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Commentary & Opinion

Karen Hitchcock: The Importance and Impact of the Arts in Education

This past weekend I, along with many other extremely fortunate citizens of the Capital Region, experienced a truly memorable event at RPI’s stunning Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center – or EMPAC.   Entitled John Brown’s Body, the event commemorated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and was a partnership of the Albany Pro Musica and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.  The music was sometimes haunting, sometimes a call-to-arms, sometimes ethereal, sometimes dirge-like, sometimes jubilant and, at all times, exquisitely beautiful.  It was accompanied by often searing and always memorable images, many from the New York State Archives, and by readings from the period.  The words of soldiers, slaves, President Lincoln and, of course, John Brown were brought to life by exceptional “readers” from our community.   The Master of Ceremonies, Harold Holzer, the pre-eminent authority on President Lincoln, eloquently provided the historical context.   Kudos to Mr. Robert Bullock, President of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, who initially discussed this wedding of history and music with Albany Pro Musica; to all the accomplished “readers;”  the extremely talented musicians -- the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloists who brought it all to life; and, of course, to David Griggs-Janower ,  Artistic Director of the Albany Pro  Musica, who organized and led this massive undertaking and wove all these parts together into a rich and moving tapestry of sound and images.

I, and all with whom I have spoken since the performance, left the concert deeply moved by the exceptional artistic experience, but also more knowledgeable about a time of unparalleled crisis in the history of our nation.

As they so often do, the arts served as a vehicle for learning, for appreciating our world  --  past and present --  in new and different ways, for increasing our understanding of ourselves and others.   A favorite quote of David Griggs-Janower -- and now me as well --  says it all:  When asked about cutting arts funding to fuel the war machine, Winston Churchill stated,  “Then what are we fighting for?”

I’m sure many of you share my concern at the degree to which education in the arts has suffered in our nation’s schools during the economic challenges of the last several years.   I believe strongly that we need to find creative ways to reverse this trend.   Organizations like Albany Pro Musica, APM, and The Albany Symphony Orchestra, the ASO, among many others, are doing just that. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am proud to say that I serve on the Board of Directors of the APM and, hence, am quite familiar with its programs of outreach to our region’s schools, programs which have provided hundreds of students with unparalleled opportunities to learn and perform some of the greatest choral works ever written.  Indeed, The Saratoga Springs High School Choraliers sang in the John Brown’s Body concert with the Albany Pro Musica as part of its “Adopt-a-Choir” Program, as did a number of high school student “apprentices,” students from all over the region who perform in APM concerts throughout the year.  Artistic educational programming for students of all ages is a trademark of the ASO as well. In fact, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, presented the ASO with its first–ever Leonard Bernstein Award for outstanding educational programming. 

If any of you have had the pleasure of seeing Maestro David Alan Miller, conductor of the ASO,  at Sunday Symphony for families in full costume depicting some of the greatest figures in the history of music, you will appreciate the impact he and other members of the ASO have on students across our region, as they personally visit their classes and schools.  The ASO, like the Albany Pro Musica, is clearly finding creative and successful ways to contribute to arts education here in the Capital Region, working with the schools to ensure that, despite budget cuts, the arts remain alive and accessible to all.

Let me suggest that we all should emulate the ASO’s Adopt-A-School and the APM’s Adopt-A-Choir programs by personally “adopting” an arts organization of particular significance to us….committing ourselves to support our “adopted” organization and to help sustain it for the good of our entire community.   We owe this to ourselves….we owe this to our children.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge” .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.