The Art of Learning

Classic Arts Features   The Art of Learning
A look at the children's education programs of the Lincoln Center Institute, which holds its annual benefit gala on February 27.

It's a typical morning at Lincoln Center Institute on the seventh floor of Lincoln Center's Rose Building. The lobby is crowded with schoolchildren about to enter the Institute's Clark Studio Theater. Already, with their classroom teacher and an Institute teaching artist, the children have tried their hands at a particular art form — dance, theater, or music — have been encouraged to ask detailed questions, and have done research on it and on the creators of the piece in question. Now, having become authorities on the work, the genre, and on what it feels like to create and make choices in that genre, these kids are about to look at how these grown-up artist types think it should be done. Would that every artist had such an informed, opinionated, and curious audience!

As the youngsters file into the Clark to see or hear the work of Shakespeare, Alvin Ailey, Ping Chong, or Guy Davis (the Institute presents and sometimes commissions its own repertory), they pass beneath a plaque honoring the Institute's founder, Mark Schubart, who died in 2000. Few may read the quote from Schubart's landmark arts-in-education study The Hunting of the Squiggle, but they and their teachers are the beneficiaries of the belief that one must "teach values found in all kinds of genuine creativity: expressiveness, clarity, warmth, persuasiveness, emotional power, unity, consistency," and that "the ability to recognize these values is the essence of aesthetic perception and should be the first goal of all education programs in the arts."

When Lincoln Center Institute holds its annual benefit gala this month, Schubart's name will adorn an award given to someone who has long recognized the values mentioned in that quote. William F. Baker, Chief Executive of Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 New York, will receive the Institute's first-ever Mark Schubart Award for his efforts in promoting arts and education. The evening's honoree will be another public broadcasting pioneer, Susan Lacy, the Emmy Award-winning creator and executive producer of PBS's American Masters. In addition, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, which provides annual fellowships at the Institute for graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, will receive a special recognition, and the Motown legends, The Temptations, will perform.

To locate those human and humane qualities of which he spoke, Schubart believed young people needed more than just to watch a performance or look at a painting. They needed active, informed encounters with works of art — over time. They needed to understand the work in context by studying its history, genre, and creator, and they needed to make art themselves so as to go through the experience of making choices, just as the artists did. Why call for an actor to shout this line and whisper that one? Why plan deliberately for an outdoor metal sculpture to rust? What might your answers to those questions tell you about other artworks, other academic subjects, and yourself?

And finally, a question most important to the 153 area schools that train their teachers at the Institute and welcome Institute teaching artists into their classrooms: Now that you know how to look into a work of art in this way, how can you take those habits of observation and thought and apply them to algebra problems, history lessons, biology experiments, or the subjunctive in Spanish? How will you bring your aesthetic experience home, applying its lessons to, say, family conflicts, or the choice of a college, or who you should or should not hang out with? The Institute's lead question is always, "What do you notice?" Then, "What connections do you make?" and "What actions can you take?" as well as similar intellectual provocations, asked over and over at every stage. Arts lessons become life lessons.

Directly or indirectly, the Institute will reach 260,000 young people this year — most of them underserved. According to the Long Range Plan recently passed by the Institute's board, those ranks will swell to 600,000 by 2010. Some of those young people will be as far away as Tasmania, from whence came a contingent of teachers to train at the Institute's 2006 Summer Session. Others will be as close as the other side of Amsterdam Avenue, coming from the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, of which the Institute is a founding partner.

Schubart once told the Institute's current Executive Director, Scott Noppe-Brandon, that of all American nonprofits, he felt PBS was the closest cousin to Lincoln Center Institute, because, says Noppe-Brandon, "they look at the quality of what is done for the good of the information itself." Lacy, with American Masters, has "highlighted the finest artists of our time and the quality of their product," he adds. Lacy herself says, "I choose people whose work changed their discipline, people of whom one can say things weren't quite the same afterward." Similarly Baker, according to the Institute's Board Chair, Susan Rudin, "has made Channel 13 the classroom, the viewer the student, and has exposed that student to a broad range of information in a most creative way." Baker makes the connection this way: "Through making arts programming available on public television, we hope to give people the opportunity to grow, to refine their sense of aesthetics, to become more aware, to question and reflect, to become more well-rounded individuals — goals that are fundamental to the work of Lincoln Center Institute. The Institute is not only promoting the joy and wonder of artistic pursuits, but is improving the quality of education for young people. What it is providing young people will be with them all their lives, and our society as a whole will be the beneficiary."

The Kenan Charitable Trust shares in this vision by funding the North Carolina School of the Arts students who come to Lincoln Center each year to train as teaching artists, to receive professional artistic mentoring, and to create their own performance projects in the Clark. A $3 million gift from the Trust now ensures that Kenan Fellows — successive generations of new "American Masters" — will be coming to Lincoln Center Institute for a long time. "The Kenan Trust's faith in us is so much appreciated," says Noppe-Brandon, "especially as expressed in the endowment gift. The relationship is as professional as you'd ever want, and yet as personal as it needs to be." Dr. Richard Krasno of the Trust returns the compliment. "We're honored and delighted," he says, "and we have a great deal of confidence in the Institute. We look forward to a long and productive relationship."

Lincoln Center Institute's benefit gala will be on Tuesday, February 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the Rainbow Room in New York. You may find out more about the Institute's work at For information on supporting the Institute's work by adopting a school, funding a repertory piece, or augmenting the collection of books, CDs, and DVDs in its Resource Center, call Melissa Cohen at 212-875-5209.

David Pratt writes frequently about the arts.

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