno, and, to some extent, the City of Sparks, rely on the arts as a tourism draw. “Rich in art” is even among the messages Nevadans can flaunt on a state-issued license plate.

But, said Flores, “You can’t say you’re ‘rich in art’ when students don’t have access to the arts.” If the state and its cities use the arts as a measure of economic success, she reasons, there should be pathways to that branch of success for all students.

Efforts have been afoot for a long time to provide such access. In the long run, Cultural Alliance Nevada, a statewide arts advocacy group, of which Flores is Board Chair, has been lobbying to update education laws in the name of equitable access. The group had notable success in 2018, when the state enacted two pieces of legislation (NAC 391.075 and NAC 391.065) allowing teachers to earn some of their required professional development credits by studying arts integration.

And in the short run, Sierra Arts and the City of Sparks just launched free, online art workshops geared to children ages 6-12 and available to everyone. The project is called Spark the Imagination, and it’s a series of hour-long videos, to be released each week on both entities’ Facebook pages.

In the first video, Ray Bacasegua Valdez—a Reno-based artist, teacher, and activist who’s a member of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians—sings and drums and talks about how song is connected to issues like unity. Upcoming videos, each featuring a performance and an art lesson, will be filmed in historical landmarks in Sparks.

Musician Jim Eaglesmith and photographer Mark Vollmer will appear from the train car in Victorian Square. Painter, poet, and art teacher Pan Pantoja will perform spoken word from the 1864 Glendale School, and Brüka Theatre’s Mary Bennett will teach character development in the old train depot, now the Depot Gallery. During July, four weekly videos will be Artown events. Afterward, the videos will be released once a month.

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In Spark the Imagination, a new arts education series, Sierra Arts and the City of Sparks will release a new video each Saturday in July at 10 a.m. on their Facebook pages. Beginning in August, the releases are scheduled to continue monthly.

 June 27 – Native American Drumming and Song with Ray Valdez

 July 4 – Songwriter Jim Eaglesmith & photographer Mark Vollmer

 July 11 – Spoken Word and Poetry with Pan Pantoja from the Potentialist Workshop

 July 18 – Character Development with , Bruka Theatre’s Mary Bennett

 July 25 – Traditional Hawaiian Hula Dancing with Cecilia Reyes, Alaka’i of the Halau

As part of the program, families can register here to receive free art supply kits, to be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.


Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at www.krisvagner.com. Support her work in The Ally.