Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Curbside Press is introducing a new series, Access To Art, which will explore how school districts and nonprofits work together to provide arts education and experience to Oregon students. This is the first article in this series, focusing on a Salem-based studio that contracts with local schools. Help spread awareness by sharing this article with your friends and family, especially the educators in your life.
Young At Art Studio in Salem provides arts exposure to Salem-Keizer Public Schools
By Troy Shinn
SALEM -- Walking into Young At Art one overcast January afternoon, one hears the laughter of children. A ceramics class for young kids, around age 7 or so by the look of them, is wrapping up. In the adjoining room, step-by-step painting canvases and decorations are set up for a birthday party that will begin shortly.
Days here at the studio are filled with such classes, demonstrations, gatherings and celebrations -- some open to the general public, others are closed sessions for field trips from neighborhood schools in the Salem-Keizer School District.
It’s just one of the ways that public schools contract with local businesses and organizations to provide arts access. With budget shortfalls swallowing districts all over the state and arts departments reduced to the barest of operations, businesses like Young At Art provide critical services to the public school experience.
First founded in Keizer in 2014 by Mahssa Hashemi, Young At Art is a space for “everyone to come create.” It has since moved to its current Broadway Street studio in North Salem, where the business has flourished.
“We definitely try to hit all age groups,” Hashemi said. “From babies to adults. We have classes from baby crawls -- which are based on sensory items for babies -- (to) classes like our Cookies and Canvas and the Paint With Me classes, where an adult (paints) one side and the child does the other.”
When classes or events aren’t booked at the studio itself, Young At Art takes its services on the road, holding demonstrations at businesses as part of paid events or workplace retreats. The business throws “paint and sip” nights at local breweries and vineyards, for example, where attendees pay for hands-on painting lessons while enjoying some adult beverages.
However, a big passion for Hashemi, who has a Master’s degree from Willamette University in arts and teaching, is to take her classes to underserved populations and into school classrooms.
“I want to make sure that we reach kids in school and if they don’t have the time or finances at home, that there’s a way I can get to them,” Hashemi said.
Young At Art is a contracted vendor with the Salem-Keizer Public School District, going into classrooms at various schools to provide classes and demonstrations. This saves schools money by not having to pay for pricey bus rides into the studio.
Young At Art is also connected to area high schools via its volunteer program, where students with a passion or aptitude for art can join in on the daily operations of the studio, earning community service credit and exposure to a professional art atmosphere.
“It shows them a different kind of path they may not have considered,” Hashemi said. “A different way you can live your life.”
These services being offered by nonprofits are becoming a bigger and bigger way for districts to offer more arts exposure to students, especially in the wake of statewide budget cuts, particularly those in 2010-13, which decimated arts program budgets. While arts offerings in schools districts all over the state are slowly bouncing back, more rocky waters may be on the way.
Last year’s legislative forecasts for the current state budget predict even more cuts for Oregon schools as a way to fill the mounting state deficit. The three largest districts in the state -- in Portland, Beaverton and Salem -- all proposed leaner budgets this past year, a result of the Oregon Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee proposed cuts of $141 million to Oregon schools.
“Even when funding improves, schools and districts can find it more difficult to rebuild lost programs than to bolster existing efforts.” - Oregon Community Foundation
The reality of why funding for Oregon schools is a seemingly constant issue is multi-faceted, but the biggest cause is that the bulk of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. Caps on these taxes passed in the 1990s -- like Measure 50 -- mean that little to no new sources of revenue could come from those taxes. Downturns in the economy, like the one in 2008-10 that Oregon is still recovering from, result in even lower property tax rolls and thus, less school funding.
As education budgets have struggled, the priority on arts programs has given way to bolstered testing requirements and a focus on core subjects like math, science and reading. Even still, Oregon has been below the national average in education funding since the 1990s, according to 2018 statistics provided by the National Education Association.
Even looking at numbers from a state perspective, the picture isn’t much better. The Oregon Community Foundation, a nonprofit that works alongside arts organizations and donors to provide research and access to arts in education, released a report in June 2019 that detailed the problem that schools in Oregon face.
“Over the past several decades, many Oregon schools (like schools throughout the United States) have drastically reduced or eliminated arts education programs in response to the combination of funding shortfalls and federal policies...” the report says. “Even when funding improves, schools and districts can find it more difficult to rebuild lost programs than to bolster existing efforts.”
Even when funding is freed up for arts programs, not all forms are held equal. Research gathered by OCF shows that half of all schools in Oregon that offer classes in arts disciplines offer a class in music, while visual arts like the ones taught at Young At Art lag behind. Performative arts like theatre and dance fall even further down the list.
That’s where arts nonprofits step in, by providing schools a model that doesn’t require them to house and pay for all of the materials that go into having a robust arts department in multiple disciplines. Organizations can offer cheaper rates to districts and come straight into classrooms or offer a space for out-of-class learning.
Hashemi says that access to the arts is a crucial part of a child’s education.
“I feel like the kids who have taken multiple painting classes with us know that mistakes happen in art and there are ways to fix it,” she said. “And there are ways to not get overwhelmed by it, which I think is such a good lesson.”
She also stressed the importance of how being around other children who are interested in art can inspire more creativity and form friendships.
“Lots of artists tend to be loners … but we have a space for them to come if they want to be around other kids and paint or craft,” Hashemi said. “It’s really cool to be a kid and to be around people who like the same things as you.”
That outlet is particularly crucial for older kids and teens, Hashemi said, as she’s seen a growing number of teenagers take advantage of Young At Art as an after-school resource.
“This is a good place for them to come to after school and be creative,” she said.
Arts education isn’t just about fueling creative passions, either. Data shows that the skills formed through the arts translate to academic and personal success in many other ways.
“Research shows that arts education – in all its forms – helps students develop important skills such as critical thinking, patience, risk-taking and creativity,” the OCF report says. “Music education helps students prepare to learn by strengthening memory and abstract reasoning. The visual arts help build skills in critical thinking, observation and communication.”
Research also demonstrates the importance of arts education opportunities for lower income students. Access to art is an economic equalizer.
“A review of four longitudinal studies by Catterall, Dumais and Hampden-Thompson (2012) showed that low-income students with high levels of arts participation had higher GPAs, graduated from high school at higher rates, and expressed a greater desire to attend college than did low-income students with lower rates of arts participation,” according to the OCF report.
Hashemi, who’s business just celebrated its sixth birthday on Jan. 14, has seen firsthand how arts exposure translates to a lifelong passion to be creative.
“I literally see someone in here everyday who I first met six years ago when we were still in our Keizer location,” she said. “I’ve seen moms be pregnant and babies grow into toddlers and be able to take our classes ... Kiddos who (were) here six years ago are having their birthday parties here.”
However, relying on third-party organizations to provide arts access to communities and schools can be a precarious model. Research, like that conducted by the Oregon Community Foundation, shows that the nonprofit model mostly helps urban school districts, while rural communities might not have local resources like Young At Art. Even if a nonprofit can provide services for a school, it can be stretched thin by operating costs when having to canvas a wider swath of students. If schools can't front the extra bill, those programs risk being cut entirely.
When the model for arts exposure in schools relies on local nonprofits, especially in rural areas that don’t have many options, the financial health of these organizations is more than a small business prospect. That’s why programs like OCF and the Oregon Arts Commission provide grant funding, and state education budgets have come to prioritize funding for nonprofit educational partners.
Local organizations, like the Salem Keizer Education Foundation, act as funding partners for schools, coordinating fundraisers and providing access to a network of nonprofits for everything from arts and sports programs to college scholarships and readiness workshops.
But if those revenues dry up or become stretched thin, it’s on each business to find new ways to make money outside of this model.
That’s why Hashemi says it’s so crucial that Young At Art diversifies its offerings, by not only having the in-studio classes but by taking their services and demonstrations out into the community. Contracts with businesses, like for employee retreats as a way of boosting workplace morale and creativity, keep Young At Art afloat enough to offer cheaper prices to schools and for classes that are open to the public.
“For me it’s a personal thing of keeping our prices cheap so we can go to a lot of places a lot of the time,” she said. “I think it’s huge being able to go out and about, making it easier for people so that they don’t forget about us.”
In the meantime, schools facing steeper cuts will have to weigh the efficacy of contracting with nonprofits like Young At Art in the future, so the success of one can determine the success of the other. This symbiotic relationship between schools and arts nonprofits is one that Curbside Press will continue to explore with this article series.
Do you know of a nonprofit or a program in the state of Oregon that provides arts access to youth? Let us know in the comments below so we can do a profile of that business or agency, too. Be sure to share this article with your friends and family, especially the educators in your life.
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