Keeping the Arts Aflame Locally
When Californians sheltered-in-place due to COVID-19, they turned on the arts. Movies, music and homemade forms of art illuminated life for people at home. “Netflix, Disney+ and music have been essential. People are singing on balconies and sharing it with others. Creativity through the arts has been incredibly important in helping people cope with these difficult times,” says Aaron Bryan (TC ’04, BA ’03).
Yet that flame may be extinguished locally by cash-strapped school boards in coming years. Bryan is working to make sure the light of the arts stays on— and gets brighter.
As director of the visual and performing arts at the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, Bryan works with various county school districts to coach all teachers on the arts as the most effective way to engage students in creative learning. “Art is a vehicle to help students demonstrate understanding in other content areas,” he says. “We help teachers connect all content areas with the arts.”
There have long been challenges to arts education in Fresno County, where only 45% of students have access to arts education, Bryan says, “We are working to remedy that. Some day we may get to 100 percent.”
Bryan’s passion for the arts started while he was a music major at FPU. He now believes kids must be exposed to all the arts: music, theater, media arts, dance and visual arts. One of many ways kids get access to the arts is through Bryan’s work with the Spark! initiative which helps “ignite arts programs where there were none before” he says. This program provides essential seed money for school districts to start art programs.
Each summer Bryan organizes the Stages theatre project and the Fresno County Youth Choir. Both programs are completely free for high school and college students. Participants write their own play focused on a social justice issue as well as original music, then travel across the state performing in homeless shelters, veteran’s facilities and children’s hospitals. “These people need the arts the most, and we bring it to them,” he says.
Despite all the hands-on community work, the biggest part of Bryan’s job is advocacy. “I work at local, state and federal levels with various partners to advocate for the right of all students to arts education,” he says. Bryan is a liaison to the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Fresno Art Museum.
But the very pandemic that connected people to the arts brought with it an economic downturn that puts local programs at risk as schools, often a cultural center for their communities, face massive budget shortfalls. “Arts may soon be on the chopping block for many districts,” Bryan says. “We need voices to rise up and say, ‘You’re not going to cut the arts from our students,’ because the arts provide essential social benefits and college career benefits.”