Young at art
Durango Arts Center prioritizes arts education

Julia Peterson works on a colored pencil drawing at the Durango Arts Center last Friday. Hundreds of young Durango artists have studied with DAC Kids since its inception in 1991. The program offers year-round arts education for everyone from pre-schoolers to teens./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Stew Mosberg

Most every child draws, scribbles, slops paint or otherwise creates art. For some, it is the start of a lifelong passion for the arts. Nurturing such enthusiasm and providing the tools for it develops minds and an ability to express feelings.

Back in 1991, the then-named Durango Arts Force recognized the value of arts education and started an after-school arts program in local elementary schools. The objective was and still is, to provide visual and performing arts experiences for children of La Plata County. Through a grant funded by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Colorado Council for Arts and Humanities, the program was able to launch a three-year project to pair local arts educators and councils to make a positive change in arts education. Nancy Fredrick, artist, teacher and arts advocate, along with Sandy Bielenberg, a now retired 9-R art teacher, and the late Barbara Conrad, who was then Executive Director of the DAC, put the plan in motion.

From the beginning, programs included after school art classes as well as continuing education classes for teachers, summer art camps, and the Creativity Festivity, a monthlong celebration of learning through the arts. Today, classes are taught by local artists and educators and held once a week at all seven elementary schools.

Soon after that grant was received, Caitlin Connaughton was brought on board. Connaughton is well-known in Durango for her fervent belief in educating youth about art and dance. “At the time, art teachers were not part of the elementary curriculum, and the Arts Force provided this very important opportunity in the form of an after-school program,” she recalls.

Thinking back on those days she says, “The Arts Force was a crucial factor in influencing the school district to eventually include art teachers in all of their elementary schools.”

Ten years ago, Connaughton was asked to build a children’s program at the Durango Arts Center under the direction of Brian Wagner. The program, which became DAC Kids, included year-round programming at the Durango Arts Center with a wide variety of arts classes for children from pre-school through high school, including G.O.A.L., an arts and leadership program for middle school girls.

Once all the groundwork and programs were set, it was up to the kids to participate, and indeed they did. Hundreds of young Durangoans have attended the DAC arts programs. Thought she is no longer working at the DAC, the dancer-artist-teacher till believes in the value of youth education. “What is important is the continued legacy of the DAC to be able to provide arts education for our community and I support the continued efforts of the DAC in this regard,” Connaughton says.

DAC Education Director Sandra Butler says the program is going well and there are five teachers serving approximately 90 students every month. “The teachers are all educators with degrees in education or arts education,” she says. “We also have two recent FLC graduates with art education degrees.” The cost of materials and related expenses makes it necessary to charge a nominal fee for the classes. Students pay $8 per class and there are about three scholarship students per school. “Scholarship money has traditionally come from Durango Friends of the Arts,” says Butler. “We absorb the cost of some students since the need is greater than the piggy bank.”

The curriculum is broadly based and includes Art History, Art Production, Art Criticism and Aesthetics and is designed to introduce youngsters to a variety of art techniques and materials as well as hone their self expression, cultural awareness and problem-solving skills.

Raelee Lucero, left, and Julia Peterson wash up after a rigorous art session at the Durango Arts Center last Friday./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

One such session recently convened at Riverview Elementary. As class rooms emptied for the day, nine first- and second-graders straggled into the art room for an hour’s worth of fun and creative enlightenment. Veteran artist and teacher Bonnie Ward gathered the five girls and four boys around her as she read briefly from a picture book. She showed the images referencing Mexico’s holiday “La dia del Muerte,” when deceased love ones are revered and tiny shrines are created to commemorate their memories. The art students’ project for the day was to create a similar type of “memory box.”

The kids got right to it, molding clay, selecting colored paper, feathers, gluing, taping and painting. Some paid tribute to a grandparent, some to a pet, one enterprising youngster even paid homage to a lost football. Ward encouraged and cajoled and let them do their thing and emphasized that there is no restraint on creativity.

To remain focused on the core objective, Arts Force has always kept lists of reasons art is taught, but Butler has now incorporated a scholarly work by Elliot Eisner titled, The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Based on a key section of that book, she recently introduced “10 Reasons Why We Teach Art” as a reminder to the program’s educators why their work is so important.

Of the 10 reasons, a few in particular define the after school program’s desired results and are worth repeating:

• The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and questions more than one answer;

• The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said;

• When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job;

• The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships.

Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, recently confirmed the value of programs like DAC Kids. “Does anyone really believe that reaching grade level in reading and math is all there is, particularly in a world as rapidly changing as ours, where demands for a dynamic set of skills and knowledge across a wide spectrum are a requisite for success in work and life?” he wrote in the Huffington Post. “And for those who believe that subjects like the arts must wait until students have made enough progress in standardized tests, they are creating a caste system that denies many of the very things that make school culture rich, rewarding and ultimately successful across a wide range of outcomes.” •

For information about the DAC After School Arts Program, contact or call the Durango Arts Center at 970-259-2606.