Transcript – Episode 67

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity and foster creativity.

Lisa Donovan: Promising practices across the country most often emerge from paying attention to the unique context that you’re in and of course our context is really that we have a ton of non-profit organizations, rich cultural resources in the arts and the spectacularly beautiful environment.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Lisa Donovan, Professor of Arts Management at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a longtime friend of the Mass Cultural Council. It’s about time we had you on our program.

Lisa Donovan: Thanks, Anita. It’s great to be here.

Anita Walker: Now, you have so much experience working in non-profits in the Berkshires, studying non-profits, trying to get the arts into the schools. The arts organizations all over Massachusetts and elsewhere, I imagine, have found their way into the schools, into the classroom, seeing an opportunity to start building the next generation of participation in our arts organizations. But one of the things that I feel like, at least in government, we talk about all the time, and I’m still waiting to see the best example of it, is how do we work as a region? Whether you’re talking about the arts or education or tourism, how do we capture the essence of a region and make that work for us and that’s what you’re working on right now?

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely. When I came to MCLA about six years ago now, I was coming back to Berkshire County. I had been living there the whole time, but I had left for about 10 years and when I came back with fresh eyes, one of the things that I noticed was that we have the most amazing array of arts and culture organizations and all of them are working with the schools and doing amazing work, but what I wasn’t seeing so much of is a sort of regional alignment of those resources and so, when I came to MCLA I really wondered how might we begin to think like a region so that we could become a model for arts education and collaboration with arts and cultural organizations that could be a national model? Because there’s lots of urban models but very few models for deep arts education in rural areas.

Anita Walker: So, what does it mean to think like a region?

Lisa Donovan: Well, that’s what I’ve been wrestling with. I think when I came to MCLA, one of the things that I wanted to look for is, are there models in other rural areas that we might emulate? And so, we received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to do some basic research and we thought we would be doing a literature review and looking at different models, but the models that we looked at– and this is my collaborator, Maren Brown, and I– were things like Big Thought in Dallas or Houston Arts Partners or Right Brain Initiative in Oregon. But they were all urban settings and so, we weren’t finding the rural models and so, we went to the literature and we’re not finding a lot of literature on arts education in rural areas and so, we moved to interviewing folks across the country to look for promising practices and we found two things. We found that we, in the Berkshires, share many of the issues that rural areas face, whether it’s poverty, geographic spread, limited access to funding and promising practices across the country most often emerge from paying attention to the unique context that you’re in, and of course our context is really that we have a ton of non-profit organizations, rich cultural resources in the arts and the spectacularly beautiful environment and so, based on that research, we pulled together a cross sector convening to ask stakeholders “How might we think differently about arts education? How might we do that kind of alignment?” and a couple of ideas came out of those convenings. One was to create a blueprint for arts education. Could we create a shared vision? And the second was could we integrate more of the arts more systematically across the schools and there’s 13 districts in Berkshire County.

Anita Walker: So, now you’ve just prompted about 13,000 questions in my mind.

Lisa Donovan: <laughs> Right.

Anita Walker: So, I’ll just throw a bunch of them at you and you pick which ones you want to answer. So, when you think about alignment, are you thinking about, well, we may have some schools where there’s a really rich participation by the cultural organizations in providing arts experiences and some that are getting nothing? Is that part of what we’re thinking about in terms of sort of the distribution of the arts, our resources to the 13 different school districts?

Lisa Donovan: Yeah. So, we’re in a hundred-square-mile area and so, those 13 districts are really across a wide range of areas and what you tend to see is that the arts organizations will work within a certain geographic radius to them and so, you have schools who are getting a lot and schools who are getting very little and so, actually with support from MCC, we have just recently been working on creating what we’re thinking of as an equity map that shows who’s working where and what are they doing and what’s really been interesting is there’s a lot of coverage happening in terms of arts organizations partnering with schools, but what’s not happening is there’s not a sense of how as a region are we thinking about this? Are there things that we want to make? Is there data that we want to collect? Is there a vision that we’re moving towards? How are we collectively moving the needle? Because we could do that. It’s a small enough region. We work closely with our Superintendent Roundtable who are really super excited about the arts. So, this is more about getting a shared focus so that we could decide, out of everything we could do with schools, what’s most important and what kind of data do we want to collect?

Anita Walker: Are you also looking into where there may be a supply shortage? Like, you’ve got a thousand violin teachers but no-one who teaches saxophone <laughs>? I mean, that’s a crazy example, but I mean–

Lisa Donovan: That’s a great question. So, I think partly this mapping is sort of a first step of inventorying. We’re also working– we have a professional learning network. This comes out of the Superintendents Roundtable where they’re able to fund a series of PLNs and one is for arts educators in the schools. So, we’ve been having conversations with them in terms of what do schools have already in the system? What do they not have? Many schools have music and art and not so much dance and theater and so, that kind of inventorying is sort of a first step to saying “What are we missing and what do we want to do about that?”

Anita Walker: Talk a little bit more about the uniquenesses of a rural environment. I mean, you talked about people being spread out, transportation issues, the Internet <laughs>, dial-up. I mean, I keep hearing that a lot out here in the Berkshires. But are there other sort of characteristics about life in a rural environment that the arts could particularly well address?

Lisa Donovan: That’s a great question. So, one shared challenge in rural areas is outmigration of youth, right? Young people are moving to where they perceive there’ll be more of a nightlife and that kind of thing. What’s interesting about Berkshire County is we have incredible creative youth development initiatives and many of them have emerged in conjunction with the work that you’re doing at MCC. We find that when youth are plugged into the arts, whether it’s in school or out of school, it fosters a deep passion for the region as well as a deep sense of identity for themselves and so, we’re finding that that actually keeps young people in the area. We find that college students who are coming to the area and getting immersed in the arts and culture scene also want to stay in the area. So, it really becomes a hub and a connector to the region.

Anita Walker: It gives it a sense of identity and a sense of place. Everybody wants to feel like they’re from or in a place.

Lisa Donovan: Yeah.

Anita Walker: This may or may not be one of the issues you’re addressing, but one of the things that I notice a lot about the Berkshires and obviously the Cape is while in the winter they certainly feel very rural, in the summertime they don’t. I mean, there are parts of rural America that are rural 12 months of the year. What is it about that dynamic here, where your population explodes for 10 weeks and then is back to a more sparsely populated area?

Lisa Donovan: Well, another thing that we’re really thinking about, again regionally, is that the people, the year-round residents of Berkshire County don’t always think that the arts are for them. There’s an assumption that “Oh, well. That’s for the tourists.” So, that’s one thing we’re actively working on and in addition to the blueprint that we’re working on right now, to create those convenings to generate the shared vision, we also received a grant from the Federal Department of Education for Professional Development in Arts Education to launch what we’re calling BRAINWorks and that stands for Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network. So, that funding came to our partner, the North Adams Public School District. It’s a four-year, $740,000 grant targeting four Title I districts and so, what’s incredible about that is we’ll be doing professional development with educators. It’ll be organized around research and cultural organizations will be invited in to do professional development and mentoring. But what it does is it connects our children to the arts as part of their education in really robust ways throughout the academic year and that will yield deeper connections in the summer and will also educate parents and families. So, our hope is that education is really the key to connecting people to the unique assets of this area.

Anita Walker: That prompts a question in my mind I’m curious about, because your comment that the year-round residents don’t necessarily look at Jacob’s Pillow and MASS MoCA maybe and so far I think they belong to them. Are organizations providing year-round programming for the year-round residents? Is that a piece of the puzzle?

Lisa Donovan: They are and that’s another great question. So, more and more I see arts organizations offering community engagement, deep community engagement programming, that is year-round. I see places like MASS MoCA having a teen program and then allowing teens to then bring their families and so, it’s not the arts organization necessarily reaching out to parents. It’s the kids bringing their parents to come and see and they’re giving them tours. Yeah, I think that the arts organizations are on top of it. In addition, we’ve been partnering with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, who received a grant from the Barr Foundation that’s part of what’s been called the Creative Commonwealth Initiative and one of their areas of focus is community engagement. So, already we’re starting to say “Okay. If we’re creating a blueprint and we’re now partnering with Berkshire Taconic, if Berkshire Taconic is also focusing on community engagement, working with supporting arts and cultural organizations to pay attention to this and we’re all kind of focused on collecting the research and analyzing it together, you can start to see how that aligns and gets us all kind of rowing in the same direction for a change.”

Anita Walker: So, what’s next?

Lisa Donovan: So, we are engaged now in this blueprint development project. It’ll be cross sector. It’ll be a shared vision and it will also generate shared measurement systems in collaboration with our Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. We will launch that. We’ll launch that in the next year and start to collect data and review and then based on what we find as a region, we’ll continue the sort of collective thinking about how do we ensure that our schools mirror the rich cultural assets that we have right here?

Anita Walker: And we’ll have to have you back to find out what happens.

Lisa Donovan: I’d love to come back.

Anita Walker: Lisa Donovan, Professor of Arts Management at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Lisa Donovan: Thanks, Anita.

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