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Arts and Education

By John Hobday

The first CCA conference that I attended was in late 1967. As I recall the three key topics of concern were:  the lack of adequate government support to build on the success of Centennial Year; the failure of the media to provide sufficient coverage of the arts; and the lack of emphasis on arts education in our schools.

Since then, the quality and quantity of arts education in Canada has, with a few exceptions, diminished.

Study after study that I have read, conference after conference I have attended, made strong recommendations about the importance of engaging young people at an early age in quality arts education.  Yet, as Professor Larry O’Farrell, the holder of the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning at Queen’s has pointed out  “the arts still hold a precarious place at best in school curricula around the world at the same time that community-based youth arts programs are typically underfunded and impermanent.”

As a result of this lack of real commitment, what we have allowed to happen in Canada is the creation of a two-tier system. We have children who are lucky enough to have parents that understand the value of arts exposure and participation and who can afford after-school lessons in arts and ballet and music. Then, there are the rest.

This is grossly unfair, particularly as we know that talented people can be found in all social and economic strata and among those who may live in remote rural areas or an impoverished inner-city core. The key to addressing this imbalance of opportunity lies in making it possible for ALL young people to be exposed to the arts.

Not only because this may lead to a talented child becoming an artist but also to building informed arts-aware citizens who will enjoy and participate in arts activities throughout their lives.

Throughout the subsequent decades, since the euphoria of 1967, one heard sickening reports about the dismissal of qualified art teachers and the refusal of School Boards to replace them because of cost. While, there were many efforts made to involve professional artists to fill the gap, it was rare that these artists were properly compensated or that they received the necessary pedagogical training required to teach in a complex multi-cultural school environment.

Gradually, through valiant efforts, excellent programs such as Learning Through the Arts and ArtsSmarts came into being across the country with positive results.

Many professional arts organizations continued to present their programs in schools or bring bus-loads of children to their theatre or art gallery or museum. All too frequently they undertook these activities without adequate financial compensation. They passively accepted this situation as they felt they were helping to build audiences for their own future. Too often the subsidy provided by the schools to make these excursions possible were among the first items to be cut as they were not considered to be a necessity.

Most of us who were aware of the erosion of quality arts education in the classrooms of the nation felt helpless. Some, such as Walter Pitman, persevered in heroic efforts to speak out. Nevertheless, reading and math took precedence – and still do – over the subjects that have creativity at their core.

As arts education advocate Sir Ken Robinson has repeatedly stated “Elementary and high schools tend to emphasise math and science and languages because the results can be more easily measured. If we can’t measure artistic performance, then there is little incentive to spend precious classroom time and money on teaching the arts”.

This under-appreciation of the role of the arts in stimulating the imagination and encouraging creativity is finally beginning to be recognised by business and some political leaders. To continue to be a prosperous nation Canada desperately needs minds that can find creative solutions to problems – something that all who engage in an artistic discipline do all the time.

Perhaps the seeds from which an understanding of the importance of arts and education grew were planted in 1999. Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO, issued an appeal which stated “at a time when family and social structures are changing, with often adverse effects on children and adolescents, the school of the 21st century must be able to anticipate the new needs by according a special place to the teaching of artistic values and subjects in order to encourage creativity, which is a distinctive attribute of the human species. Creativity is our hope “.

In 2006, the first UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education was scheduled to take place in Lisbon. In preparation for this event the Canadian Commission for UNESCO initiated a series of consultations across the country. Under the able chairmanship of Max Wyman, these hearings resulted in a comprehensive report Learning to Live, Living to Learn. The Canadian delegation at Lisbon was thus well equipped to demonstrate that, in spite of the many deficiencies in our provincial educational systems, we were starting to equip ourselves to play a leadership role.

As a direct result of the “Roadmap” established at the Lisbon Conference, and wishing to share the international findings, the Canadian delegates identified the need for a broader national voice for arts and learning which would build on existing initiatives and promote awareness of the benefits of the arts and creativity for all Canadians.

A major step forward took place 2007. The first UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning in Canada was established at Queen’s University. Professor Larry O’Farrell was appointed to hold the Chair. This provided the possibility of a “home” for advancing the issue in Canada and providing a direct link to the best thinking around the world.

My support for the CCA as an institution and its unique ability to research and advocate on behalf of the cultural sector as a whole is unwavering. However, the  effort required to overcome the effects of over forty years of neglect in arts education, as well as the jurisdictional barriers, led me to conclude that the best approach was to help build an organization dedicated specifically to address this daunting challenge.

In May 2007, I participated in the first Arts and Education Symposium at Ottawa University. I quickly realised that there was a real possibility to harness the intelligence and passion that was so evident and channel it into a movement that could become an unstoppable force for positive change. With other “dedicated lunatics” I have been working hard ever since to help make this happen.

The next Arts and Learning Symposium was held at Queen’s in 2008. I was appointed to chair the session at which the more than one hundred delegates from across the country were to be asked to ratify “A Framework for Action”. This document which had been prepared by Max Wyman, Larry O’Farrell and others, outlined the vision and goals of a Canadian Network for Arts and Learning. While I held my breath as it was put to a vote, it was approved unanimously.

This solid endorsement of the vital importance of working together for a common cause made it possible to move on to the next step. At its Symposium at the Royal Conservatory in 2009, the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning (CNAL) was formally established. In spite of some delays, it achieved charitable status a few weeks ago.

Based at the UNESCO Chair at Queen’s and with the generous support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a campaign has now officially been launched to attract members to the Network. All who believe in the vision and goals are welcome.

The Board of CNAL, which includes CCA National Director Alain Pineau, is fiercely determined that the arts must return to their rightful place in classrooms across Canada and are properly taught by qualified teachers and artist educators.

Apart from the development of CNAL, I am also encouraged by what is happening in many other countries. The South Korean government has played a lead role in advancing global discussion of the arts and learning. At the Second World Conference held in Seoul in May 2010, delegates from 95 countries approved the Seoul Agenda – Goals for the Development of Arts Education.  I am confident that the views expressed in this landmark document are entirely consistent with those held by most Canadian arts leaders. The delegates in Seoul were impressed that Canada had already created CNAL as a mechanism for moving the Seoul Agenda forward.

At its General Assembly in 2011, UNESCO unanimously approved the Seoul Accord. That same meeting also agreed to create the first International Arts Education Week May 21st to 27th, 2012.

This event will help to accelerate the process of forging the essential coalition of: arts educators, professional arts practitioners, those responsible for the administration of our provincial and territorial schools, school boards, principals, teachers, parents and the children themselves. Together, we can build a compelling case for the importance of arts and learning to the development of Canada  as a prosperous and creative nation.


  1. D. Paul Schafer says:

    I really enjoyed reading the valuable article on arts education by John Hobday. While there is much to regret concerning the state of arts education in Canada and other parts of the world, some very impressive gains have been recorded in this field in recent years, largely as a result of the work of UNESCO in this field and research into the value and importance of arts education in the development of people at all ages and in every sector of society.

    I was one of the beneficiaries of an excellent education in the arts when I was young. This education was provided in part by the elementary and secondary schools I attended, but primarily by my parents. Although my parents did not have an education in the arts themselves, they saw to it that their children received such an education.

    I have profitted from this all my life, so much so that I recently wrote a major article about this education called ‘Foundations for Life: How an Education in the Arts Can Transform and Enrich Your Life.’ This article has just been published in a collection of articles on arts education by the UNESCO Chair in the Ukraine. It is available for downloading on the Home Page of the World Culture Project website at

    I think John Hobday, Larry O’Farrell, Max Wyman, Walter Pitman, and others are to be congratulated for the valuable role they have played to promoting arts education in Canada and throughout the world. Thanks to their initiatives and hard work, Canada has a world-wide reputation for leadership in this area which will surely grow and develop in the months and years ahead. D. Paul Schafer

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