Advocates of art in schools say it enhances academic studies and graduation rates

mdunham@adn.comMarch 2, 2013 

The Anchorage Museum hosted what is probably its biggest First Friday art opening of the year Friday. The 41st Annual Anchorage School District Student Art Exhibition, timed for National Youth Art Month, drew hundreds of kids with pieces in the show along with their parents, siblings and family friends.

The show features work from all of the mainline schools in the district, as well as from several charter and alternative schools. The media include everything from crayons to ceramics, paintings to papier-mache.

Giant quilt-like paper constructs hang from the balcony of the second level of the museum's atrium in a striking procession. One is bedecked with large butterflies. Next to it is a dazzling collection of white tigers stalking toward the viewer. On another wall is a huge collage/homage to Dutch master Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

The pieces were selected by 60-some art instructors in Anchorage schools.

"Almost every year we pick a theme," said Mary Wilts, ASD curriculum coordinator for the music and fine arts department. "This year we wanted to tie in with the museum's big exhibit, 'Arctic Flight,' so we came up with 'Flight of the Imagination.' "

Though not all of the pieces in the show are directly related to the concept of flight, one wall on the second level is entirely composed of birds, planes, rockets, Ferris wheels, balloons and other up-in-the-air images. With them are a few items by professional artists from the museum's permanent collection, like an owl by Byron Birdsall.

The show is more than art for art's sake, Wilts noted. She cited a number of studies that link school art studies with a boost in academic achievement, better test scores and higher school completion rates.

Admittedly the Internet age has exponentially enhanced the ability to come up with slices of statistics, numbers and facts that appear to prove almost any proposition; those who form their opinions from information found in the funny pages will note that the phenomenon was the topic of the "Doonesbury" strip last week. However, among those who have an affinity toward art, there is an instinctual predilection to concur with the assertions presented in a study by Americans for the Arts in 2002, to wit:

  • Arts education stimulates and develops the imagination and critical thinking and refines cognitive and creative skills.
  • It helps level the "learning field" across socio-economic boundaries.
  • It strengthens problem-solving skills and enhances goal-setting and a child's effort to produce a quality product.

"Art classes correlate with language, math and science classes," said Wilts. "The arts keep kids in school and one of the district's goals is a higher graduation rate."

Whatever the scholarly benefits of art education, the feel of the show is overwhelmingly focused on fun. The walls are filled with colors and shapes in festive effusion. Both the joy and the meditative side of the artists are manifest. And some of the work shows the hand of an expert artist.

"We're fortunate in Anchorage that we have art teachers in all grades, K through 12," said Wilts. "The students have a great art vocabulary by the time they get to middle school."

Most of the opening day crowd was associated with the students of those teachers -- but not all. A fair number were people taking part in the round of First Friday events who just happened to stumble into "Flight of the Imagination."

"Those are some of my favorite reactions," said Wilts. "Their mouths drop open. They say, 'Kids did this?' They're blown away."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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