California Arts Education and the Need for Advocacy

Be the Bird!

by Celeyce Matthews

Growing up in middle class California during the 1970s and 80s, I never had an art class in public school.  Proposition 13, passed in 1978, created a loss of 200 billion dollars in property taxes over the decades following its enactment which devastated social services and especially education.  Art and music programs were the first to be eliminated as education funding was drastically cut.  The repercussions of this and other complex, short-sighted economic decisions, extend far beyond my public school years; currently, California is ranked absolutely last in spending on the arts per person in all 50 states and US territories.  In 2009, California spent a mere 12 cents per person compared to the highest per person arts spending, in the District of Columbia, of $11.11 per person.[i] And in education funding, Editorial Projects in Education and the National Education Association rank California around 46th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2009 (Utah was last and Vermont first).[ii] [iii] This year, California’s education spending is at its lowest level in the last 40 years, compared to the rest of the US, and further education cuts are in the works due to the ongoing state budget crisis.[iv] How does arts education survive in California’s economic climate?

After Prop 13, arts education non-profit organizations stepped in to attempt to fill the void left by the severe education cuts.  My own lack of early art education due to these cuts inspired me to become an art educator and advocate; I now teach art for one of the country’s most successful and comprehensive arts education non-profits: the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View.  CSMA reaches more than 40,000 children, teens and adults in the South Bay through art and music classes, free concerts, artist talks, exhibitions and performances this year.[v] Funded by big local tech corporations, philanthropic foundations, local school districts and PTAs, other local arts organizations, the City of Mountain View, the California Arts Council, individual schools, individual donors, and parent groups, this year CSMA has a budget of $4.4 million.   CSMA offers scholarships to low income students and two of the public schools it serves are supported by federal grants as part of the No Child Left Behind program to improve their schools through incorporating art classes.[vi] Silicon Valley is a relatively wealthy area and able to vigorously support art education through CSMA  and other local arts organizations, classroom teachers and schools without much state or federal funding; unfortunately many poorer regions in California have little or no art education at the elementary school level.

I teach art to kindergartens through 5th graders in CSMA’s on-site and in-school programs.  During the school year I teach weekly classes in local elementary schools in CSMA’s Art4Schools program, a sequential skills-based program that follows the California State Standards for Visual Art.  The curriculum progresses through lessons on the main elements of art: line, shape, color, value, contour and design, incorporating multicultural, artist study and art historical lessons.  I have choice and creative flexibility within this curriculum framework and working with the regular classroom teacher to create lesson tie-ins is welcomed.  Teaching art as a part of regular classroom curriculum allows children to explore other avenues of learning and reinforces the validity of creative thinking and personal expression.  Countless studies have consistently demonstrated the significant academic and social benefits of regular art classes in school from improved math scores to lower drop out rates to higher self-esteem.   Teaching art in the classroom is a vital tool for student success and well-being.

The author teaching kindergarteners at Saint Nicholas School

In vacation art camps, taught in CSMA’s fabulous studios at the Finn Center, I work intensively with a small group of students every day for up to 2 weeks on a specific theme or medium.  Vacation camps are especially exciting for me because I create my own curriculum for these classes and have the opportunity to explore in-depth a wider range of materials and projects.  Some of the camps I’ve created investigate bookmaking, photography, art cars, printmaking, costuming, recycled material sculpture and textiles.  One of my most successful camps was mask making with 1st and 2nd graders.  For two weeks, we looked at different masking traditions from around the world and created unique masks from a variety of materials.  Rather than simply copying another culture’s artworks, students learned about the fundamental principles of all masking traditions and applied them to their own life experiences.  Using books, images and actual masks from diverse cultures, students analyzed visual aesthetics and learned about some of the uses and cultural meanings of specific masks.  Students made masks following common masking themes of celebration, transformation, animal totemism and community unity.

Mask making camp with 1st and 2nd graders

Student work, ‘Celebration Masks,’ plaster tape and mixed media

Following the traditional masking practice of artwork as an active and participatory event, my students performed a short song and dance for the entire camp wearing bird masks and wings made from plaster tape, tissue paper, tagboard, paint and feathers.  Students learned about and applied cultural, aesthetic, kinesthetic and social practices in this camp, in addition to having a ton of fun and making beautiful artwork!

Student work, ‘Bird Mask and Wings,’ mixed media

Student performance in bird masks and wings

Regular arts education for children has many well-documented benefits beyond learning art techniques.  Studying art promotes creative problem solving, spatial reasoning, critical thinking, self-confidence, self-discipline, greater awareness of the world, positive communication skills and much more.  (For a more complete list of the benefits of arts education see   Arts education should be an essential component of all children’s basic education.  Non-profit organizations like CSMA are working hard to ensure quality arts education for children but it is an uphill battle, especially in the current economic situation.  As we face more education cuts, California schools need strong arts education advocates.

Starting local is the best bet; contact your local school boards, PTAs, and existing arts organizations to champion the need for arts education in our schools.  Elect local and state officials that value arts education and communicate to them the need for their ongoing support for arts in schools.  Here we may be off to a good start: California’s upcoming governor Jerry Brown spoke directly of the critical need for quality arts education in his acceptance speech, given from the Oakland School for the Arts.[vii] Let’s ensure he puts that awareness into action and help arts education in California not only survive short-sighted economic policies – but thrive despite them.  The following websites offer comprehensive information and resources for arts education advocacy:

Celeyce Matthews is a children’s art teacher with the Community School of Music and Arts and a graduate student in San Jose State University’s Art History and Visual Culture program.

[i] Valerie Atkinson, ArtBistro, 2010.

[ii] EPE Research Center,, January 21, 2009.

[iii] Jonathan Kaplan, “Settling the Debate – California Spends Less on Each Student by Any Measure,” California Budget Bites, Feb 24, 2010.

[iv] School Finance Facts, California Budget Project, June 2010.

[v] Community School of Music and Arts,

[vi] Linda Covello, CSMA Art School Director, email interview with author, November 19, 2010.

[vii] Jerry Brown, “California Election 2010 Results: Jerry Brown Victory Speech,” Now Public Crowd Powered Media,

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