The Toronto District School Board?s recent announcement that it is creating a new middle school for the arts sure has reinforced the Richard Florida-hot designation of T.O. as the ne plus ultra of creative cities
But it also raises unsettling questions about equity within the TDSB.
The school will be located across the street from the renowned Etobicoke School of the Arts, an institution that has spawned creative city-zens like musicians Kevin Drew, Emily Haines and Andre Ethier, Degrassi actors Mike Lobel and Kit Weyman and Stratford vet Michael Therriault.
Ironically, according to board spokespeople, the purpose of the new institution is to create equal opportunities for arts-interested kids across four geographic sectors of the TDSB (schools for other sectors to be announced down the road).
But given that it will only serve 180 students, it's hard to see it as making a huge difference access-wise.
The problem is that even though the arts are (thankfully!) a required grading category for Grades K through 8 in Ontario, there are few supports for creating consistent arts ed experiences across T.O. schools.
The province has no mandated time for art teaching. And while the Toronto board offers a suggested guideline of 300 minutes per week, these are not required. Meaning the amount of art content and access to artist and musician-led workshops depend entirely on the specific teacher or school.
To be fair, arts ed experts like OISE's Larry Swartz and David Booth say this lack of required arts teaching time can have a positive spin, permitting motivated, trained teachers to integrate creative projects in math, science and language activities throughout the school day rather than during just one special period.
Both also see the high enrolments in OISE's arts-ed upgrading courses as a sign of hope.
Still, do we really want a situation where arts ed is merely a happy accident for those in the right schools?
I'm a fan of the arts. I went to art college, I see exhibitions and even write about them sometimes. But I would rather see all T.O. schools become equal-opp creativity-nurturing structures before letting another specialized showpiece school like the ESA suck up precious resources.
Joyce Zemans, director of the Schulich Arts and Media Administration program at York, agrees that special-program strategies "still haven't solved the problem of universal and accessible arts education.' She would like to see increased arts-ed training for all teachers and more in-school artists and arts-only teachers.
Tellingly, the new school plan mirrors a citywide trend I find disturbing: a focus on individual cultural events rather than overall arts access.
An interesting thing has happened on the road to Nuit Blanche and LuminaTO. While the arts (at least those that can be integrated into spotlit spectacles) have become more valued as part of city-building, we still see equity barriers to what should be "everyday access" cultural institutions like the ROM and (when it reopens) the AGO. (The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art has done better.)
Fortunately, some artists have been speaking out on the need for adequate public services; they leveraged their newfound political capital to reopen community centres on Mondays through an email campaign, Facebook postings and rally.
Now's the time to advocate for arts ed equality, with teaching guidelines for the arts currently under review at the Ontario Ministry of Education. New Facebook group, anyone
Leah Sandals is an editor for Spacing Magazine