Empowering the Arts for America's Future

Empowering the Arts for America's Future

At some point in their childhood, artists exhibit specific talents or express an interest in developing one. Parents go to work finding teachers, schools, and summer camps that provide training and nurturing. But what happens as these budding artists mature into young adults and complete high school?

For many young aspiring artists, the validation and affirmation of their talents and vision emerge from national competitions and programs funded by individuals and philanthropic entities. In looking for support for their talents, funds to continue their artistic education, and contacts within the professional world, these students turn to nonprofit organizations and foundations for cash awards, performance and exhibition opportunities, and recognition. Students then use these awards and honors as leverage for college scholarships and professional opportunities.

While several organizations outside the educational system provide opportunities to young artists, the programs often struggle to rise above the status of well-kept secret. For example, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (NFAA), which works to identify emerging artists and assist them at critical junctures in their educational and professional development, operates an Arts Recognition and Talent Search(ARTS) program that recognizes and rewards the nation's most talented high school seniors in dance, film, jazz, music, photography, theater, visual arts, voice, and writing. Six hundred to eight hundred students share cash awards ranging from $100 to $10,000 from a pool of more than $500,000. Up to 135 of these winners are then selected to participate in an all-expenses-paid NFAA ARTS Week in Miami, Florida, during their senior year of high school an experience filled with master classes, showcase performances, exhibitions, readings, workshops, interdisciplinary activities, enrichment programs, and live adjudications.

Founded in 1981, the program has also served as the exclusive nominating partner for the White House Presidential Scholars Program. Each year, twenty NFAA ARTS winners are selected as Presidential Scholars in the Arts and are subsequently recognized by the president in a White House ceremony, featured in a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and showcased in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. All students who register in the ARTS program, regardless of whether they receive an award, are eligible for $3 million in scholarship opportunities offered by many of the nation's leading colleges, universities, and conservatories.

Another longstanding program, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, produced by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, has honored creative teenagers in grades 7-12 since 1923. Students submit works of art and portfolios in every conceivable category of Visual Arts and Writing for regional and national awards and scholarships. National winners are honored at a Carnegie Hall ceremony and exhibitions are presented annually in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1978, the Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), a major initiative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), provides a forum through which African-American youth can demonstrate their academic, artistic, and scientific prowess and expertise, thereby gaining recognition often reserved only for entertainers and athletes. ACT-SO, a year-long enrichment program designed to recruit, stimulate, improve, and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students, is centered around the commitment of community volunteers and business leaders who serve as mentors and coaches to promote academic and artistic excellence among African-American students. There are twenty-five categories of competition in the sciences, humanities, and performing and visual arts. Local winners advance to a national competition held during the NAACP's annual national convention in July.

The Young Playwrights Festival National Playwriting Competition is a program of Young Playwrights, Inc., the only professional nonprofit theater company in the United States devoted solely to the work of writers age 18 or younger. Selected writers travel to New York for the Writers Conference, where they work with some of the country's most accomplished theater artists, and several students' plays are produced Off-Broadway in the Young Playwrights Festival.

In addition to winning recognition, students develop important skills by participating in programs such as these. Among other things, they learn how to prepare audition and portfolio materials, which can make the college application process easier; they interact with peers who often become professional colleagues; they develop relationships with professional artists and educators who frequently serve as judges, panelists, master teachers, and mentors; and, most importantly, they learn that they are not alone, that there are other students who not only share the same passions they do but excel in those disciplines, and that they have a base of support as they pursue their artistic endeavors.

Beyond helping artists, these organizations serve to draw attention to the success of the teachers, departments, and schools who nurture them honors that can be used to validate programs and convince administrators, school boards, and governments about the importance of arts education to the individual, communities, and the nation. Indeed, it is in all our best interests that such programs gain more attention and remain secrets no longer.

Together we can encourage more young artists to follow their dream, affording them the opportunity to produce and be successful while making America and the world a better place in which to live

Christopher Schram is a vice president at the Miamai-based National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, which identifies emerging artists and assists them at critical junctures in their educational and professional development.