Art for art’s sake? Old adage may have new ally.

Back in May of 2013, I wrote a piece about my frustrations as a fine art teacher with the number of times I have had exceptionally talented and engaged students tell me that they could no longer pursue their love of the fine arts in school. I began that piece with the following imaginary, but oh so often repeated exchange:

“Hey Janice! I see you are doing your course selections for next year. Coming back to Drama?”

Janice: (With a pained, embarrassed and somewhat apologetic expression) “Sorry, Mr. Frost. I can’t take Drama in grade 11. I have to get my (*Insert Science class here) next year. I will be a) too busy or b) have no room in my schedule.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do understand the conundrum. Current wisdom tells us that studying the sciences leads to high paying jobs, and although the fine arts are a passion in our household; a passion that both my wife and I hope to pass on to our daughter,  I was raised with a fair share of good old-fashioned Protestant pragmatism. I understand that for many, the word “artist” often means “broke”, and even I, champion of the arts that I am, find myself torn between these two solitudes. The artist in me revels in the ideal of my daughter pursing these passions and bringing her unique voice and vision of the world to the world.

The pragmatic protestant parent in me, however, sometimes worries about how she is going to pay the rent.

Well,  a few days ago, my perspective on the “becoming an artist” versus “paying the rent” debate received a very welcome adjustment. Because it appears that, in the not too distant future, some Nova Scotia High school students are going to be learning how to do both.

On Friday, November 21st I was one of a couple of dozen folks invited to the NSCC water front campus to be introduced to a brand new course that the DEECD is planning on offering to Nova Scotia students in September. The course, called Arts Entrepreneurship, is, at its heart, designed “… to offer students an entrepreneurial experience in an aspect of the cultural sector that interests them”.

In essence, it will help teach them how to make a living doing what they love.

The curriculum, heavily based in Project Based Learning (PBL) is divided into four modules, each spanning anywhere from 25 to 40 instructional hours. Module 1, The Cultural Business, focuses on teaching students about the realities of the arts as a viable business option. Module 2 The Artist Within Me, allows the students class time to create art, and focuses, rather nicely, I believe, on the creative process. Module 3, The mini-venture, has the students develop an entrepreneurial project using their creativity on a small scale, and allows students to make connections with other arts entrepreneurs. The final and largest module, The Arts Entrepreneurial Project,  has the students taking all they have learned and incorporating it into a final, large-scale, entrepreneurship endeavour.

Now, I must admit, the purist in me has some hesitation in crowing too loudly about the benefits of the arts as an entrepreneurial exercise. I firmly believe that the arts do have a tremendous amount of value in and of themselves, and have often lamented how often it seems that they find themselves operating from a defensive position within the schools. Some people simply do not see value of courses where achievement can not be measured in a standardized test. And although much has been written about the overall value of the arts, there are still those who seem to feel that the true value of education, particularly public education, lies in its ability to educate young people in literacy and math.

However, if one looks a bit deeper into the arts, one can find some numbers that are, well, downright heartening. For example, a 2008 Conference Board of Canada report on the economic impact of the creative arts in Canada found that  “…the economic footprint of Canada’s culture sector was $84.6 billion in 2007, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s total real GDP, including direct, indirect, and induced contributions. Culture sector employment exceeded 1.1 million jobs in 2007.”   This statistic was put into perspective here in Nova Scotia in the form of another report in 2009. Entitled Building the Creative Economy in Nova Scotia, it stated that when considering “…direct, indirect and induced contributions to employment“, the culture sector employed, at that time, “…as many people as the agriculture, forestry, mining, oil, gas and utilities sectors combined.”

Another interesting take on this idea of creating a “culture economy” is that by supporting artistic and cultural activities, societies can foster innovation, which,  of course, leads to more economic benefits. After all, some of the most successful entrepreneurs in history were folks who were not necessarily any better at what they were doing than anyone else, but rather were simply more innovative in their approach.

One final point of appeal is that the creation of  cultural commodities remains, for many, a staunchly “stay at home” affair. After all, in the realities of the new e-conomy, artists have access to international audiences like they never have before. This means that with the right guidance and some initial support, young Nova Scotian art entrepreneurs may be able to stay home and export their products from towns, villages and hamlets all across the province without having to pull up stakes and head West.

And as a parent, that is one idea that suits me just fine.

In a relatively fortuitous bit of happenstance, I found myself the day after the Arts Entrepreneurship conference at Pier 23 in Halifax attending The Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council Christmas Show. This event showcases some of the most talented and innovative artists and craftspeople that the East Coast has to offer;  creating everything from fabrics to furniture, from wrought iron to rum. And as I walked amongst the stalls, the positive energy in the place was palpable. Here was an entire warehouse full of people doing what they loved, and generating, to varying degrees, income for themselves and their families.

And each and every one of them was an arts entrepreneur.

The document from the DEECD is not quite complete, and the folks who are launching it still have a few details to work out. However, as I drove home from NSCC that afternoon, I allowed myself to imagine a future for Nova Scotia where the following exchange might take place:

“Hey Janice! I see you are doing your course selections for next year. Coming back to chemistry?”

Janice: (With a pained, embarrassed and somewhat apologetic expression) “Sorry, Mr. Cooper. I can’t take chemistry in grade 11. I have to get my (*Insert Fine Arts class here) next year. I will be a) too busy or b) have no room in my schedule.”

Now, there is a conversation that both the pragmatic parent and passionate artist in me would thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy.


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Filed under Arts Curriculum, Arts Education, Educational Change, Fine Arts, Public education, Quality education

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