Mayor Rahm Emanuel had cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Renee Fleming where he wanted them: sitting on either side of him as he marked the one-year anniversary of the Chicago Public Schools' Arts Education Plan. Ma and Fleming, creative consultants for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera respectively, were with the mayor when the Arts Education Plan and larger Cultural Plan were unveiled last year, and the highly celebrated pair has appeared together at CPS schools to stress the importance of the arts in children's educations and lives.
In a few minutes, these three would move downstairs to a Symphony Center performance space where the mayor would discuss sizable arts grants being awarded to arts-excelling CPS schools, and Fleming and Ma would perform "Winter Wonderland" as part of a program boosting the Arts Education Plan. But first they had a conversation about the role of arts in schools, society and their own lives.
The following is an edited transcript.
Tribune: A year after the full Arts Education Plan was released, where are you compared to where you thought you'd be?
Emanuel: For the first time in the history of the Chicago Public School system, we actually as a system have an Arts Education Plan. It never really ever existed on paper or as a plan. That also translates down to every school, and for the first time ever when parents get their report card on the school, the school gets a grade on arts education, and they have to have a plan for how they're going to go from a D to a B, or whatever.…We have now 550, 560 art liaisons, so every school has an art liaison working with the Chicago Symphony, Joffrey (Ballet), Gus Giordano (dance company).
Tribune: Have the biggest challenges been more bureaucratic or a matter of mindset?
Emanuel: Part of it's mindset. Part of it's bureaucracy. But there's been a thirst, and parents want it, and actually the teachers in the schools want to do it, and now they have both the time and the resources and the capacity to do it. And they get evaluated on it. And we're going to announce today the first set of grants for schools that have done the most to improve. We now have a kind of mini race-to-the-top system.….You are hounding a bureaucracy, taking this battleship and flipping it, and this is now in your core mission. The good news: The board's all there, Barbara's all there, her leadership team is all there.
Fleming: It used to sort of be hit or miss depending on the principal, depending on the interests, the parental involvement, and it has to be fair. It's got to be a system that's really in place for everybody. You know, it's all been proven now how much (the arts) benefits children in core subjects and in life, and now in science.
Emanuel: Besides obviously reading to a child early on in life, musical education is the most important thing for brain development. Most important.
Ma: What happened to me then? (Everyone laughs.)
Emanuel: No, we were actually thinking about the rest of us, not you.
Ma: Everybody is talking about a creative economy, and everybody says what we need is a workforce that has the four following qualities: collaboration, imagination, flexible thinking leading to innovation. Those four qualities are the very qualities I think the performing arts address in a nanosecond.
Tribune: In Detroit they're debating whether art at the Detroit Institute of Arts should be sold to pay off the city's bankruptcy debts, so the dialogue has become art vs. pensioners or basic needs. Are you combating the attitude that art is a relative luxury?
Emanuel: In the last two years coming out of the recession, name me another school system as large as ours or of the big 10 that has integrated arts education throughout the system. It is the first casualty in budget cuts. It always is. Now we're facing big budget challenges, but we're not allowing the arts education to become a casualty. If anything we're doubling down on it, and I would challenge you to go to any school system and find this big and this significant of an expansion of arts education.
Ma: I know you did all these town hall meetings, and by a huge percentage that's what parents and citizens wanted. They wanted (arts funding) back.
Tribune (to Fleming): Is there anything you've been especially impressed by in your Chicago school visits?
Fleming: Yeah, the light that comes on in a child who has a voice, who realizes he can be expressive, he or she can say something and be an individual — that's the most moving moment. And it's not just performing, it's the visual arts, it's also appreciating, having a soulful response to anything that we experience in everyday life. They have so many challenges, these children. To give them an expressive outlet is a gift.
Tribune (to Emanuel): Do you think you would be who you are as mayor if you hadn't had your experience as a dancer?
Emanuel: I went to Gus Giordano Evanston school of ballet. Three hours a day. The discipline that came with that has clearly stayed with me.….It throughout my life has served as a great sense of where I began to develop self discipline and focus. Because once I had that kind of goal that maybe you could go into dance, you start driving for it.
Fleming: We've all succeeded for that very reason, I think. We've all been successful because we loved and are passionate about what we do, and we learned that discipline, in order to become good at anything, is necessary.