Nearly one in 10 U.S. secondary schools has no music program. Eleven percent don’t teach art. More than half have cut theater. Nine in 10 have cut dance.
Despite overwhelming evidence that arts education correlates with higher graduation rates, better college performance and future success in the workplace, shrinking school budgets and strict curriculum standards keep restricting the time that teenage students spend exploring their creative sides. So a panel of artists, educators and activists — including marquee names like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, author Salman Rushdie and design duo Rodarte — have come up with a novel solution, perfectly suited to the Internet age: a free, crowdfunded, peer-to-peer online arts school that brings the arts to students who need them.
The project is called School of Doodle, and it’s the sprawling, ambitious and very colorful brainchild of the artist and producer Molly Logan — a bit of a colorful character herself.
Logan, who has a Ph.D. in art history, wrote her thesis on 19th-century prostitution and frequently reminds herself that she isn’t “a 14-year-old girl,” has spent years producing projects and programming at the intersection of art and commerce. (Station to Station, a cross-country train trip/performance art piece sponsored by Levi’s, was one of her most recent projects.) But since graduate school, when Logan first taught a class of her own — and objected to the heavy-handed, one-sided teaching methods her superiors asked her to use — she’s been not-so-secretly intrigued by the idea of an arts curriculum that treated everyone, including students, as teachers.
“We have so many untapped resources in the art world,” Logan enthused, noting that working artists and musicians are often interested in teaching, but simply lack the time. Despite those resources, she added, “art teachers are buying their own art supplies because they care so much … [and] the art classroom is just a cart that gets wheeled around.”
One solution? The Internet — where teachers and students can log-on from anywhere, social networks can buoy student enthusiasm, and the overhead costs remain relatively low.
By January, Logan hopes to launch an early version of School of Doodle, which will provide video lessons from people like Cat Power, articles and Q&As with/by creative notables, and a social community for participants to share their work and instruct each other. Later, Logan hopes, the school will move into offline programming, as well, sponsoring “field trips” to local film sets or restaurants and partnering with local organizations to expand the school’s reach.
It’s less a school than “an endless obstacle course for the imagination,” its Kickstarter reads.
Notably, in its online iteration, Doodle will serve only teenage girls (and teenagers who identify as girls), though Logan hopes partnerships will expand the program to other teens as well. In Logan’s words, Doodle “had to start somewhere.” And she argues that, in a culture that frequently teaches young women to be quiet and self-effacing, teenage girls are an “at-risk group” especially in need of the confidence and self-expression the arts provide.
“The idea is long overdue and fabulous,” said Nora Halpern, an executive at the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts and a member of Doodle’s advisory board. “The arts are a safe place for women in a way a place like the boardroom is not. The arts encourage expression … and Doodle really wants to extend that sense of empowerment [to young women].”
Doodle is, of course, not the first or only Kickstarter project that attempts to fill a gap in the education system. Root Division, a San Francisco arts non-profit, raised more than $5,000 to fund its Youth Education After-School Project, which pairs low-income students with local artists for a 10-week mentoring program. A Portland screenprinting company has used the site to fund arts workshops in disadvantaged schools.
Earlier this summer, Levar Burton — host of the popular children’s TV show “Reading Rainbow” — famously used the platform to raise more than $6 million for a Kickstarter project that he said would bring literacy education to low-income kids.
“We cannot afford to lose generations of children to illiteracy,” Burton wrote in his appeal. “And if we work together, we don’t have to.”
It’s unclear how many educational projects Kickstarter has funded — the site doesn’t break down its statistics that way. But arts projects are consistently the site’s most successful: More than half of all projects in dance, theater, music and the visual arts are funded, a rate that far surpasses some of Kickstarter’s more high-profile categories, like games (35 percent) and technology (31 percent). In fact, in 2012, Kickstarter funded more arts projects than the National Endowment for the Arts — a milestone that inspired grandiose headlines like “Does America Still Need a National Endowment for the Arts?” and “Is Kickstarter the New National Endowment for the Arts?”
That oversimplifies the issues, as my colleague Katherine Boyle explained at the time: Individual donors have always contributed far more money to the arts than the NEA has, and Kickstarter is nothing if not a mob of individual donors. But in making it easier and cheaper for worthy organizations to reach contributors — and in lowering the bar to donate to an amount as small as $5 or $10 — Kickstarter has essentially revolutionized the traditional model of arts financing. Just as importantly, organizers say, it’s made it easier for organizations to publicize their projects.
“For us, it’s not just a way to make money,” Logan said. “It’s more a way to put an idea out there, build community, and reach out to teens. Teen girls just blow me away.”
Both Logan and Halpern are quick to caution that they don’t see School of Doodle as a replacement for arts education in schools; “we are not education reform,” Logan says. But as a supplement to shrinking arts curriculums, and as a model for how available technology can get arts into schools cheaply and quickly, School of Doodle could fill a critical need. So far, the project has raised more than $92,000 from more than 900 donors; it still has 10 days of fundraising left.
“It’s been phenomenal to watch Doodle’s progress,” Halpern said. “It could be a real catalyst for change.”