Necessity is the mother of invention. As a corollary, budget cuts can be effective calls to creative action. This is particularly true if the budget in question concerns arts education in public schools, and if the respondent is a renowned patroness of the arts. In 1977, New York City was in dire straits. The serial killer known as the Son of Sam terrorized the town; an electrical blackout plunged the five boroughs and Westchester County into darkness and left those areas vulnerable to looting and violence; the Bronx was burning, literally and figuratively; and a nearly-bankrupt NYC was still reeling from that infamous (and apparently misquoted) 1975 “New York Daily News” headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The State itself wasn’t doing much better: 1977 was the same year in which a state commission hired graphic designer Milton Glaser to create a morale-boosting campaign slogan that ultimately took form in the “I Love NY” logo. In the midst of this turbulent era, government funding for NYC’s public schools was slashed and, as is frequently — woefully — the case, arts education took a major hit. Agnes Gund, an esteemed art collector and Museum of Modern Art board member (who ultimately would serve as the institution’s Chairman and President), could not stand idly by. In that seemingly doomed time, Ms. Gund began a pilot program to bring professional artists from her personal network into public elementary schools; in effect, she was outsourcing talent in order to bring it in-house. A swift and strategic move was the formation of a partnership with NYC’s Department of Education (a still extant collaboration); two years later, in 1979, Studio in a School incorporated as permanent nonprofit.
Tom Cahill was one of the early artists to collaborate with “STUDIO,” the shorthand used by insiders to refer to the organization. A New York City-native, alumnus of both the School of Visual Arts and New York University and a painter by training, Mr. Cahill interviewed at STUDIO to offer his services as a teacher. Ms. Gund personally interviewed him, and saw in him the potential to serve as STUDIO’s President and CEO; more than 30 years later he still mans STUDIO’s ship. Mr. Cahill is the well-suited to the job due in no small part due his early childhood artistic exposure. He acknowledges, "I've been very lucky in my life that I've had family that early-on taught me to enjoy NYC … [I would] go into museums out of my own interest.” He also enjoyed the tremendous benefit of supportive teachers, “who created room for art, who noticed the way a student responds … They introduced me to the great works and had a huge influence on my actually going to art school."
Since its founding, the program estimates that it has reached nearly a million NYC public school children to date — or roughly 28,000 students per year, across 36 years, in all five boroughs. STUDIO’s fundraising pays to send professional artists into public schools in high-needs communities. There, the artist collaborates with the full-time classroom teachers to develop a curriculum that both jibes with the teacher’s pedagogy and can be perpetuated in the artist’s absence; Mr. Cahill notes the importance of “structuring the [arts] curriculum around other things the students know” and empowering the school’s staff to “also be owners of the experience.” The artist’s involvement with STUDIO can range from one semester to many years, and the perpetuation of the program depends upon the school administrators’ acceptance of STUDIO’s outside presence within their closed ranks. Mr. Cahill attributes STUDIO’s success to “an approach that’s not just inspirational, it’s organized. It’s an approach where over time there’s workshops, and experiences from grade-to-grade, and professional talks for teachers and school principals; there’s a kind of work that establishes the art in a different way in the schools.”
And it’s sophisticated, too. This program isn’t merely finger painting and macaroni art. Thanks to Ms. Gund’s personal involvement and the incredible advisory board that can be amassed only by someone of her influence, one of STUDIO’s early coups was a 1984 collaboration with two artists from different sectors: mixed media artist Red Grooms (whose work is on exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan through January 6, 2014) and former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and National Dance Institute Founder Jacques d’Amboise. Inspired by Mr. d’Amboise’s dream of making the world’s largest painting — and simultaneously the world’s largest stage set — created by children, the two artists partnered with Studio in a School, and abstract ideas took physical form. Speaking to the “New York Times” about the 150 children participants, one STUDIO team member said, “'They never dreamed of working on such a scale. They had a sense of fulfillment beyond anything they'd ever accomplished.” The program is mutually beneficial. In addition to providing part-time work to artists whose hours may be irregular, Mr. Cahill marvels at the schoolchildren’s imperviousness to the artistic block that frustrates many a professional. “You struggle in your studio as an artist, you try to work out problems in your head,” he says, but “the spontaneity of small children and the incredible ways that they truly are so creative … it truly is an inspiration. It makes this work [in the classroom] balance the solitude of working in a studio.”
Admittedly, tracking the tangibility of STUDIO’s impact can be difficult, but in at least one case an artist who recently taught in the STUDIO program was one of its early students. Instances like this capture Mr. Cahill’s belief in “the importance of arts education, of having it earlier in your education and having it through your education.” Beyond art for art’s sake, Mr. Cahill shares his conviction that “We know this is work that contributes to the lives and minds of young people. And it should be a part of education. We know the whole person has the ability to express themselves, to play to their strengths and weaknesses. The arts give us a way to both analyze and synthesize information. I think that those elements are sometimes only available in the arts ... You really work your personal best in the arts, there are few specific requirements.” Commenting to the “New York Times” in 1985 at the opening of a STUDIO arts exhibition in the subway, Ms. Gund remarked, “When other kids see it, maybe they'll ask their parents for art materials rather than plastic toys.”
TOM CAHILL'S NEW YORK STATE OF MIND:"There's extraordinary creativity in our communities and in our youth. I envision a city in which kids are connected to their own creativity. My New York State of Mind is a city that supports that, and is a city that children and youth feel like they're participating in and have access to cultural education in their own community."
Want to get involved?
- WATCH: "A Portrait of an Art Education" by Jevon Roush, produced for Studio in a School.
- VOLUNTEER: http://www.studioartistscommunity.org/
- DONATE: https://studioinaschool.org/support/
- APPRECIATE: See the work of STUDIO students at STUDIO’s Gallery: 1 East 53rd Street, New York City.
- EDUCATE: Take your own tour of Tom’s favorite artwork in NYC: the Egyptian Art collection at the Brooklyn Museum (“it’s very approachable on many levels”); Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” (aka “The Ecstasy of St. Francis”) at the Frick Collection (“it’s one that I come back to over and over again in terms of looking and seeing more each time”); and Van Gogh in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (“It’s the appreciation of knowing one person’s body of work — it’s not about the individual piece”).