Thinking Outside of the Tank

by Steven Harmon Wilson, Ph.D.

The DaVinci Institute is a “creativity think tank” that, while enjoying the support of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and with board members representing many Oklahoma public and private colleges and universities, has focused its energy on programs and projects that extend beyond the domain of higher education. For example, DaVinci has a proud “family tie” to Oklahoma A+ schools and other creative K-12 initiatives (see: I would like to highlight another budding branch on our family tree: Tulsa’s Any Given Child initiative, which will infuse arts experiences and education across the K-8 curriculum in Tulsa Public Schools. Supported by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., AGC-Tulsa premiered last fall. The project holds great promise for the future of the state’s creativity think tank, and it comes not a moment too soon for our children’s creative development.

By some measures, the state’s arts initiatives suffered a 20% cut in 2012 alone. It would be nice to be able to blame recent cutbacks or outright elimination of K-12 arts and music programs on the Great Recession and its resultant constraints, because then we could hope for restoration of funding once the storm passed. But that probably will not happen; the cuts reflect a longstanding trend. Arts have not been a broadly accepted budget priority even during boom times, and art funding hovers around less than 1% of Oklahoma’s state budget (see: Routes Contributor, “Budget cuts threaten K-12 art instruction,” January 25, 2012;

Those of us who have long cherished arts, music, and the humanities worry that children will have diminished opportunities to develop a wide appreciation of beauty. We further worry that they will not be allowed to explore and to hone their own native talents in a safe, supportive environment. I admit to holding a romantic view on the value of the arts for their own sake, and as an essential part of a well-rounded education. Romance aside, experts have studied the issue, and have produced research supporting the proposition that, in addition to missing out on a key creative outlet, students who do not have access to art and music classes may also have difficulty mastering core subjects, exhibit disciplinary problems, and suffer high dropout rates (see: I would add only the risk that such children will also grow up not appreciating art, and so may have no scruple against cutting any remaining funding even further. Oklahoma’s arts and humanities may not survive at all if such a “death spiral” develops.

A few years ago, when I was the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at the Metro Campus of Tulsa Community College (and freshly on the board of the DaVinci Institute), the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa invited me to join what it called the Community Arts Team. This turned out to be a group of like-minded romantics—patrons and professionals from the ballet, the museums, the performing arts centers, philanthropic organizations, the public and private schools—all of us similarly worried about the future of artistically deprived children. Participation in CAT meant addressing the challenge: well, what are you going to do about it? Over coffee and pastries, we set aside our worrying, and instead set about talking about the ways we could preserve, restore, and perhaps extend arts education.

Ultimately, we learned about and then sought the support and guidance of the Kennedy Center’s Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child initiative, which promotes expanded arts education, and specifically seeks to ensure access and equity for all students in grades K-8. This program helps selected communities (only a handful have made it through the application process) develop and implement a plan for infusing and integrating arts across the curriculum. Although the Kennedy Center provided a structure for work to be accomplished, and sent consultants to help us build on that structure, the mentors stressed that every community is unique, and that we would have to do the work of brainstorming, strategic planning, and visualizing the future of OUR Any Given Child program. We had to set long-term goals and commit to short-term action steps. We had to establish an organizational infrastructure to oversee and sustain an effective effort. We had to develop resources and professional development for the arts education providers we would rely on, including classroom teachers, arts organizations administrators, as well as teaching artists, musicians, and other performers.

The long-term goal is for every student in the district to be exposed to at least nine live arts experiences by the time they finish high school. And if you read this and worry that this was just a grant obtained from the federal government to replace the state funding, stop worrying: we had to secure funding and other resources necessary to sustain the community’s long-term goals for K-8 arts education, and we had to communicate and collaborate and consult with policymakers and leaders in the school district, local government, and arts organizations. In short (though it was a lengthy process) we were called upon to influence arts and education policy, so that the initiative’s gains would be institutionalized. Finally, because results must be measurable in order to matter, we had to convince the Kennedy Center mentors that we had the systems in place for outcomes assessment and data collection (See:

We succeeded in getting to AGC-T’s “opening night” in September 2013. The Tulsa Ballet offered a special Monday afternoon performance for fifth-graders from several Tulsa schools. First-graders had already begun taking field trips to Gilcrease Museum. Seventh-graders went to the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art. Fourth-graders enjoyed dance as performed by Choregus Productions. Sixth-graders were scheduled to visit the new Hardesty Arts Center (aka, AH-HA) in Tulsa’s expanding downtown arts district. If art is the heart of Any Given Child, its head is on integration: there are appropriate links made to a variety of academic subjects, such as science, language arts and social studies. All of the live arts experiences are reinforced with pre- and post-event lessons (see: Andrea Eger, “Any Given Child program brings arts to school kids,” Tulsa World, September 17, 2013;

The DaVinci Institute’s tie to Any Given Child-Tulsa has been, admittedly, a dotted- rather than a bold-line, but it is a reasonable association for me to make: as one of the few original advisory board members working in higher education, I have been in a good place to promote the long-term view that arts in the early years can lead to better prepared students in the colleges. During the year we transitioned from CAT to AGC (2012-13), I had the honor to serve as the Chair of the Governing Council. Romantic or not, I have been there from the beginning, to support the kids in K through 8, but always with an eye to improving prospects for the incoming classes of 2020 and beyond—and not just for TCC, but for all of the DaVinci Institute’s members and stakeholders. As a K-8 project, AGC-T is outside of Oklahoma’s creativity think tank, but it is heading our way. And this allows me to conclude this post on an optimistic note. What’s the matter with kids today? Nothing that a little more arts advocacy in the schools can’t help solve.

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