Cycle 1

The Arts in Silicon Valley: Where are they headed?

By: Emma Keas

In software-cultivating Silicon Valley, arts education and advocacy may seem dwarfed under the sky-scraping shadows of tech giants. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, “virtually eliminated arts programs” and still has an unrelenting grip on schools around the state, according to the California Alliance for Arts Education. As such, interests in the arts remain unnurtured for many young students. Encouragement to focus on “core subjects” and the reality of art inaccessibility put many creatives between a rock and a hard place. In fact, the California Department of Education has stated that only 23% of the state’s 6.3 million students are enrolled in specialized art classes. The drawbacks are stark—without a valued arts education system in place, the creativity intrinsic to wellbeing is challenging to foster. Ideas decline, imaginations face limitations, and flowering passions are frowned upon.

Luckily, our reality might have already begun the transformation it so desperately needs. Indi McCasey, who started out in the South Bay and is now a creative education consultant in addition to the executive director of the Arts Education Alliance of the Bay Area, knows the situation all too well. Growing up, “I didn’t consider myself an artist,” they say. But after entering the world of performance by way of drag and circus shows, McCasey realized that they weren’t alone. “There are also probably a lot of people out there making art who don’t…think of themselves as an artist,” McCasey says, “because they didn’t go to art school or have formal training.” Since then, they have been an avid advocate for artists around the Bay, especially young artists who are just getting their feet wet. 

Individuals can be influenced, and that is evidence pointing to how education can, too. McCasey illustrates, “the way education looks could be transformed to be more learner-centered or student-centered, more joyful, more creative, and lead to more…communities full of social and racial justice.” For the past few years, McCasey has been conducting workshops at various local institutions, ranging from some that last a week to others that continue year-round. In their work with supplying to educators the tools necessary to facilitate discussion and participation in the arts, McCasey also remembers a time when a student particularly stood out to them. At a summer camp, McCasey taught a few visual arts lessons. There, they met a student named Justine. They recount, “Justine’s mom came to me and was like ‘…Justine’s been practicing. Justine never draws, and now there’s been tons of drawing happening…I just see this light and excitement.” This inspiring sign of joyful success left McCasey more impacted than Justine’s mom might have anticipated. “To me, when the arts provide more opportunities for people to feel like they can express themselves,” McCasey comments, “then I feel like that’s where I continue to see the power of arts education.” 

According to Indi McCasey, art is culture made visible. Truly, all cultures are connected at the hip to the arts of the world. This intersection is where people of diverse backgrounds, traditions, and perspectives can converge and flourish. Sadly, it is also, in many ways, tainted by societal prejudice. McCasey explains, “we live in a Eurocentric culture. Most of the organizations [are]…predominantly…or historically white institutions…in this country, those institutions—usually they tend to be museums, operas, symphonies, ballets—have received the majority of funding. And those are the art forms that are deemed ‘high art’ or worthy of attention and resources.” From McCasey’s extensive experience in arts advocacy and teaching, they know that advancement must be integrated into “cultural legacy and the idea of ensuring that communities, especially communities of color,” are properly recognized for their art forms, “validated and valued as…historical fine arts.” 

In Oakland, McCasey and their fellow advocates have gone before the city to lobby against laws that “put their art in the school’s grant on hiatus.” Working with the cultural affairs office and the city council, there has been progress made and more to come. McCasey details, “we’re not, as administrators or people working in the offices, telling the artists what to do.” No, “they’re telling us what they need, and then we’re working to help make that happen.” Most importantly, it’s a collective effort. I’m surprised to learn during our conversation that art advocacy initiatives are far more interconnected than I’ve ever realized before. ​​This, McCasey says, is key. They point out, “when you’re just on your own as an organization, it’s hard to be aware of…an ecosystem.” The value in listening to the voices of those in positions that cause their ideas to be overlooked is abundantly clear to McCasey’s organizations. Voices in particular that need to be spotlit are that of the youth. For us young leaders, McCasey says, being vocal is vital. They strongly suggest “talking with adults about the importance of art, especially adults who hold power in your school.” People like our principals, vice-principals, counselors, district heads, and school board leaders are authorities who can and should listen to you talk about your experiences with art. Ideally, they’ll have answers to questions like “How can I get my work out there?” It’s the “adults’ job to make sure that we’re getting other adults to pay attention to the awesome art that’s happening,” McCasey emphasizes before we say goodbye.

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