Amp Up Arts benefits local artists and students

Amp Up Arts wants all students to be able to access art

By: - July 6, 2023 7:05 am
Getty- a child's hands uses pencils

The boy painted and used a pencil (Getty)

Ashley Lucier wants every student in the state to have access to an arts education. “Our mission is, in the simplest form, that we have sustainable arts education for all of Alabama’s students,” she said.

Lucier is the state director for Amp Up Arts, an organization that partners with schools and local arts communities to provide students with access to art programs with the help of working artists. The initiative is funded through the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Recently, Amp Up Arts placed an art class in the summer camps that focuses on math and literacy in Mobile. She said that students came to the camp because they wanted to work on a mural they were making in the gym.

One of the girls loved art, but there were no art classes, so she came all of the time. Other children didn’t see art as something they had access to, and this was their first exposure.

The mural gave students a sense of ownership for their school. In front of the mural were the plastic, drawn on bleachers in most high school gyms. They cleaned the bleachers in front of the painting with cleaners they brought to school.

“Nobody even asked them to,” Lucier said.

Students are not always taught art that is culturally relevant to them. She said many times students think of art as the opera, Vincent Van Gogh or Russian painters.

When they are introduced to people living in their cities as artists, the possibility becomes more real to them.

Lucier said that it’s important for Amp Up Arts that they don’t go into a school or building and decide that they know best for a community. If they do that, then arts education becomes just another activity, and the education may not be one best suited for the children in that community.

 “A lot of times in education like I saw that as a teacher and administrator, a lot of times you have these big initiatives to come fix things,” she said.

Those “big initiatives” are not always familiar with the students or community, so it isn’t always a good fit.

Lucier gave the example that they have an arts education based around the Green Book in some Birmingham area schools.

“The artistic communities are so varied across the state that we really want to recognize that,” she said.

Kat Stoves, the collaborative site director in Mobile, said they have been painting the utility boxes in Mobile.

“We worked with the Mobile Downtown Alliance and hired local artists who then put their work on this just regular run of the mill thing, and now there’s something beautiful to look at a stoplight,” she said.

The Mobile site was set up in January, and they have already had art courses and courses teaching working artists to be teaching artists. The teaching artists are working artists that teach students in schools.

“As a personal artist myself, I know that it’s hard sometimes to maintain a steady income, and you can have a really great skill set but not having a steady income is really difficult,” Stoves said. “So being able to offer that to these teaching artists and know that they are being able to provide a quality class is just a fantastic opportunity for everybody involved.”

Teaching artist Kerri Noelle-Humphrey developed the dance curriculum in Madison County. When she was beginning her teaching career, she learned that there wasn’t a standardized dance curriculum in schools. When she began teaching, most students did not have access to a dance class in her county.

“Fundamentally, I had a real issue with that that just did not make me feel comfortable because it’s not an exclusive activity. It’s not a country club kind of thing,” she said. “Dance is for everyone. If you can move, you can dance, and that opportunity was not being made available to students.”

She said a lot of students envision a dance curriculum like ballet, which is a form and not the foundation for dance. In her work, she wants to decolonize dance, and said that dance is an art that most people can do.

“I think it’s important to emphasize that dance is an art form that is being gate kept, and only certain students are being given access to dance, and dance doesn’t require instruments,” Noelle-Humphrey said. “It doesn’t require special paper or brushes or anything. All you need is a room with a little space, and you can do dance.”

Most students have experience with dance, but they might not have experience with an organized dance curriculum. Most students find the experience transformational.

“Absolutely when you can validate a student’s own personal movement choices and give them the opportunity to express how they see movement,” she said. “Then, more often than not, the students feel differently about dance.”

Ruth O’Connor, a teaching artist in Tuscaloosa, said that many students may not have access to art teachers in their schools. She said some have never been to a gallery or museum, and that some aren’t aware of the art community in downtown Tuscaloosa.

“Some kids are not aware of the art scene that’s happening there, and it’s just they’re just not exposed to that,” she said.

O’Connor has gone to other schools, sometimes almost to Mississippi, as part of the mission to make arts available to all Alabama students.

“A lot of schools have not had art teachers for years if ever, and again because of this program and the funding is to make arts accessible to every student, every Alabama student, you know, across the state, they do call me to a lot of areas that are underserved,” she said.

When Lucier speaks with lawmakers and education officials, she always hears that they are in support of arts and arts education. Arts isn’t always funded at the same rate as other education areas.

Not every student has a STEM subject as their favorite subject. Not every student is going to go into a career like engineering. There are kids in Alabama schools who could thrive in an arts classroom if they had access to an art teacher and could meet the people in their community who made a career from the arts.

“So, it’s really advocating for those kids who haven’t been advocated for in the past,” Lucier said.

Sitting in Prevail Coffee in downtown Montgomery, she pointed to all the art on the walls that created the ambience of the business.

“People forget how important the arts are to the community,” she said.

Kevin King, a local artist in Montgomery and founder and executive director of the King’s Canvas, has long worked with kids in the Montgomery area and hopes that the schools will use the resources to allow more students to experience arts education in schools.

“If we had a good combination of art teachers, teaching artists and mentors that can lead and guide our students down some sort of educational path where they can make a living from the arts,” he said.

Montgomery does not have an official collaborative site yet, but it is working towards one. They have put murals in some schools. They have done some workshops. One of the affiliate artists has received a full-time teaching job.

Looking forward, King wants Montgomery to have an inclusive arts scene with Black and marginalized artists. He said that arts drive economics, but artists aren’t always valued.

When he envisions a Montgomery that values its artists, he thinks of more public art and using art as strategic economic development.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts and culture industry provided an estimated $171.3 billion to the country’s GDP.

When he thinks about the future of Montgomery and schools with art, he wants more teaching artists and more opportunities for students to see art as beyond a pastime post-graduation.

“I want them to be able to have a career path in the arts,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated with the funding sources for Amp Up Arts.

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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.