When we think about “the arts,” often we go huge: the Louvre, Broadway, Swan Lake, Picasso. Perhaps without even realizing it, though, many parents instinctively know the value of the arts and incorporate them into our children’s lives in much smaller ways. Otherwise, why would we give our toddlers that first pack of crayons?

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old daughter joined about 20 other tweens on a grand university stage for the culmination of six months of hard work with our citywide youth orchestra. Finely dressed in black bottoms and white shirts, the string ensemble snapped their bows to attention when their conductor raised her baton, then played the heck out of “Entry of the Tumblers.”

Though the performance was a thrill, in the context of an entire childhood it is hard to tease out how important the arts are to our kids’ lives and well-beings. I would like to think, however, that this recital will be remembered as some kind of turning point for my performance-averse child, who initially threatened to throw her audition.

I won’t know how accurate my theory is for quite some time, but there is a mounting collection of research that suggests arts education can have a powerful influence on kids in areas ranging from critical thinking and math skills to multicultural understanding and confidence.

Brian Kisida, assistant research professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, says the arts can give kids who may not be math whizzes or star athletes a place to excel, and finding that place to shine leads to all-important engagement. “There are correlational studies that show kids enrolling in high school arts programs are more likely to graduate and go to college.”

In addition, he says the arts can have the larger societal effect of increasing tolerance and empathy. “Art has a broadening effect because it presents a perspective on reality that challenges preconceived ideas and makes kids look at something from outside their comfort zone.”

Conversation Starter

On March 3 in Columbia, Mo., about 1,400 high school students got to experience that broadening effect when they attended the True/False Film Festival screening of “I Am Not Your Negro.” The screening was followed by a Q&A with film producer Hébert Peck, and the festival’s Education and Outreach Director Allison Coffelt said students submitted more than 200 questions. While a few were most curious about what it was like to work with Samuel Jackson, she says there were many “powerful questions asking what they could do and how they fit into this American history that shows the truth about our racist past.”

It’s an important conversation to have in our complex society, and one that probably would not have happened without a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant that made the screening —as well as other arts-education projects the Festival does with Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema and local public schools — possible. Coffelt describes that grant as “essential” to the work they do.

Art for All, Everywhere

Coffelt’s organization isn’t alone. The NEA is a 52-year-old government agency formed to give all Americans the opportunity to engage in the arts. It supports more than 2,000 programs, including arts education programs in every Congressional district, and they do it all on less than $150 million, accounting for just 0.003 percent of the federal budget in 2016.

In Lexington, Ky., for example, the Music on the Northside Initiative provided kids with free weekly music lessons and bluegrass group lessons focused on Appalachian-style music. Tulsa elementary students were taken to see a Tulsa Symphony presentation of “This Land is Your Land: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie.” Central and South Louisiana students learned about bullying during a Shreveport Opera Xpress performance of “The Ugly Duckling.”

Arts Education Under Threat

Unfortunately, programs like these are under threat because President Trump’s current budget proposal recommends eliminating the NEA altogether. It would be a serious blow, especially when many underfunded school districts are already scaling back arts programs.

Karen LaShelle is executive director of Creative Action, an Austin nonprofit that uses the arts to support the academic, social and emotional development of more than 20,000 kids. The organization relies on NEA funds for specific programs, and she says there is a tangible payoff for investment in arts education that kids can’t get in a typical learning environment. “Those who participate in the arts are more likely to do well in math and science and be involved in civics. They benefit from social-emotional learning that helps them manage their emotions, be aware of themselves and succeed later in life.”

Beyond the individual benefits, though, LaShelle says she has been mulling over what it would mean philosophically to have — or not have — federally funded arts programs. “What would it mean to us as a civilization to not have these moments of joy and culture and collective coming together?”

Many parents, grandparents and friends recently got to experience the joy of that “collective coming together” as 20 tweens played the heck out of “Entry of the Tumblers.” My hope is that we won’t as a nation dismiss “the arts” — these everyday achievements that have the potential to make our children smarter, more open, more enriched, more confident, happier — as unessential. They are much more valuable than a Picasso on a wall.

Jill Coody Smits is the author of Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas. You can follow her on Twitter @jcoodysmits.

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