The Gap in Art Education in Schools

March 16, 2017 Updated: March 16, 2017

Art collector and businessman Fred Ross had completed his master’s in art just a few years before when, in 1977, he stumbled across the painting “Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau—a moment that would change his life.

Ross was so taken with the painting he was “frozen in place, gawking with my mouth agape, cold chills careening up and down my spine,” as he wrote on the Art Renewal Center (ARC) website.

At this point, he needed to get his bearings. Who had painted this masterpiece? Why hadn’t he known this piece before? When he looked at the date, 1873, he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been taught about this master artist in school.

Our Changing Views on Art Education

In the last half-century, it seems that few attempts have been made to hold on to the classical methods of producing fine art, or even seeing it. According to Arthur Efland in his essay “Art Education in the Twentieth Century,” this may be due to the tendency in education to swing back and forth between focusing either on the arts or on the sciences. Depending on the social issues of the time, we have focused on either the “objective detachment and precision” of science or the “affective engagement and participatory learning” through art.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy’s administration began funding the Arts and Humanities program, which arose with the beginnings of the counterculture movement. By 1968, the United States saw a two-fold increase in the number of art teachers graduating from college, according to Mary Ann Stankiewicz, professor of art education at Penn State. 

Later, in the 1980s, when the United States struggled to maintain technological superiority to the Soviets and economic superiority to the Japanese, the pendulum moved to the other side, with a more analytical approach. The J. Paul Getty Trust attempted to bring art education to all K-12 children, not just to those talented artistically. The center for the education in the arts focused not on artistic expression, but on art as means to enhance general education, asking that art criticism, history, and critical theory should be included in the curriculum.

Reeling from the idea that art education should be more intellectual in approach, some Florida and New York art teachers in the 1990s mounted a defense highlighting the social and cognitive benefits of hands-on creation, including enhanced empathy, creativity, self-esteem, and analytic abilities.  Art projects seeped into all subjects and were seen as a means of problem-solving, according to The New York Times.

Today, it’s hard to get a fix on what goes on in classrooms. The Department of Education released an updated report on art education in 2009–2010 that included data on how many schools offered visual arts education—whether the teachers were specialists or only classroom teachers, how often and how long they taught—but nothing on what was taught.

If we consider those who are awarded for their contributions to art education, we find some piecemeal evidence that the classics are no longer being taught.

In 2000, Kay Schempp won the Teacher of the Year award in Connecticut. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized that creativity is her driving force both in life and in teaching, and her tools included whatever governmental standards, “multicultural, interdisciplinary feminist, and postmodern” subject matter, were at hand.

Last April, the Louisiana educator Barbara Clover was named Art Educator of the Year by the National Art Education Association (NAEA). In her classroom, she introduced juniors and seniors to modern and postmodern works—not traditional art. So highly esteemed is this kind of art education that last May, Ms. Clover was honored for her achievements by President Barack Obama. 

A New Movement

The teaching of modern and postmodern art to the exclusion of classical art is what Ross discovered when he began to research Bouguereau. Ross found that not only had Bouguereau—the most famous painter of his era—been dismissed later by the world of modern art and by art educators in the 20th century, but so had all of Bouguereau’s colleagues, as well as traditional skills for drawing and painting.

Art collector and chairman of the Art Renewal Center Frederick Ross at his home in the tri-state area on Aug. 11, 2016. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Art collector and chairman of the Art Renewal Center Frederick Ross at his home in the tri-state area on Aug. 11, 2016. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Ross’s discovery eventually led him to found ARC, which caters to professional artists in an effort to both preserve and further the traditional high standards of excellence in the visual arts. 

An offshoot of ARC is the Da Vinci Initiative (DVI), co-founded by Ross’s daughter Kara Ross and artist-educator Mandy Hallenius. The DVI offers teacher training at the K-12 level in traditional drawing and painting techniques.

In the past five years, Hallenius has personally introduced classical art training to over 1,000 teachers across the country. According to Hallenius, who had previously taught art in public schools, art teachers didn’t even know these skills were still available.

“I’ve had teachers in tears because they didn’t even know they could learn to draw,” she told Epoch Times, in a previous interview. “There’s a hunger in the art community for this knowledge. So they’re eager to pursue it.”

While ignorance may be the reason for not teaching these skills, for some teachers it may be that they see technical skills as being in opposition to inspiration and creativity.

In a 2003 study of elementary school teachers published in the journal Visual Arts Research, the results of the researchers’ questionnaire showed confusion in the minds of teachers. A high majority of teachers “agreed that it takes practice and effort to create works of art” and at the same time that inspiration “is more important than skill when creating works of art.”

These statements seem contradictory. If creating art requires skill, which we would assume would come through “practice and effort,” why would inspiration be more important?

According to Hallenius, the dichotomy between skill and inspiration/creativity is the very heart of the problem. These attributes are not opposites but are complementary. Visual art skills are the means to give clear utterance to one’s inspiration, Hallenius says.

Imagine that we could compose music without ever taking a music lesson, she said. “No one thinks that we either play piano or we don’t. People realize we need to take piano lessons in order to learn to play.”

“Like teaching rhythm, tempo, and scales in music class so that a student has many tools to express themselves through music, so too is there a need for a skill-based education in the visual arts. By learning solid draftsmanship, color theory, paint handling skills, perspective, etc., students can expand their own toolbox for visual expression,” the DVI website states.

Hallenius believes that traditional, classical art training is gaining ground. This is certainly true at the professional level of schooling. According to Kara Ross, in 2000, her father could find only 14 schools around the world teaching this type of training, and now ARC has over 70 approved schools and programs. In addition, ARC has a formal relationship with 24 allied organizations dedicated to traditional art techniques. But she believes there are probably more than a 100 organizations around the country.

Gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate, the resurgence, Hallenius said, is the new “countercultural movement in visual arts training.”