Stevenson Elementary School teacher Nika Rumion talks about an art studio program she created at the school three years ago. Photo by Stephanie Rivera.
For some, art may not be thought of as a vehicle for international diplomacy, leadership development or the ability to transform societies, but community leaders in Long Beach think otherwise.
In an attempt to connect how art can shape citizen diplomats and ultimately peace, the Arts Council for Long Beach held its Open Conversation series at the Expo Arts Center Monday night during which stakeholders discussed the importance of arts education.
The conversation was requested by Mayor Robert Garcia and Sister Cities International, which is holding a Youth Artists and Authors Showcase themed Art of Diplomacy this year.
“The art of diplomacy for us is really about seeing how our young children and young people at the schools can use the tools of art in their everyday lives and become ambassadors not only in California but throughout the country and in other sister cities, starting with Sister Cities International art contest (YAAS),” said the art council’s Executive Director Griselda Suarez at the event.
Mayor Robert Garcia and Councilman Al Austin shared their own anecdotes about how art has influenced their lives as politicians.
When Garcia went to Japan on a port-related business trip, he stopped by Long Beach’s Sister City Yokaichi. During that visit it became clear to him that societies can communicate with each other through the arts.
“You don’t need to be versed in multiple languages to understand and feel the same way about a painting or about an art exhibit, you can just feel that connection to other parts of the world through art and through most interactions through art,” Garcia said.
He also noticed how proud people in Yukaichi were of their relationship with Long Beach in large part because of the exchange of artwork and conversations with artists.
Councilman Al Austin, who also took part in Monday night’s event, said his first international trip was to China last summer and noted how important it is to travel in an effort to broaden one’s horizons.
Austin credited his work ethic to art, specifically as a youth when his parents required him to practice on his saxophone for hours.
“For me, playing music was so important,” the 8th District councilman, who still keeps his saxophone at his bedside, said. “It conditioned me to think, to be creative, to collaborate with other people. Having that creativity is so important in everything we do today. You have to be creative in business, you have to be creative in government, you have to be creative in just about everything that you do.”
While the Long Beach Unified School District, among other school districts statewide and even nationally, is still not at a point financially to increase funding or expand programs, including arts education, Monday night’s conversation shed a light on what educators are doing countywide and locally to combat this obstacle.
Nika Rumion, a literacy teacher at Stevenson Elementary School in Long Beach, showcased what she called a “secret project” she has been crafting for about three years.
Called the Stevenson Art Studio, this program gives access to all students at the school and provides teachers with curriculum and the tools to effectively use art at all levels and for all subjects.
Rumion also noted the importance of the studio after noticing a decline in motor skills. She has seen kindergartners try to swipe books and show an increase in impatience.
What’s also important is that students are introduced not just to various types of art mediums but to artists from different backgrounds.They learn about everything from Matisse to the Harlem Lindy Hop. At the end of the year an art show that serves as a fundraiser features the work students do and allows for parents to see their work and even make art with them.
When asked by audience members how the community can help, Rumion said financial donations and volunteering were most needed.
Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board President Megan Kerr, who also participated in the discussion, revealed that LBUSD had cemented a partnership with Music Center in Los Angeles for a three-year professional development program for kindergarten, first and second graders.
Denise Grande, who is part of the ArtsEd Collective at the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), shared the county’s efforts to fund art programs at school districts who may not have the funding or networks to do so. She admitted the collective has a ways to go before it can make sure all students countywide can receive arts education year-round.
With a goal to connect all 81 school districts in the county with art programs, county educators have recently launched a think tank called Arts Education Innovation Lab.
The innovation lab came about when these leaders acknowledged that if they believed arts are core to human development then they could not be content with having core segments of these communities in the county not having the arts as part of their normal development, according to Grande.
“If we’re able to start [implementation] in 2020 I’m constantly reminded that if we are able to start rolling out arts education countywide at scale in all 2,200 schools it will be 13 years after that that we graduate the first senior class of high school seniors who will have had arts education every year, all year, all 13 years of the public school education,” Grande said.