Christine D’Arcy

Suereth and Disjecta part ways

The founder and executive director of the North Portland contemporary arts center will leave at the end of this year

More than 15 years after Bryan Suereth founded Disjecta, he and the North Portland contemporary arts center are parting ways. Suereth, who is executive director of the sprawling former bowling alley near the Kenton neighborhood’s iconic Paul Bunyan giant statue, will leave on Dec. 31.

“Sixteen years ago I never imagined this organization would be as vital to the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest as it is today,” Suereth said in a prepared statement released Wednesday. “I’m extremely proud of the unique opportunities Disjecta provides to artists and patrons and of the incredible support we’ve received from this community.”

Suereth

Suereth

Neither Suereth nor the board gave a reason for his impending departure, and Suereth did not say what his plans might be.

“Bryan’s vision and energy as founder guided Disjecta successfully for over 15 years, and we are grateful for his service,” board chair Christine D’Arcy said in the same prepared release. “We are also confident and enthusiastic about Disjecta’s future.”

To many people in the contemporary arts scene, Suereth has been Disjecta’s face from its beginnings in an old Masonic Lodge on Northeast Russell Street. The move to Kenton in 2008 provided a much larger space in an out-of-the-way part of town that was beginning to revitalize. Disjecta became a key part of that rebirth. Known best for its contemporary art programming, the center has also hosted dance, theater, music, and other events. It’s also provided subsidized artist studios.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Disjecta and Suereth became known beyond Portland in 2003 when they assembled The Modern Zoo, at the time the largest-ever visual art exhibition in the Northwest. The center’s impact grew when it began to produce the Portland Biennial after the Portland Art Museum scrapped its long-running Oregon Biennial.

Disjecta took the idea and ran with it, giving it both more focus and a broader geographical reach. The center also instituted a curator-in-residence program, bringing in rising or well-known national curators to make the biennial choices with an outside eye. That usually has meant, among other things, visiting an extraordinary number of studios around the state. This year’s biennial was curated by Michelle Grabner, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also was a co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Grabner and Disjecta spread the 2016 biennial to sites in Portland and around the state, a decision that upset some art followers who discovered they couldn’t see the whole show in a single setting, but pleased and energized others who saw it as a smart way to create a genuinely regional event.

The executive director position will be filled on an interim basis while Disjecta conducts a national search for a new director. “We look forward to building upon a strong support base and the past successes attained under Bryan’s leadership, and look to accelerate our growth and further expand the reach and impact of Disjecta,” D’Arcy said in her statement.

Three more Oregon Arts Commissioners resign

The Oregon Arts Commission still deals with repercussions from the firing of its executive director

Michele Russo, "Bathers," 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Michele Russo, “Bathers,” 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Late last week I heard that three more commissioners had resigned from the Oregon Arts Commission—Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, Maurizio Valerio of Union and Roger Hull of Salem. This mass resignation might have pushed me into the journalistic equivalent of the Red Zone. Yet MORE trouble at the arts commission? But in interviews with OregonLive’s David Stabler and Barbara Curtin of the Statesman Journal, Hull, the only departing commissioner who was reachable, apparently, said he was leaving because of old business.

“I was uncomfortable with the circumstances surrounding the termination of Chris D’Arcy,” Hull told Curtin. “After thinking about it for a while, and watching the makeup of the arts commission evolve, I decided it was time for newer members to take the leadership of the discussions and that I would step aside.”

Stabler quoted from Cowling’s resignation letter to the governor:

“I strongly disagree that Ms. D’Arcy’s termination was warranted but I recognize that any evaluation of an executive director’s performance can be disputed. My concern is board governance. It appears that a few people, including the Oregon Arts Commission chair, were actively involved in this termination. Unfortunately, this action occurred without notice to or consultation with the commission.”

Christine D’Arcy was fired by Business Oregon’s Tim McCabe back in October after 19 years at the commission. In the state bureaucracy, the arts commission executive director reports to the head of the agency charged with economic development in the state. The board chairs of both the little arts agencies  D’Arcy supervised, Julie Vigeland of the arts commission and Bob Speltz of the Oregon Cultural Trust, signed off on the decision, but the final decision was McCabe’s: the arts commission does not hire or fire its executive director. Two arts commission commissioners resigned immediately, Henry Sayre and Royal Nebeker, and they were replaced (and another opening filled) by three new commissioners.

At the time I wrote two stories analyzing the situation. The first argued that the twisted bureaucratic circumstances of the executive director of the arts commission and cultural trust made the position essentially impossible: too many legislative and government bureaucracy masters on top of two separate citizen commissions. Only the fact that the arts were almost invisible and powerless in state government made the position survivable at all. But the commissions’ invisibility and relative powerlessness made the executive director a target for the arts community, which wanted more aggressive policy formulation and representation in Salem than was possible. A more aggressive executive director would have found herself in the cross-hairs of various administrations and legislatures over the years. (In the second, I argued for a much more visible, policy leadership position on the governor’s staff, a Secretary of the Arts, and a revised, more democratic, citizen involvement in policy development.)

That analysis, however, doesn’t explain personal friendships and loyalties on the commission. Or for that matter different policy ideas. If Vigeland and Speltz are hoping their commissions can have more impact in the future (and my conversations with Vigeland suggest they do), figuring out how that can happen and in what areas will be debatable. So, change in the commission was inevitable, I think, and inevitably painful. (I think D’Arcy’s contribution to the arts in the state is gigantic, and I always found her to be personable: My first reaction to the news last fall was surprise and sadness.)

Anyway, this would be an interesting time to be an Oregon arts commissioner, and if you feel the call, then you can apply online. The commission is also surveying the public to help figure out what qualities are most important in an executive director, and that survey is also online. I just filled it out myself.

 NOTE

The unrelated painting by the late Portland painter Michele Russo, above, comes from the Portland Art Museum’s digital collection.

 

 

Is leading the Oregon Arts Commission an impossible job?

A dose of democracy might help a deeply entangled agency find its way

In general, I believe that many of the most important problems that arts organizations face would be helped, if not completely solved, if they were more democratic.

I am not headed into a long disquisition on art and democracy, but as a I assemble a few thoughts on the recent history of the Oregon Arts Commission and some suggestions for its future, sparked by the firing of longtime executive director Christine D’Arcy several weeks ago, that’s one of the key principles animating my ideas.

As you might guess, by democracy, I don’t mean holding a public vote on everything. Democracy is more about encouraging your community in a continuing conversation about your organization, even and especially about its most central practical issues and philosophical ideas, listening to their thinking about them, and then responding to that thinking in a responsible way. A democratic system, at its best, will locate and promote the best solutions its community generates, and because of that democratic procedure, the solution will arrive with the improvements and support of the community, making the solution better and the execution easier.

 John Trumbull, "Declaration of Independence," 1819/Wikimedia

John Trumbull, “Declaration of Independence,” 1819/Wikimedia

I know: it sounds “utopian.” But maybe that’s because democracy is so rarely attempted, let alone practiced, in American life.

Few arts organizations are set up as democracies. They are nonprofit corporations, run by self-perpetuating boards and employing staffs that are usually (not always) run from the top down. The examples of famous autocrats who ran roughshod over their arts organizations are legion. The whole “genius” problem aids and abets this management style: For some reason, we think that the genius artistic director/music director must know best, even when we don’t want to turn ourselves over to a dictator in our public life. Crazy.

But I digress a little.

The Oregon Arts Commission is part of a practicing democracy. A very small part. Its executive director reports ultimately to the governor of the state. Practically speaking, she directly reports to another bureaucrat who reports to the governor’s office. AND she receives the advice of a set of commissioners, themselves appointed by the governor. Actually, she also runs the Oregon Cultural Trust and its staff, advised by ANOTHER set of commissioners appointed by the governor.

So, you might ask, how does  “democracy”  apply to the executive director job at the Oregon Arts Commission? Because from where I sit, the will of the people is pretty far away from this chain of command, and ultimately that’s the most simple and direct measure of the quality of a democracy and the decisions it generates. And I believe that at least part of the solution involves making the institution more democratic.

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The relative lack of importance to state government of the Oregon Arts Commission is evident in that reporting chain. One of the most frequent responses I heard from arts community people in Portland after D’Arcy’s firing was surprise that she reported to Tim McCabe, the executive director of Business Oregon, the state agency in charge of economic development matters in the state. Why was the arts person reporting to the economic development person?

Well, a little historical context. The Oregon Legislature established the OAC in 1967 during Governor Tom McCall tenure. It was a separate entity until 1993, when the legislature moved it under the wing of the Oregon Economic Development Department (reconstituted as Business Oregon). As I recall, the thinking was that arts funding would be better protected as a part of economic development than on its own, given the culture wars and the beginning of the Great Divide between the two major political parties. It has been there ever since.

D’Arcy started as executive director the next year, so for 19 years we haven’t had a reminder about this ‘90s era political maneuver and the bureaucratic structure it generated.

Business Oregon also has a board of commissioners as does another of its divisions, the Infrastructure Finance Authority. So, D’Arcy’s performance was evaluated by her own two boards (arts commission and cultural trust) plus the Business Oregon’s commission, though her immediate boss was McCabe, who reports to the Governor.

I looked at the Business Oregon board of commissioners and even recognized a few of its members, but I wouldn’t say they represent…what? The people of Oregon? The best available thinking about economic development in the state? The first is impossible without an election, and the second would be hard to judge, though I doubt it seriously. Wouldn’t you want Joe Cortright on such a board if you were going for “best available thinking”? Among others.

I am a little better acquainted with the arts commission board, enough to know that most of them know a lot about various sectors of the arts but not enough to know how “representative” they are. Representative of whom, you might ask, and I’d have to say I’m not sure. The public at large? Artists? Major arts organizations? And if all of the above, in what order or percentage? And in any case they are there mainly to deal with the grants process and give advice on arts policy to the governor and executive director. They don’t have the authority the board of the Oregon Symphony, say, has over its executive director.

How important have the arts been to Governor Kitzhaber and his predecessors? Well, there’s no getting around that the funding level for the arts by the state has always been very low, though for some governors the arts have had a little more visibility than others, maybe peaking with Governor Goldschmidt, if my memory serves? (I know we aren’t supposed to attach his name to positive achievements.) And the Oregon Legislature hasn’t been a champion of the arts, either, though earlier this year they did extend the mandate of the Oregon Cultural Trust. Just keeping an arts funding source alive is cause for celebration, I suppose.

My point is simply that the arts haven’t been a front burner item in Salem, and it has been a struggle to give them any heat at all. These are our elected representatives, and they have by and large, with some major exceptions, ignored or actively opposed state support for the arts. The two arts boards the governor has appointed work hard, but their own power and influence has historically been small.  And there’s the unanswered and unasked, at least publicly, question of  what constituencies and/or interests they represent.

As a result, even as someone who has followed the arts in Oregon pretty closely for the past 34 years or so, I can’t readily articulate what the mission or the driving philosophy behind the Oregon Arts Commission are. To get as much money from the legislature as possible and distribute it—along with the money that comes from the National Endowment for the Arts—fairly to major arts institutions in the state? Well, mostly, though I know the small amount of money they distribute is divided other ways, too, for other missions.

The problem is that I, as a citizen, haven’t been asked about it, directly, so I haven’t had to answer key central questions: What is the role of state government in the arts? Where do I think the money should go? How much money do I think is reasonable to spend? Who should determine these things? And then I haven’t had to defend my ideas or question those of others. Which is how a successful democracy arrives at good solutions and directions.

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One of the people I talked to about this situation (and I talked to several, few of whom wanted to be on the record because they are knowledgeable exactly because they are deeply enmeshed in arts politics) reminded me of the historical context of the Oregon Arts Commission and government support of the arts in Oregon. It’s woeful.

For many years we ranked near the absolute bottom of support for the arts in US states and territories. By 2010, we’d climbed to 36th of 53, but primarily because other states dived beneath us after the Great Recession. Still, our $.55 per capita was less than half of what Louisiana provided and less than a tenth of Minnesota’s arts budget, the highest of any state (the District of Columbia’s  at $11.11 per capita tops the chart). (In the last decade the nadir was reached in Fiscal Year 2005 when the legislature dropped $584,337 into the pot, which was less than $.20 per capita.)

For the past few years we’ve hovered around the same level, this year reaching $.57 per capita. The national average is $.97, and again, because of the dives of other states, our standing has actually risen a couple of notches to 32nd.

Now, until last year, you might have persuaded me that this low level of support for the commission actually represented “the will of the people,” that the majority of Oregonians were satisfied with giving the arts a couple of quarters out of their state taxes. I can be just as pessimistic as the next guy when it comes to the wisdom of our politics, and in 2009 I’d seen the legislature raid $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust fund generated from selling “culture” licence plates in 2009. With impunity. Without outcry.

But then in 2012, Portland passed the Arts Tax measure, which was a combination arts education and arts organization support measure. We won’t go into that measure at great length here because we’ve done it before. The raw numbers were $35 per taxpaying adult over the federal poverty line and more than 62 percent of Portland voters in favor, with majorities in nearly every single precinct, regardless of demographics.

This convinced me that a reservoir of support for the arts existed in the city that I didn’t appreciate before.  Does it extend beyond the city limits? And what if we asked for for $5 (like Minnesota) instead of $35?  Would the state favor such a small boost for the arts? My wager would be “yes,” assuming a decent campaign could be mustered and that it was clear what the money would be buying.

During her 19 years as the head of the Oregon Arts Commission, though, D’Arcy had to deal with a legislature, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, that for whatever reasons decided that those two quarters, that 50 cents, was ample for the arts. And getting those four bits per capita out of them wasn’t easy, either.

Until the Arts Tax passed in Portland, that state of affairs extended to the counties and cities of Oregon as well. Funding for the arts in the US comes from individual and corporate donations, foundations, and the government, in addition to earned income from ticket revenue and other sources. We know that corporate giving to the arts is limited here (though huzzah to those who do). Foundation giving waxes and wanes (waxing a bit now thanks to a major gift to the Oregon Community Foundation by the Fred Fields last year). And Oregon individuals are middle of the pack when it comes to charitable giving as a whole.

The overall landscape for arts funding in Oregon, in short, has been poor to middling, and it hasn’t been a political “winner” for anyone, either. (Except for former Mayor Sam Adams: Some of his biggest accomplishments involved the arts, one way or another.)

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By now you may have figured out that I’m not going to weigh in on the firing of D’Arcy, except to say that surely it could have been handled more diplomatically. I know. These days the thinking is to get the newly ex-employee out of the building as fast as possible,  take the potential PR hit up front, and move on. Maybe from a risk management perspective that’s considered smart because you avoid the tiny percentage of the time someone goes ballistic. I actually don’t know. In this case, the haste  just didn’t seem…I don’t know…gracious?

In the crosshairs of various vectors of power (the legislature, the bureaucracy, her own boards, various governors) within a culture that was indifferent to the arts, D’Arcy’s situation was difficult at best. Add the rumblings of discontent about levels of state funding for the arts from a restless, occasionally desperate, but nonetheless growing arts community around the state? Maybe it moves to impossible.

Will D’Arcy’s successor manage it better? I don’t think she should be asked to. And that’s the subject we’ll treat on Monday—how we might organize the arts commission and the cultural trust going forward.

Sorting through the records at the Oregon Arts Commission, Blake Shell to the Art Gym

Public records on the firing of Christine D'Arcy leave basic questions unanswered, Blake Shell succeeds Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym

When you do a public records sift, you can find out some interesting stuff, which is what The Oregonian’s David Stabler did with the firing of Christine D’Arcy as executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, where she’d been for 19 years. His story is well worth a read, especially if you’re interested in the emails leading up to the firing and D’Arcy’s 2010 performance report.

Those documents hint at the case against D’Arcy (dissatisfaction with her leadership in the arts community and management style), without proving any of them—they are simply assertions. And the story makes it clear that there’s another way to interpret her performance, though those are simply counter-assertions.

So, if you are trying to evaluate whether it was time to replace D’Arcy or not, those emails and counter-quotes don’t help that much. Which isn’t that surprising. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a journalist to figure out the performance level of a manager in a bureaucracy, especially one without clear metrics for success. The reason is simple: some people will like the manager, some people won’t, and political and/or personal considerations are often involved in those judgments, anyway. Often, there are legal ramifications to talking about personnel matters, so bosses and employees don’t or can’t talk about them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of civility: So far, none of the principals in this matter has attacked another in public.

Did D’Arcy do anything “bad”? No. Was her firing illegal somehow? No. Do people disagree with the decision? Of course. Would it be worthwhile to go over the past 19 years of her service at the arts commission to attempt to figure out what she did “right” or “wrong,” the opportunities to move the arts forward in the state that she seized or missed? I would love it if someone did! The hours involved and impasses the analyst would encounter are both gigantic.

Going forward, though, I think it’s a reasonable expectation for the Trust and Arts Commission boards, in consultation with the governor’s office, to talk openly about what the role and expectations for the executive director are, and for that matter, what those expectations are for the boards themselves. And I’d love to see a clear statement from Governor Kitzhaber, who just announced that he’s running for a fourth term as governor, about what he thinks the role of the ARTS are in the state and what he thinks a reasonable arts funding level should be. Stay tuned and we may even have some more suggestions later this week.

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Blake Shell will replace Terri Hopkins as the new leader of The Art Gym

Blake Shell will replace Terri Hopkins as the new leader of The Art Gym

One of the toughest acts to follow in the arts community is Terri Hopkins, who steps down as director and curator of The Art Gym at Marylhurst University in January. Hopkins founded The Art Gym, and she’s made it a vital player in the arts world here. (I wrote about her resignation and a larger “challenge” endowment grant for the position going forward back in August.)

Marylhurst has announced that Blake Shell will replace Hopkins at The Art Gym, and add the new Belluschi Pavilion to the portfolio. She begins next week, December 16, though Hopkins will be around to help with the transition through mid-January, according to the press release.

Shell was the director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College from 2009 to 2012, and now works as project manager for the Stroemple Art Collection in Portland. She’s also been a curatorial assistant for the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College.

Hopkins was part of the effort to find her own successor, and I asked her about Shell. “Blake Shell is an energetic, creative and skilled curator,” she said. “Several years ago, the shows she organized for the Archer Gallery at Clark College in Vancouver drew my attention and led to my belief that when the time came, there were amazing young curators ready to take The Art Gym into the future. I am very pleased to pass the baton to Blake and am excited to see her take on the contemporary art of our region.”

Which sounds like a very good endorsement indeed.

Christine D’Arcy’s time at the arts commission ends, Carlos doesn’t call, more!

ArtsWatch News & Notes: Change at the Oregon Arts Commission, a little more on private salaries at the symphony, and some happy news, too

Although I think the issue we were talking about yesterday, transparency at the Oregon Symphony, is important, it kept me from other big arts news.

I’m referring to the firing of the executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission, Christine D’Arcy, on Monday. Maybe you already saw the story in the Salem Statesman Journal. Here’s the top of Hannah Hoffman’s story:

The longtime head of the Oregon Arts Commission said she was fired abruptly this week when state officials told her they had a “different vision” for the agency.

“I didn’t resign,” Christine D’Arcy told the Statesman Journal. “I was basically told on Monday that I wasn’t going to be the executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust any longer.”

D’Arcy has presided over the arts commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust, which she helped create, for the past 19 years, and whatever the circumstances and reasons for the firing, she can be proud of her accomplishments. I haven’t followed the arts commission closely enough to know the backstory from anyone’s point of view, though maybe I can catch up (and if not me, then someone else at ArtsWatch!). And by backstory, I don’t necessarily mean the narrative specific to D’Arcy’s dismissal, I mean the context of it: how the arts commission sees its role, how it goes about accomplishing it, how it negotiates the collision of the arts with government.

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Back to Carlos! In yesterday’s post, I said I’d left a message on Kalmar’s office phone after co-president Janet Plummer gave me the number and suggested I call him and ask him directly what his new three-year extension involved. I haven’t received a call back, I’m sorry to say, but it’s only been a day, so I’m still hopeful! I have to say that Plummer’s suggestion sounded a little like a set-up, but hey, I’m just skeptical by nature and training.

Why is the symphony so adamant about keeping Kalmar’s salary secret? It could simply be a principle, of course, a bedrock privacy issue. Or perhaps there are other reasons, practical reasons. What purpose does keeping that number a secret serve? Because even principles serve practical purposes, right?

As long as we’re asking “why”…why am I interested in this? Because the symphony is important, and I want it to succeed. I think success for a symphony means having a substantial effect on the community in general and the classical music community specifically. I think the best way to have an effect is to engage your community directly, to be open about both your financial information and your artistic direction, to give your community something it needs. And then receive support in turn. In other orchestras under stress the past few years—Detroit, Philadelphia, now Minnesota—the fight was staff and board against the musicians, by and large. The community was left out of the deliberations. That fracturing is terrible for everyone, and we don’t want it to happen in Portland. I’m also hoping that my fears are overblown, and that this truly is a tempest in a teapot.

Stay tuned!

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Ellen Lesperance will be party of Disjecta's 2014 biennial.

Ellen Lesperance will be party of Disjecta’s 2014 biennial.

Good grief! Let’s move on to some happier news, yes?

For example, the Washington Post, now in the hands of Amazon’s super rich Jeff Bezos, gave Cappella Romana a happy review of its National Gallery of Art performance!

“The ensemble of seven men and five women was, at its best, singing traditional Byzantine chant. The sound was robust, especially from the men; a full-throated tone that has buzz and resonance, ornamented with the cantillation-like scoops and trills typical of this music.”

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Disjecta announced the 15 artists and artist collaboratives selected by LA-based curator Amanda Hunt for its Portland2014: A Biennial of Contemporary Art next year. Here are the artist involved: (if not otherwise noted, all artists are Portland based): Zachary Davis, Modou Dieng & Devon A. VanHouten-Maldonado, Alex Mackin Dolan, Travis Fitzgerald, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Evan La Londe, Ellen Lesperance, D.E. May (Salem), Christopher Michlig & John Zerzan (Eugene), Personal Libraries Library, Publication Studio, Ralph Pugay, Kelly Rauer, Blair Saxon-Hill, Richard Thompson (Dayton). We’ll be talking about this later!

“Weight” – an installation from Kelly Rauer on Vimeo.

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The official opening night for Artists Repertory Theatre’s “Foxfinder” is Saturday night. Director Damaso Rodriguez takes to Vimeo to give you a quick description of what’s in store!

Foxfinder by Dawn King at Artists Rep, Oct. 29-Dec. 1 from Artists Repertory Theatre on Vimeo.

News & Notes: Arts for kids, Art Beat, Nico Muhly, SF Ballet, NW Dance Project

A survey of arts education in Oregon, behind the scenes at 'Foxfinder', classical music and ballet disputes, New Now Wow!

Joachim in a Federal Art Project class in Brooklyn, 1940/Wikimedia via the  Archives of American Art

Joachim in a Federal Art Project class in Brooklyn, 1940/Wikimedia via the Archives of American Art

The key context of the passage of the Arts Tax in Portland almost a year ago (62 percent of voters registered a YES vote) was local: Portland Public Schools had eliminated instruction in the arts from it elementary school curriculum, and the arts’ return was unpredictable at best, given the school board’s priorities and the state school funding process.

An Oregon Department of Education study of arts education across the state widens that context, and the overall picture in 2011-2012, when the survey was conducted, isn’t much better. Oregon does not offer arts instruction of any kind to many of its students (nearly 65,000 statewide), and almost none have instruction available in all of the arts disciplines (music, visual arts, dance, media, theater).

Continues…