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Cleansing the Palette-December 2008

Message from Deborah B. Reeve, EdD, Executive Director

I have a friend who works in advertising. Many years ago, he wrote an essay for an advertising award show publication, entitled "What if Einstein had developed a Unified Theory of Creativity?" His point was that the creative talent in ad agencies shouldn't go around thinking they had cornered the market on creativity - that there is a universal thread of creative potential that runs through us all ... it just runs closer to the surface in some.

If you've been reading the subtext - and even some of the headlines - in recent "Cleansing the Palette" columns, or heard me speak over the past year, you know that I feel the same way about leadership. It's not a talent that resides in a chosen few, but lives within us all, needing only the opportunity and perhaps the catalyst to bring it to the surface.

So, we have the promise of both creativity and leadership bubbling about inside each one of us. But what if we let both of these innate abilities surface and dance together? In the natural world, lichens are only formed when algae and fungi come together in a symbiotic relationship. The question I pose to you in this space of "seeing dangerously" is: What is the lichen that evolves from the merger of creativity and leadership? What does it look like?

And I think the answer is gradually being revealed through ongoing strategic conversations that are happening at multiple levels within the NAEA professional community - with the NAEA Board of Directors and through outreach by our regional and divisional directors and through conversations with leaders in our state associations. These conversations are also happening beyond our own community through strategic outreach to other professional communities and most recently at a small gathering NAEA convened at the Aspen Institute in late August.

There were about 25 in attendance, and a stunningly varied group it was: representatives of our own distinguished scholars, wise sages, and emerging leaders in visual arts education - there were music education scholars ... advocates for the arts ... former Clinton and Bush administration officials ... experts on learning and cognition ...education association executives ... and communication experts who facilitated and documented the conversations - in fact, this group represented a microcosm of the diversity we are looking to engage on a wider scale in conversations about visual arts education.

The subject was the value of arts education in a rapidly changing world - what education can, in fact, learn from the arts -
and how to communicate that value to others. Beyond that, there were no parameters. It was a 2-day intellectual "summit meeting," with continuous and diverging stimuli to keep the thinking fresh.

And the thinking was, in many ways, out of the ordinary.

Provocative metaphors arose - for instance: Every classroom is a studio, every school a canvas, every child a work of art.

Striking perspectives were suggested, such as: The arts are the meeting place of the human condition - the intersection of thought, creativity, and culture.

Challenging questions were posed, such as: How do we reconcile creativity and accountability when high-stakes testing rules the roost?

And some of the answers raised even more challenging questions. For instance, if the American economy thrives on innovation, and business icons such as Nike's Phil Knight live by the maxim "He who makes the most mistakes, wins," how do we breed risk-taking in the generation of NCLB students getting a "bubble test" education? Where can these students turn to get permission to take risks and explore learning beyond what's on the test?

There were even intriguing questions about the field of arts education itself. With everything we do to establish what makes visual arts education distinctive, for instance, do we unintentionally narrow the parameters at a time when we will benefit more by expanding them?

But even as the concepts and imagery and mental gymnastics came flying from all directions, I was particularly struck by an organizational shift - the emergence of the 21st-century generation of scholars and leaders in our field. They think differently - they take what is known and put it together in new and different ways to create new and different meaning. They look at the world through different lenses. They challenge the status quo. They practice "seeing dangerously" as a matter of course.

In other words, they embody all the best qualities of visual arts education and its value to today's students - and society. In the same way that the Aspen participants were a microcosm of the diversity we seek in order to keep NAEA fresh and vital, the ideas presented by this next generation were a microcosm of the much broader canvas we will be working with as new models of teaching, leading, and learning are created and practiced.

How do we bring this month's experience in "seeing dangerously" full circle? One way is to return to that "unified theory of creativity" essay. One of the ancillary points in that essay was that every community develops its own form of insularity and resistance to change. As I suggested in last month's "Palette," diversity is a powerful force for breaking down those walls of insularity and letting an organization gain a fresh breath of perspective and energy. The Aspen gathering brought diverse perspectives together and chipped mightily away at some of our hardened thinking.

But the Aspen Institute's location, high up in the Rocky Mountains, suggests the metaphor I'd like to leave with you. Many mature organizations, with leadership concepts that are writ in stone, are like the long-dormant and crusty volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington. Virtually, their only ability to evolve is by the so-very-gradual eroding away of ancient rock.

By comparison, I see NAEA as being more like the active and continually reforming volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. Bursts of eruptive activity provide ongoing regeneration. Visitors can step right up to the lip of the volcanic vent and see generational change in action.

Today, you have a front-row seat as part of NAEA's evolution and transformation. Even better, I encourage you to leave your comfortable seat and step up to center stage and help lead that process. Such acts of leadership may or may not feel natural to you. For some, it may come slowly. But each and every one of you who are engaged in this transformative work make our organization - and our community of practice - that much richer, more vibrant and influential. After all, the arts are the meeting place of the human condition - the intersection of thought, creativity, culture... and ACTION!

To learn more about the
NAEA Aspen Summit: What Education Can Learn from the Arts, go to naeaaspensummit.org

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