Expanding Learning Through the Arts

November 16, 2020Talan Cobb, Executive Director of Young Audiences of Abilene

In early January 2020, I sat down to lunch with Lynn Barnett, Executive Director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, and Diane Hunt, the former Executive Director of Young Audiences of Abilene (YAA). At the time, I had limited knowledge and understanding of YAA, but within the hour, I knew it would be an honor to step into a leadership position of this organization as the new Executive Director. YAA connects artists, educators, and schools to provide free educational arts experiences to students in Abilene and surrounding areas. YAA programs incorporate these signature elements: experiencing the art form, understanding the art form, creating the art form, and connecting the learning to other areas of study or life skills. Biographer Walter Isaacson writes a brilliant and unintentional homage to arts-in-education in his book “Leonardo Da Vinci” by connecting Da Vinci’s creative brilliance that is seen in his artwork to his explorations and concentrations in anatomy, engineering, geology, hydrodynamics, geometry, perspective, and optics. YAA ensures access to explore the world through the arts is at the fingertips of our young people; after all, the next Da Vinci could be right here in Abilene, TX.

A Brief History:

YAA has been a proud affiliate (1 of 32) of the nation’s largest arts-in-education network since 1993 when it was introduced to community leaders Larry Gill and the Dodge Jones Foundation, representatives from the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, and AISD superintendent at the time, Charles Hundley. Abilene is the smallest affiliate, but we shine brightly amongst our national peers because of our programs that celebrate the diverse arts in our community, provide arts equity, and engage students in their educational setting.

Where We Are Now:

Stepping into a leadership role during a pandemic felt like being appointed as the new captain of a ship, and as I adjust my cap and square my shoulders with confidence, I step onboard and hear somebody yell “Welcome aboard the Titanic; we just hit an iceberg!”  Oof. Many times over the past several months I have felt like my ship was sinking, as we all have. However, along with my fellow arts organizations and community leaders, I have continued to find new ways to not only stay afloat but to build a stronger ship in the process.

Students and educators are challenged now more than ever in the classroom with standardized testing and more rigorous curriculum while weathering the storm of economic, social, and political turmoil. YAA faces that challenge by continuing to be a presence in schools and helping create engaged and inspired learners despite the circumstances. Research shows that all children are more likely to thrive in schools that make time for the arts and utilize arts integration. Since 1993 YAA has been an active advocate and leading role in ensuring arts-in-education in the Abilene area. While the pandemic has limited our ability to bring artists onto school campuses for assembly-style performances, we have found creative ways to move onward by facilitating small-group workshops through our arts after-school programs. This week we are wrapping up our after-school programs for the fall semester with student showcases in the fields of visual arts, dance, and theatre. Fourth and Fifth grade students in Abilene have successfully performed for both virtual and outdoor audiences.

Where We Are Going:

In a normal year, an average of 17,000 students in the Abilene area would experience YAA programs. We knew that we would have a limited reach this school year due to COVID-19. How would we continue to meet the needs of so many young people? A broad outreach seemed impossible until we acknowledged that all of these students will still be interacting with their teachers (who should be adorned with superhero capes and receive thunderous applause with every step they take). This reality has been a silver-lining of the pandemic that has led to a paradigm shift in the vision for the future of YAA. YAA has always had a mission to inspire young people and expand their learning through the arts and now has a new vision for not only inspiring students but inspiring educators through the arts. In addition to programs for students, YAA is adapting to a more holistic approach to arts-in-education. Through increased arts-integrated professional development, creative community partnerships, organizational collaboration, and support from our school districts we have a goal of fully embedding arts in the classroom to embrace a systemic change supporting arts-in-education in Abilene and the Big Country.

YAA proudly operates under the auspices of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, an affiliate of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, and partners with other organizations including the NCCIL, providing workshops for the Children’s Arts and Literacy Festival (C.A.L.F.), the Abilene Public Library, offering free summer library performance series for Abilene area youth, and contracts with local teaching artists from Hardin Simmons University, Abilene Christian University, and McMurry University. Abilene is a diamond in the rough with an abundance of local professional artists, three top-tier universities, and a community that gives generously. When we invest in the education of our youth, we are investing in the future of Abilene.

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