Profile: Russell Granet, Part 1

Arts For All thanks Russell Granet, newly appointed Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute and Founder of Arts Education Resource, for taking time to be interviewed for the AFA Blog.  Find Russell on Facebook.

This is the first half of our interview with Russell.  There was just so much good information that we had to split it into two sections!  Check out Part 2.

Let’s jump right in.  What got you involved in the arts and arts education?

I was a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, I think never with the intention of becoming a professional actor.  I wanted the experience and to spend time living abroad; it seemed very exciting.

When I returned to New York, a friend of mine from high school was working as a Teaching Artist.  This was 22 years ago, and I have never heard the term before, so I asked him what that was and the criteria for working as one.  He told me that you had to:

1 – Show up on time.

2 – Like kids.

3 – Have some sort of art form.

Other than getting up early, it all seemed very reasonable to me.  So I started working as a Teaching Artist with the Creative Arts Team in New York City.  Beginning my work with CAT was fortunate, because I had a steady monthly income and a salary and a place of work.  I was fortunate to land in a place that took the work seriously, trained the Teaching Artists, and supported us throughout our work.

(Staff note: Please watch Russell’s wonderful TedX talk about his early love of the theatre and Diahann Carroll.)

I began at CAT by working with kids with disabilities.  I did not foresee a career in working with kids with disabilities – I wanted to make sure that kids with disabilities were included in the program.  There can be a focus in arts education on reaching more kids and high performing kids.  It can seem better to reach 30 kids in a classroom than 12-15 in a special education classroom.  This work was the beginning of me being conscious of the fact that special education kids were marginalized.

Because of this work, NYU and the Kaplan Center asked me to write a course called Drama with Special Populations – and I still teach it every semester, Fall, Spring, and Summer.  It is increasingly more difficult to do, but I feel like it keeps me current with what is happening in the field.   It is important to me that I continue to teach, and I think that administrators at every level should continue to teach or to practice their art form.  It keeps us grounded in what we’re doing.

After my work at CAT, I was the Education Director for The American Place Theatre and served as the Director of Professional Development at the Center for Arts Education.  At the Center for Arts Education, we oversaw about $36 million in funding that went to dance, theatre, and visual art.  At the end of my tenure at CAE, I realized that there were areas of the field that I didn’t think we were addressing.  So I created Arts Education Resource to: 1) train artists and administrators to successfully work with all kids, including children with disabilities; 2) look at how we make assessment and evaluation accessible and how we learn from the research; and 3) to assist with partnerships.  Everybody talks about partnerships, but most people don’t understand the complexity of real partnerships.  I wanted to focus on being a coach between arts institutions and schools to see that everyone got what they needed and there was something in it for both parties.

That is a perfect segue to my next question.  What do you think are the biggest challenges for arts education?

I don’t think we’ve learned much from the research.  We have not read it properly, and we have not had anybody translate it for us.  I founded Arts Education Resource in part because of that.

Truthfully, most of the reports I read are written in such a way that within page 3, I can’t stay focused because of the language.  I am not questioning the research – the research is good! – I am questioning that we’ve never supported the in-between phase.

We raise money for evaluation, we understand the impact, and we write about the impact, but it never gets into the hands of the Teaching Artists.  These reports live at a very high level, with executive directors and administrators.  And when I push them, they will say, “well, it’s on our website.” 

These reports don’t need to be dumbed down; they need to be written in a way that Teaching Artists can read them given the practicality of their lives.  Why can’t we take these reports and translate them to a one pager on the best practices so I can skim it and get it?  That’s what people want: best practices, not to sift through pages of theory.

I think that’s very true.  So what do you think is important to monitor, track, and evaluate in the arts? What exists that artists, arts educators and administrators should look at, and what do we need to create?

It’s a continual struggle for me, because we have to measure impact.  The impact of what we do should be important to all of us.  If you talk to any artist, they will say, “In my gut, I know what I am doing works,” but foundations, corporations and potential donors need more than that.  Most other fields take that seriously.

We have to embrace that measuring impact isn’t against us, but will make us better at what we do.  That is easy to say, but harder to embrace.  At the end of the day, people often feel it’s a judgment call on their work to look at the impact and to fully understand the impact.

One of the things I struggled with at CAE is that there’s preciousness around research.  I felt at any moment that researchers would say to us, “Oh we can’t use this data because of the way you asked the question,” or “we have no baseline data.”  We have to get rid of that preciousness.

I use Collaborative Action Research to give the practitioners skills to ask questions and observe their students.  Some people say that it’s self-reporting and it is tricky, but at the end of the day if you’re a professional I think you want to look critically at your work.  So it has to be a combination: if artists, and here I mean all artists not just Teaching Artists, don’t have the skills to look critically at their own work by asking good questions we will never improve the field.

We also have to be careful that we don’t over-claim and under-deliver.  One thing I always say is that a math teacher doesn’t have to say how math will improve science scores, and a science teacher doesn’t have to say how science will improve social studies scores, but for some reason we have to say that arts will improve something else.  And that’s troublesome because there are intrinsic values in the work that we do that do stand-alone.  Kids gain empathy, imagination, innovation, and creativity skills.

The US Department of Education has said that in art classes, the one thing that we rarely claim and could claim is perseverance.  If you are learning to play the recorder, you have to keep picking it up and practicing finger positions.  If you are learning to dance, you have to keep coming back to the moves.  The DOE also says that perseverance is the number one skill we need for kids to graduate.  It’s something that we as arts educators could own and don’t.

I do see the need to say that the arts can increase attendance, connect students with 21st century skills, and engage them in new and powerful ways.  That is all true, but I think we have to start with the intrinsic value and then move on to all the other things that the arts are doing for kids.

In many ways, it seems like arts educators are apologizing for taking time in the arts.

I would agree with that.

Thank you, Russell!

Keep an eye on the Blog for the second part of Russell’s interview, posted this Wednesday September 26.

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