BWW Interviews: Houston Arts Partners Co-Chairs Talk ARTS WORK Conference

BWW Interviews: Houston Arts Partners Co-Chairs Talk ARTS WORK ConferenceA fascinating organization, Houston Arts Partners, is on the rise in Houston. Ready to fling the doors wide open on their third annual conference, the group is going above and beyond to foster long lasting partnerships between the worlds of public education and arts administration. This year's conference, titled Arts Work, is co-chaired by Bob Bryant, Executive Director of Fine Arts for Katy ISD, and Shelly Power, Associate Director for the Houston Ballet. As the conference has grown over the years, each side has embraced its importance. Notably the first conference was held at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. For it's second year at it was held at both the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and at University of Houston. This year, it'll be held at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Many important and invaluable sponsors donate time, money, effort, and energy to ensure this event happens. Silver Sponsors for this year's conference are Houston Ballet, Boeing, Bank of America, and Jim Benton of Houston, the conference's caterer. There is a large number of Bronze and Booth sponsors as well. For a full list of sponsors please click here. [http://www.hapconference.org/#!sponsorships/c46c] To get the inside scoop on this years activities, I recently spoke with Troy Scheid, Arts Education Initiative Specialist for Houston Arts Partners, Shelly Power, and Bob Bryant about what attendees can expect from this year's event.

BWW: How did Houston Arts Partners begin?

Troy Scheid: Houston Arts Partners started a few years ago as government school budgets started being tightened. The arts were suffering as a result;they were being cut. At the time, a couple of our arts administrators who now work with Houston Arts Partners through various districts got together with Young Audiences of Houston and said, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a way for us to combine the needs of the various districts with the educational offerings that all of our partner organizations had?" Mary Mettenbrink, who is now the Executive Director of Young Audiences, she was at the time the Education Director, and those arts administrators approached 20 arts organizations from all of the disciplines in the Houston area and founded Houston Arts Partners. It initially started as a yearly conference to provide arts integration tools for teachers who wanted to bring the arts into their classrooms. Then, there is http://www.HoustonArtsPartners.org, which is kind of a big box website, where teachers can go in the middle of the night if they have to and say, "I really want to get well-rounded arts experiences for my students. On this website I can book a museum fieldtrip, I can book a symphony artist coming to my school, and I can book a fieldtrip to the students to a go to a theater and see a performance." Since then, the conference has really gained a lot of momentum. One thing we are looking at now is creating in-depth partnerships by district to help answer their needs through the arts offerings that the arts organizations have.

Shelly Power: I would just add in to that that prior to three years ago when this conference really started up, we were having a one day kind of show and tell type performance down in the Theatre District, inviting all of the school partners to come in. The difficulty with that was that we didn't really have an avenue to stay in touch, keep that momentum going, and feeling like we were educating both sides - the arts as well as the schools - in what we were able to offer. So, this really filled a void for us, just kind of formalized what we were doing, put it into an educational experience, if you will, and also even gave a deeper level that is more based on application and really giving them more of a classroom type experience.

Troy Scheid: It also helps each side understands each other's needs better. When we started getting more requests for curriculum integration, our work on matching an art form with that objective become a lot clearer.

Shelly Power: Right.

Bob Bryant: Of course, Houston has always had a phenomenal professional arts district, and we love that. It was one of those times where we're all sitting there and asking, "How can we get the most out of what's being offered?" Every professional arts group had an educational outreach program. As an administrator, we were all going to a regional educational service center for only about a half-day and all the various professional arts groups were coming in, each one had a limited amount of time in which they would present some of their educational outreach programs, and then they'd give handouts. We were leaving this meeting with a whole bunch of literature about great stuff, but we never could figure out how we could make it more accessible to our schools and our teachers. So, we were sitting there and saying "Wouldn't it be great if we could kind of centralize all of this into one area in which we can take advantage of these fabulous educational programs that the professional partners have? But, where we can also prove to our principals and our district decision makers the validity of the arts?" This is where we saw the merger of a great partnership coming in, hence the website coming on and things like that.

Then, we could speak from the education standpoint and say, "Look, there's only so much money that our districts have out there, and we want to be able to stand in front of them and say, 'If you go here to bring in people, if you go here to go on field trips, this what kind of great opportunities you will provide for your students.'" So, it's a real natural marriage because all of the arts encompass all of the core academic subjects. We got both sides together, and we revealed the educational jargon and showed them kind of what a principal, a PTA, or somebody would be looking for as they get ready to bring in or count the resources that are available to them. We discussed what we needed to have so these decision makers would know that this is better. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who would say, "Hey, bring our program in. It's a great program," and that's just all there was to it. And what we found, as Troy alluded to earlier, budgets were being cut back and less money was available. We wanted to make sure the decision markers understood that if you only have so much money available, then you cannot spend it any better place than partnering up and bringing these folks in. They understand it and they connect to it. 52 area districts said, "This would be a great help as we go," and that's kind of how the whole thing took off, and it has been just a wonderful, wonderful partnership.

Kudos to the Young Artists group who basically were able to get all the big players of the Houston arts district at the table. It's been one of those things where we help them with it saying, "Here's what state legislation says. Here's what available," and they sit there and say, "Well, this is what we can offer." It's been great because they find out more form our side of it and see they how it fleshes out in a public school campus, and we found out more from their side of it what all it takes to get it to happen, the efforts they have, and the great resources they give to us. It's been a great, great, great marriage, believe me.

BWW: When and what was the inception of the Houston Arts Partners annual Conference?

Bob Bryant: I'll be honest with you, we've had principals and curriculum people that never took advantage of what the arts in Houston had to offer. They were not arts consumers. They did not go for performances or things like that, and once we were able to get them there and see what's happening they began to understand. So, the conference came about and kind of said, "Hey, this is what we can do," and all of a sudden the principals could go back and start talking. The very first year we had it, I had three principals come up and me say, "I don't care what they say, if they're looking for a partner to do that program that could help this," and I said, "Then go talk to them." Every one of the professional arts people really listen to see what the needs of each individual campus is. Then, both sides work together to achieve to the goals that help that campus. It's not only the entertainment factor but also the educational factor. As they provide great entertainment, students are learning more about Social Studies, Math, and Science, or Language Arts. It's a bigger bang for your buck, and since the bucks are getting smaller, we need the bigger bang. (Laughs)

BWW: This year's theme is "Arts Work." What does that mean to you?

Shelly Power: (Laughs) Well, it's kind of a play on words, but the arts work in our lives in a variety of ways. I know from the professional side of the arts, as leaders in the field, it's our responsibility to remind, reteach, and render that idea of partnership between the schools and the Houston Arts Partners. I think, in one way, it kind of solidifies how arts do work, create partnerships, and create opportunities. But, it's not just that, and I'm glad Bob said that it it's not just entertainment. It's an outlet for students. It creates pathways, not only into the arts for economical value, and it also helps cultivate communities. There's a lot of talk about what the arts do for communities. It makes it appealing for people to move here. It gives a well-balanced life. Then, from a level of creativity and competitiveness, the arts actually foster that learning experience. It's not a secret that people, such as doctors, took music when they were kids that it's become a very big part in their profession and in their own lives.

The arts do open up those creative brain pathways. I think the only way for us to be globally competitive is to inspire and incite that creativity, especially with technology the way it is. I mean, there are jobs out there that haven't even been created yet, so that creativity in and of itself and how technology has changed our lives so much is something that we want to foster. I think it's just a wonderful partnership for our generations to come. We may not have an immediate outcome that we can put our finger on, but we know it's coming, and we can see it. So, the arts work on many different levels for me, personally.

Bob Bryant: Exactly. I think you stole some of my notes on that. One of the reasons for settling on that title was it doesn't matter what level you're looking at or even what profession you're looking at, arts make that better. Period. This conference will have doctors, engineers, and people who can come up and talk about some of the skills they learned from the arts. We keep hearing people talk about the people skills and the soft skills and how people aren't learning those things. The reason being that sometimes people aren't socializing, and they're not getting the whole aesthetic appreciation for the world that's around them. The one thing the arts do is open that up. Also, for many students at the very young level, the arts are tapping into creativity. According to all global economists, America's future depends upon on creative intelligence and making that happen. We're just trying to foster that, and we've been fostering that. The conference was kind of an outreach just to say no matter where your are or what you're in, the arts are going not only to enrich that but to extend it far beyond and into places that we haven't even been able to venture in yet.

Shelly Power: I think we put that all together as we were talking about it, and I think it was actually Troy who said, "Ok, you're talking about arts work." (Laughs)

Troy Scheid: Another thing to add is that some of the major educational trends right now are STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, College and Career Readiness, Workforce Readiness, and things like that. When you hear those, you can't really assume that the arts were excluded from that education system, but what we want to do is also make the case explicitly that they should be included. If your goal is College and Career Readiness or workforce prepared for those STEM subjects, you're success rates will be greater if you include the skills taught by the arts. We're not necessarily advocating that we need to train singers, actors, or dancers, but that the skills conferred by arts education are universally valid and important.

BWW: How do you select keynote speakers and panelists?

Shelly Power: (Laughs) Sydney [Skybetter] just fell in our laps actually. I happened to have read an article he had written called "Letter and Apology to Dancers About to Enter the Dance World," and I was intrigued by that because I work for the [Houston] Ballet. It was really provocative. It reminded me and reminded dancers that the new generation will have to be creative and open minded to a new way of doing things. He has great ideas about technology, how things work in schools, how maybe they don't work, and how we could do things better. Although there is a limit, he was really telling dancers that it's going to be really hard for them to find a job as a dancer. They are few and far between, and that was the bad news. The good news was that the hot topic of technology and all it entails really lacks limits. So, I just thought it was a good fit, and he happened to be available. He knew Nancy Wozny, and I called her. She happened to know that he had a long, vested interest in the arts and was passionate. I looked him up and we started talking about what we were doing and how it might fit being a strong believer in STEM to STEAM [STEM + Art = STEAM] and putting that in schools as well. That's how the keynote speaker came about.

From there, between the administrative side and the artistic side, we were looking for a nice balance of people in the community who really had walked on both sides, who maybe had music in their life, dance, or opera, or whatever in addition to their professional careers, whether it was medicine or whatnot. We wanted to bring those people out of the community to speak about the relevancy, if you will, in their lives of the arts. We threw a lot of names into the hat and started looking at who was a good fit. Then, Troy [Scheid] has been amazing at really aligning those panels.

Troy Scheid: Yeah. As people started learning about the panels that we were doing, we got more and more people interested and different topics started spinning off. So, we had a STEM to STEAM panel, which is specifically about adding the arts to STEM focused education. And then we realized from the potential candidates for the STEM panel that we could also do a Art of Medicine panel. We thought that would be really powerful for Houston to say, "Here are medical professionals who know that some of the strengths in their education didn't come just from a pre-Med track in college. They have an arts education background as well, and while they didn't choose to go primarily into an arts field, they still realize what benefits they themselves received from their arts background."

I'm really happy with the quality of our panels. I think we have a huge range of excellent speakers. We have people talking about arts education and economic development. We've had a lot of recent studies saying, "Here's what the arts industry confers on Houston. It makes almost a billion dollars in income and provides this many jobs." The line between arts education and economic development is harder to track, but when you have a group of entrepreneurs sitting around a table saying, "I wouldn't be here without my arts education," then that has a powerful effect on the listener. Then, we have one called "Beyond the Minimum," which is about college and career readiness, and we have college admissions officers from Rice and University of Houston as well as the VP for Education in the Workforce from the Greater Houston Partnership talking about what college admissions officers are looking for and how having arts on your resume helps you. Then because the arts shouldn't be seen as a luxury and because everyone should have access to them whether they plan on doing four years of higher education or not, we have someone to talk about how the arts benefit you if your decision is to go straight into the workforce after high school.

Shelly Power: Or even to go into vocational training.

Troy Scheid: Right.

Bob Bryant: Also, the long range plan for all of this when we started the conferences and stuff is to be able to provide the quality sessions for those who are actually in the educational components of it and those who are in the professional arts, but also to take the possibility of not providing arts education off of the table for any discussion. We wanted everyone to be very aware of the impact of the arts in every life, not only to the developing student but also for adults. If you go back and study civilizations, you study their arts. You study the architecture; you study the literature, which is all tied in together to what we do. People need to understand that's what makes us a civil society. That's what makes us a civilization. We wanted to be able to be sure that the principals, who are the prime budget managers for their buildings, understand that its important that these students are not only exposed to the art but that they're engaged in the arts. They may not all be Picasso resurrected, but they can understand what and where it came from and appreciate what's going on. The training in that, regardless of what their end product may be, no matter how they've been wired or what their passion is, that arts education and engagement is going to make them much stronger in whatever field they do encounter. That takes it off the table when it comes to budget cuts. People don't need to see it as a problem to erase, they need to see it as a solution they can embrace.

Troy Scheid: Nice, and I think this might be a good time to say too that, while we focus on arts education in the conference and speifically on arts integration tools, Houston Arts Partners really advocates for what we call the complete or the balanced arts education. That includes live arts experience, going to museums, seeing plays and performances, learning in the arts, which is instruction in the forms of the arts, and learning through the arts, which is that arts integration component. We don't favor one over the other. We're in favor of all three.

BWW: Several of the scheduled activities align themselves to specific TEKS. Do you ask the presenters to do this, and are these activities typically ones teachers can take back and implement in their classrooms?

Shelly Powers: Yes and yes. (Laughs) I think for us it's important, on our end, to learn how those things occur as well. We're constantly learning from the teachers, and I think an independent application is what we'd like them to have to be able to go into the classroom and be able to apply some of these things that they do on their own as well as have educational components that bring us there or they come to us.

Bob Bryant: The whole key to this partnership is the fact that the professional organizations in Houston have always had great educational outreach things. It seems like all the teachers and principals in our district understood what was there, but they never made the connection with how that could actually bolster and strengthen our students. So, by showing them how this thing might work, how a partnership might work, and letting them know, "Hey, listen, maybe your campus doesn't have a problem with the periodic elements, but maybe they do have a problem with fractions or they have a problem with basic physics. We talk about how all of our theatre classes, especially at the upper level ones, teach physics everyday when they're talking about their rigging and the lighting set ups and angles from Algebra."

I say this very, very, very, very passionately. I believe in it. The professional arts organizations we have in Houston are second to none, and bringing in these people at the top of their game and just clueing them in on, "Hey, we know you do this. We value what you do. We see what you do. Guess what, I bet you could hook it to this." It's not their job to follow the Texas Legislature. There is no way they could stay at the top of their craft in the professional arts world and be in our world at the same time, so those of us that have to work in the educational world can say, "Hey, this is what we've got." They [the artists] say, "This is what we've got." Then, marry those together. One message that's been brought up at every conference is, "If you see something you like, if you see a session that you emjoy, visit with whoever had that session and let them know." In doing this, we've been able to have a theater writing component in our district for four years. As a result of it, we've seen the writing scores for these high schools just go through the roof because we started doing this playwrighting stuff and getting in to the development of how one of these leads to the other. We found a different way, a different vehicle, and it was provided by the professional arts partners coming in. They're basically hearing the same instructions on getting to what the desired outcomes should be, but they're hearing it from someone that's not the teacher that teaches the same thing in the classroom. They're hearing it said in a different way, in a different vehicle, and all of a sudden it's whole lot more fun to ride this train than it was to be on that steam ship. That may be a poor analogy, but all of a sudden it's finding a place to get them where we want them to go, and the deep understanding is that they're hooking into some passions they didn't even know they had.

Shelly Power: And making that accessible. The accessibility to the higher art is only going to make them shoot higher as well as students, and I think the teachers know that. I think its that access that makes the beauty of this work so well.

BWW: What are you most looking forward to about this year's conference?

Shelly Power: I think the biggest thing for us is that it really does develop long-term partnerships. The take away is those first experiences when we learn something as adults or as students are so life-lasting, and we want to create many more first experiences, if you will. I think that the chance to have everyone there that is like-minded and creating ways to have those first experiences continue on for generations to come. At the same time we are reminding and rendering that idea of what the arts can actually teach preserves the longevity of our field. Then, the bigger vision is we don't know what this is going to foster later on, but if we can create that spark with an administrator or a teacher, those are the things that are life-lasting and that will last us a long time.

Bob Bryant: I want to say that those of us that are in arts education or actually engaged professionally in the arts, that we have a better sympathy for what's going on. We do get a tendency to get caught up in our own passion and forget that there's another world out there. They can't see the same the thing that we're seeing, but the greatest reward for me over the last two years - and I expect a even bigger reward this year - is the reaction from the folks who have come into this conference from our district that have been district decision makers. Every one of them has said, "I never thought about that. I never thought that way before. I didn't realize what a good tie in that is." So, that's kind of fun because we're getting to take adults who are in the education world to places they'd never thought of even though they had already had a successful teaching career. All of a sudden, we're extending what they're looking at and how they're looking at things. They're not asking the question "What;" they're asking the question, "What if." That to me, that's a big thing.

Troy Scheid: For me, as well, it's the expanding the possibilities of partnerships. I feel like one of the main requirements of my job in putting the conference together and managing the initiative generally. I often feel like a translator between cultures, between the arts organization culture and the school district culture, and every one agrees there's a value to education, that all kids need to be reached, and they all need access to the best education they can get. Sometimes I feel like through the conference and through our partnership we're overcoming a cultural divide because there is a reason somebody decided to become a classroom teacher in science and doesn't necessarily feel comfortable right off the bat doing a dance based lesson to teach their learning objective, and there's a reason somebody became a dancer and not a science teacher. I feel like there's a certain amount of acting out that has already taken place, and through this kind of partnership and translation, everybody starts teaching the same language because they have the same mission, which is for kids to get the best possible education. For a science teacher that's skeptical about maybe using a theatre tool or a dance tool in the classroom to suddenly say, "Ok, I see what you're saying. Let me try that," and for a theatre teacher who's said, "Yes, science. That wasn't my best class. That's not really for me" to try and make that outreach to the science learning objectives is really powerful and moving. The kids are learning, but the adults are learning as well. One of the things we tried to strengthen in this year's conference is the time allotted for creating partnerships, so on the Friday evening of the conference we have a mixer that's going to be catered by Jim Benton and it's scheduled to be at the Wortham Center, in the Green Room. Whatever interesting discussions have been sparked during your day at the conference can be continued, and you can talk with the art partners that are going to be there, exchange business cards, and say, "Hey, I really need a theatre component or a visual arts component at my school, what can you do?" So, it's not just make and take activities, but hopefully it will foster something that lasts longer.

BWW: For school districts or teachers that aren't currently involved in this partnership, how can they get involved this year?

Troy Scheid: There is still time to register, and we encourage everybody to do that. They can do that through our website, http://www.HoustonArtsPartners.org, and that will link to our conference website. You can take a look at our schedule for both of the days. You can sign up for one day or both. There's a big discount for both the days, but I know not everybody will be able to take a Friday off. So, we have a really balanced schedule with a lot good partners and strong panels presenting on each day. We're also, on Saturday, going to be announcing the theme and co-chairs for the 2014 conference, so we're moving right along on next year's as well.

Bob Bryant: Also, if they can, volunteering, helping out, and just kind of becoming a part of it. There are some people who say we need to build an arts community, but we don't need to build it. We need to engage the arts community and build a culture, so it becomes so much of us. It's already there on the inside; we know that. We just need to make sure everyone understands they can foster it on the outside in a very productive way.

Houston Arts Partner's 3rd Annual Conference, themed Arts Works this year, will be held at the Huston Ballet Center for Dance at 601 Preston Street, Houston 77002. The conference will be held on Friday, September 13 through Saturday, September 14, 2013. For more information or to register for the conference please visit http://www.hapconference.org or http://houstonartspartners.org.

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