Making an impact in Baltimore, together

On March 5, 6 & 8 we had the wonderful opportunity to celebrate BSA with the Baltimore Community at our annual fundraiser and showcase, Expressions. For more than thirty years now, this event has garnered private dollars for important initiatives and programs at BSA that are not funded by the Baltimore City Public Schools. Together, we raised more than half a million dollars to support the students at BSA, as well as the thousands of others that we touch through the school’s community outreach.

In my opening remarks at the event I took our guests “backstage” and shared a bit of what’s happening at BSA. I’d like to share those thoughts here with you.

We know that where a child lives in Baltimore can profoundly affect his or her opportunities. BSA is concerned about this reality and one of our most important programs is TWIGS, our free, after-school arts program for younger kids. We also know that just because a program is free doesn’t mean that all students can access it.

To reach kids in neighborhoods that BSA hasn’t touched deeply, we created a pilot program called HelloTWIGS. It targets the Armistead Gardens and Broadway East neighborhoods. School leaders there identified second- through sixth-graders that might thrive in dance, visual arts or theatre classes.

2016Expressions_Sat-373Thanks to generous support from City Council President Jack Young we have a bus that brings 40 students and parents to BSA classes every Saturday—all year long.  And they’ve been doing great!  We know that community partnerships like this are essential to BSA and Baltimore in the long term.

At Expressions, we had the opportunity to see some of our youngest students from the TWIGS dance program perform. We also asked filmmaker Joe Rubino to visit with the kids in Hello TWIGS to help us capture the program on camera. Take a look by clicking here.

We are also constantly thinking about how to nurture our high school students and ensure life success. In imagining the future, we must continue to create a powerful launch pad to prepare our young people for an exciting and ever changing world.

It will be a future that won’t look like yesterday or today. The weekly magazine, The Economist, recently contended “47% of today’s occupations will likely not exist in the next few decades.”

With that in mind, we believe it’s time to expand our idea of artistic education. As we continue to develop our students’ artistic expertise we are also espousing the following core values: confidence, curiosity, collaborative skills, individual purpose and global perspective.

We believe these characteristics are key to a powerful future for our kids AND we want to broaden what’s possible for them. Our school-wide plans for next year reflect this goal. Over the course of the year, we will study the art, culture and life of the people of the African continent. Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population or 1.1 billion people.  This project will develop our students’ global perspective.

BSFA1-3048Broadening what’s possible is also about new tools. Some of those tools are in our fantastic Center for Collaborative Arts & Technology. Right now, students and faculty are using this space, and some brand-new 3D Printers, to create a virtual reality camera rig, tying 6 GoPro cameras together to film an entire space simultaneously.

Before long, we hope to create a new cinematic storytelling major using some of the amazing technology in this space.

We’re also continuing to embrace what has worked so well in our current model and has led so many of our students to intensely rewarding careers, in the arts and in a variety of other fields.

Filmmaker Joe Rubino was able to capture some of the core values in action here in the work done everyday at BSA. He visited a master class with BSO Concertmaster Jonathan Carney as he helped BSA’s talented string players to prepare Bach’s Sinfonia No. 5 in b minor. Click here to see the video.

Joe also had the chance to observe and talk with BSA alum Jermaine Spivey, a dancer who has worked internationally for some incredible companies and choreographers. Click here to see the video.

2016Expressions_Sat-681All of this work is important and we know it will lead to great outcomes for our city and our young people. Many of the opportunities described here are also privately funded through the BSA Foundation and the proceeds from Expressions and other fundraising activities. We are immensely grateful to have the Baltimore Community by our side as we continue to

  • actively reach out to all neighborhoods of our city to make our programs accessible;
  • thoughtfully hone a nationally recognized, pre-professional high school that nurtures the young artists of the future;
  • prepare young people for creative lives in a rapidly changing world; and
  • broaden what’s possible with new tools and resources such those available in our Center for Collaborative Arts & Technology.

This work will not be happen without our community. Together we are making a beautiful and significant impact in Baltimore. Thank you and stay tuned for more news from BSA.

Meeting Alumni & Professionals in California Reinforces BSA’s Mission & Goals

I was fortunate to be in California last week as Baltimore was getting hit with a historic blizzard. I was even more fortunate to meet with a variety of BSA alumni in L. A. and San Francisco, as well as visiting a couple of schools.

I saw a couple of career threads among the alumni I met that were encouraging. For mid-life (ages 30-45) alumni, I found them generally in solid middle-class jobs that provided opportunities to use their artistic training and interests to a large or significant degree.  Of course there are some who are appearing on stage or exhibiting in galleries. I expected to see some of those folks as we tend to keep a close eye on their careers.

But we also met folks who use their BSA training in fascinating ways—

  • working for the film/tv industry in some of the tremendous variety of jobs they have available—from real estate management to art direction
  • opening a fitness studio
  • developing a special niche for their artistic work—a guitarist who primarily works playing guitar in baroque continuo settings
  • developing brand awareness for companies through still images and video content.

Younger alumni in California are in the time of finding their own path—as are 20-somethings everywhere. But there seemed to be an optimism that was exciting, a belief that a great path was in their future and a willingness to keep looking till they find it.

I found the whole professional environment they inhabit to be encouraging—they are keeping connections to others from Baltimore and reaching out to make connections with the broader cultural community in California. I also found that the values identified in our Strategic Plan – curiosity, confidence, expertise, collaboration, purpose, and global perspective – to be essential to their drive forward.

These values were also echoed at the two universities we visited—the University of Southern California and Stanford University. We visited these schools because of early connections with BSA that we wish to develop further.


The USC visit was spurred by their creation of a new school for dance—the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. BSA alumnus Lenai Wilkerson (2015) is in their inaugural class and stood out as fantastic dancer in the class our team saw.  This school has at its core three pillars of dance—modern dance, ballet and hip-hop dance. All USC dance students seriously study these three forms and they cross-pollinate to an interesting degree. When asked the goal of the program, Asst. Dean Jody Gates said, “for our students to create art in forms that currently do not exist.”  I think this is a bold and smart goal for a cultural world that is changing very quickly.


We also visited the “Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation.” It focuses on design thinking, visual thinking, social design, creative/design leadership, fabrication etc. in a facility much like our C-CAT.  It’s exciting to see our ideas replicated by some of the most forward-thinking schools & artistic entrepreneurs of our country.  By the way Andre Young is “Dr. Dre” and Mr. Iovine was his partner in developing “Beats by Dr. Dre.”

The Stanford visit was spurred by a former BSA music student, Daphna Davidson, who has a lead position as the Chief Financial Officer for the Stanford development office. We also spoke with staff that are charged with infusing art into the education of all students at the University and with admissions folks.

We learned that Stanford is pushing its exceptional student population to engage in artistic practice, regardless of major. We learned that the art students at Stanford Arts have great opportunities to create projects that cross disciplinary boundaries and take advantage of the amazing tech community that the school is famous for (Apple & Silicon Valley are in the immediate area).

Based on these conversations, I think there are great opportunities at this amazing school for some of our students—and that the University is interested in our kids as well.

While it took a couple of extra days to get home because of the snow, the trip was very valuable in seeing, first-hand, what our alumni are doing at a variety of points in their careers, and in visiting excellent universities that are considering how to best serve their students in a changing world. Exactly the kind of work we are doing at BSA for our students from 2nd to 12th grade!

Steven Tepper, Rick Lowe, and some great news for creative workers

BSA had the honor to host a wonderful thinker and researcher who studies the professional lives of young creative workers last week. Steven Tepper, a sociologist by training, is the Dean of the Herberger School of Art & Design at Arizona State University.

Steven’s talk highlighted the many advantages of training in the arts – for a host of careers. Among his many pursuits, he plays a major role in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a survey of graduates of college and high school arts programs.

Woven through his presentation was the sense that employers value creative people, artists are generally much more happy with their lives than the general workforce and students who train as artists work in their fields at higher rates than most professionals.

Among the many fascinating findings he shared with us – a poll of the top 500 U.S. CEOs stated the most valued characteristic in employees is creativity. It would seem that students of the arts should have some real value in that dimension.

It was also interesting to learn that graduates of university arts programs pursued artistic careers in greater percentages than most STEM degree holders. The mythical outcome of arts programs, the food service industry, is home to only 3% of arts graduates.

In terms of employment/unemployment artists fare pretty well too. When you ask if artists are making their living in artistic pursuits, the unemployment level is well below the national average. Only when you pose the question as the U.S. Dept of Labor does (have you made money at this profession in the last week?) do you find higher than average unemployment numbers. Most artists are project-based so income arrives in clumps rather than in a weekly paycheck. I was fascinated to learn that even in the depths of the 2008 recession artists experienced lower unemployment than the nation at large.

Lastly, Steven shared the very high level of reported job satisfaction for artists, a level that’s double many “financially safe” professions. Surely the joy one feels in your professional career is worth noting, particularly if unemployment is less than national averages.

Steven was in town to participate in a convening of local and national figures to consider how the arts can contribute to a more equitable, diverse and socially cohesive community in Baltimore (see my recent blog about this conference here).

At this meeting, I had the pleasure to meet a professional artist with an interesting story that connects to Steven’s talk. Rick Lowe, trained as a painter, has shifted his work to engage in public art that focuses on community revitalization. Rick told me that he was from Houston, Texas and we talked about that region (See more about his ProjectRowHouses).

He also told me about a current project in Dallas, Trans.Lation in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood, which I had a chance to visit this past weekend. Rick’s work there is designed to celebrate the incredible diversity of the neighborhood and provide resources to allow its residents to flower. On Saturday, the Trans.Lation crew was at the Oak Cliff Community Center in South Dallas (for history buffs, it is next to the Texas Theatre, the site of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest after assassinating President Kennedy). The project provided food-handling courses for some wonderful Middle Eastern chefs. These ladies were dishing out some great food and making some money along the way.

I find it fascinating that Rick’s work as an artist is dedicated to bringing a better life to people in communities rich in possibility but poor in some of the things we all prize. Vickery Meadow might ring a bell with you. It is a neighborhood with many recent immigrants with minimal resources. If it rings a bell, it may be because the first U.S. Ebola case came from that neighborhood.

What an interesting outcome for an artist! Apparently others think so too, as Rick is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award.

So many possibilities are out there for our young people! As a school we are dedicated to developing the strongest imaginable preparation for them.

The time is now to help make Baltimore healthier for all its citizens

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a lengthy discussion convened by The Aspen Institute about Baltimore’s future, with particular focus on the role that the arts and culture could play in improving Equity, Diversity and Social Cohesion in our city.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. From time to time it hosts seminars which help participants reflect on what they think makes a good society, thereby deepening knowledge, broadening perspectives and enhancing their capacity to solve the problems leaders face.

The seminar group was hosted by Sammy Hoi, President of MICA, and included representatives from Baltimore’s arts community as well as nationally recognized thinkers and funders for the arts. The first day included site visits to the Baltimore Design School, the Youth Resiliency Institute in Cherry Hill and a BSO OrchKids site in West Baltimore.

On the second day we heard from Maria Rosario Jackson, a social policy expert who’s focused on the arts in DC & in California. She talked about the ways artists and art education can strengthen communities, with a particular focus on “Creative Kitchens,” the places where communities “cook” their cultural activities for consumption within those communities. This grassroots approach could, very naturally, improve cohesion within cultural groups and present an interesting cultural vitality in the broader community.

Baltimoreans spoke about their vision of Baltimore’s future in the context of Equity, Diversity and Social Cohesion. I’m not alone in noticing that the division in Baltimore’s neighborhoods is particularly stark. In fact, the differences in wealth between adjacent neighborhoods are among the most extreme nationwide. A recent study found that the life expectancy in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods was 22 years less than in its wealthy ones.

The disinvestment in certain neighborhoods is historic and intentional, dating from at least the 1930s and it has brought us to today’s situation and April’s uprisings. To learn more from the Aspen Institute’s findings and work group recommendations, click here.

Surely these are not the characteristics that we would envision in our dream of a “perfect Baltimore.”  What to do about this situation and can arts and culture play a role in making our city healthier for all its citizens?

Certainly city and state government play a role in providing resources for development of the built environment and for social services. Those resources need to be applied equitably with an inclusive vision of our city’s future. That said, arts and culture can provide critical human connections for young and old alike. Beyond this, art and culture provide an important way for each of us to make meaning of our lives and of the communities in which we build with those lives.

The programs we visited last week, the Youth Resiliency Institute in Cherry Hill, OrchKids in West Baltimore and the Design School are all doing this work with our young people.  Through our high school and TWIGS programs, BSA also provides a place for youth from all over Baltimore to come together to make meaning of their lives.

BSA is also reaching out to communities that may have a difficult time getting to us through TWIGS with other programs. We have a partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs at a few of their sites, and another new program to introduce students from two challenged communities in East Baltimore to the arts at BSA.

All of these efforts thrive because artists care and each effort makes a difference. But each is limited in its reach and struggles to find support to continue its work. We need something more to reach a positive tipping point in providing powerful experiences for ALL of Baltimore’s young people. We need organized, coordinated programs that reach all of the kids in Baltimore.

Interestingly, one of the mayoral candidates did attend some of this seminar. And our brilliant leader, Sammy Hoi, composed an “open letter to the next mayor of Baltimore” summarizing many of the visions expressed around the (large) table.

Of course, one listening candidate and one letter have limited effect. To put ALL of Baltimore’s citizens in an optimistic place, to build the social cohesion that would benefit ALL of Baltimore’s residents will take a clear message from the larger community that this is the vision of the whole community.

All of the participants agreed upon one thing: Baltimore is at a critical point.

The nation is watching us, national foundations are watching us and we have a special opportunity and a serious charge to move forward in building an Equitable, Inclusive and Socially Cohesive city. Also—this is a limited time offer. The time is now.

A shift to the collaborative and the inter-disciplinary in Seattle

I had the honor of attending and speaking at the Arts Schools Network national conference focusing on secondary & elementary arts schools last week in Seattle. Definitely new geographical territory for me and really interesting.  The focus was “technology” but this seemed to be allied to organizations in the midst of adjusting to a changing world in the arts and in education.  I found this to be great food for thought for me as we begin to implement BSA’s Strategic Plan.

ASN_Seattle_1060x300The host institution for the event was Cornish College of the Arts, a 100-year-old post-secondary school with performing and visual arts—mirroring BSA’s curriculum closely.  They are in the midst of shifting their students’ experiences to the collaborative and to the inter-disciplinary.  Along the way I learned that major experimental artists like Merce Cunningham and John Cage had been connected to the school.  Both men existed somewhat over the edge of traditional practice and the school is certainly proud of the connection—but they feel the need to continue to make adjustments in curriculum and school structure to serve their students well.  Interesting.

Of course Seattle has been home to other notable artists too. Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are celebrated in the striking EMP Museum designed by Frank Gehry and funded largely by Paul Allen of Microsoft.  Across the street is the sprawling campus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a beautiful outdoor artwork by Janet Echelman called “Impatient Optimist.”

Monica Ponce de Leon wants students to misuse the equipment and make mistakes in her "Fablab."
Monica Ponce de Leon wants students to misuse the equipment and make mistakes in her “Fablab.”

We heard an amazing woman speak about the importance of the arts in the life of a major university. Monica Ponce de Leon, currently Dean of Architecture at the University of Michigan and soon to fill that role at Princeton, talked about the work she’s done within the architecture school to support the interaction between two ideas:

  • Understanding the “handmade”
  • Understanding emerging technologies

And in doing so, imagining a different world that will integrate the roles of the artist and the scientist.

She’s also initiated a hi-tech “FABLab” that includes lots of interesting machines, with a focus on robotics in architecture.  I was fascinated to hear that she “wants the students to misuse the equipment and make mistakes.”  In this context, she finds the way to innovation includes a lot of creative failure.  She’s not the first to suggest this!

Dancer Liz Lerman, at BSA Monday, believes the unlikely collisions of ideas spark new ideas.
Dancer Liz Lerman, at BSA Monday, believes the unlikely collisions of ideas spark new ideas.

I was moved to see that Dr. Ponce de Leon featured a quote of the amazing dancer Liz Lerman in her summary. In the quote, Liz suggested that working the unlikely collisions of ideas spark new ideas.  Liz came to BSA on Monday to talk to staff about the design of a pilot class focused on interdisciplinary collaboration.  We expect to roll out that class in February.

To close, I’ll go back to the work at Cornish. They believe that it’s critical to adjust curriculum and structure to prepare students to thrive in or out of the arts world.  Change in any organization is hard, but they appear to have made a lot of progress and students feel well served.  I caught some of the thinking about “goals for students” with in my scrabbly notes:

  • Develop a unity of knowledge to transcend their own discipline & inform their work
  • Engage their vision and talents
  • Ignite internal and external collaborative partnerships
  • Support creative development
  • Collect, analyze & apply qualitative and quantitative data to ascertain the effectiveness of the work

I think the wealth of non-specific, transferrable skills in this list is stunning. It definitely provides food for thought as we work to implement BSA’s Strategic Plan to provide the most powerful education for our students.

More soon.

Presenting BSA’s Strategic Plan

As BSA’s Strategic Planning Committee worked to answer the question “What do our kids need to become thriving adults?” and discussed where to find the vision, the wisdom and the experience that would lead us to meaningful answers, we consulted several main sources – BSA alumni, national surveys of arts alumni, artists who did not attend BSA, innovative post-secondary school leaders, and loads of written materials.

65% of the jobs current 18-year-olds will hold in the future don't exist yet. How do we prepare our students for them?
65% of the jobs current 18-year-olds will hold in the future don’t exist yet. How do we prepare our students for them?

We looked to alumni who are living the life of professionals—in the arts and in other fields. They are able to see clearly what BSA provided to them, as well as what went unsaid while here. They were a very valuable resource. We were able to gather information from them in different ways.

  • At our 35th Anniversary celebration last fall, about 20 alumni gave short talks to our current students about their work and how they prepared themselves for that work.
  • In a panel discussion, 12 alums responded to specific questions about how BSA helped them prepare for their current professional life and what BSA might have missed in that preparation.
  • BSA students conducted structured interviews of pairs of alumni as part of an oral history project and reported those results to the Strategic Planning Committee.
  • BSA staff also spoke individually to many alumni about their lives and their work.

BSA also participates in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, the largest Arts Alumni survey in the U.S. We’re able to look at the responses of BSA alumni as well as the responses of more than 100,000 other arts graduates over a very wide range of questions.

All of these conversations were fascinating, helpful and not a little surprising. For example, who would have thought that an alum working in the film industry combined her interest in environmental sustainability to create a business to provide product placement in films of “green” products? Or, who would have thought that several of our professional theatre alumni would find lucrative work in helping business people in their presentation skills?

All of this rich information helps us understand today’s professional landscape and helps us think about preparing our graduates to thrive in it.

We also talked to young artists who didn’t attend BSA. What kind of work do they do and what skills are necessary—artistic and otherwise?

Finally we talked to innovative leaders of post-secondary schools. What trends in do they notice in the careers of artists and what will they be doing to maximize the effectiveness of their programs?  And what do they notice about BSA grads in their schools?

The professionals we interviewed believe that artistic practice will be increasingly collaborative in nature.
The professionals we interviewed believe that artistic practice will be increasingly collaborative in nature.

There was also a lot of reading—reading about creativity, about the creative workforce, about trends in the creative economy and about the myriad effects of technology on the arts.

The interesting thing about this process was the convergence of experience of the present and opinion about the future. Many of our interviewees noted similar experiences and the great thinkers we consulted had similar ideas about how artists will work in the future. Our interviewees believe that artistic practice will be increasingly

  • Collaborative
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Involved with technology
  • Artists will do more work independent of large artistic organizations

They also talked about the almost blinding rate of change. MICA President Samuel Hoi had a shocking fact for us to consider: 65% of the jobs that students under 18 will have don’t even exist yet. 65%!

So, if we don’t know these specifics of the jobs or the expectations our kids will face, how can we prepare our students for the future? By focusing on goals, skills and values that will help our students address the identified trends and the unknown specifics of that future.

I am excited about where all of these talks led us, and about the future for our students. I hope you will take a look at BSA’s Strategic Plan (click here), the result of all of this input from so many thoughtful, talented and successful working professionals.

More soon as implementation gets underway!

A look at the music industry as we consider what our kids need

The BSA Strategic Plan was launched to answer this central question: “What do our kids need?” Or in a more expansive form, “What do our kids need to become thriving adults?”

Why ask this when BSA has been fulfilling students’ educational needs for 36 years? Because the world is changing. The world of the arts in 2015 is different from the world of the arts in 1979 (when the school was founded). We want our students to be prepared to thrive in this shifting landscape.

turntableTo build a little context, in 1980 as the first class of BSA students was starting its second year, U.S. recorded music was delivered in the following ways:

  • Vinyl LPs 60%
  • Cassette Tapes 20%–Have our students ever seen a cassette tape?
  • 8-track tapes-15%–What’s an 8-track??
  • CDs weren’t commercially released till 1984!

More recently, the music industry has had other massive changes. Revenues for recorded music in physical format declined by 75% between 2000 & 2014. At some point in this period, more revenue was derived from phone ring tones than from sales of full-length recordings!

Staying with music for a bit, the per capita income of musicians has outpaced the general workforce in recent years as the total number of musicians employed has remained roughly constant. The change is in the nature of the employment.

Technology skills are important for modern musicians
Students have access to the latest technology and the opportunity to bring independent and group projects to fruition in BSA’s Center for Collaborative Arts & Technology.

Musicians working for institutions (orchestras, ballet companies, opera houses) have declined significantly. Musicians working as self-employed have increased significantly. Artists we spoke with in preparing our strategic plan told us that it is far more common for an artists to conceive a project, realize that project and have to market, distribute, and monetize that project today. That’s a long way from working for an institution!

The world is changing quickly and that change is accelerating. Change can cause some to struggle, but it will provide opportunities for others. We want our students to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities.

What do our kids need to be prepared for a professional world that has yet to reveal itself? What are the awarenesses, attributes and skills that will serve them for their entire work life?

These are the questions the BSA Strategic Plan seeks to answer. I look forward to sharing more about the process and our conclusions, as well as the plan itself, in posts to come.