A pandemic can make little things once taken for granted feel like a very big deal. Dancers moving to the beat in the same actual studio. A group of young artists, learning to draw – together. Budding theatre artists singing in unison, not on Zoom.
On Granville Island in Vancouver, these big little miracles are happening, even now, at a gleaming new 50,000-square-foot arts education facility for children and youth. Following a $27-million renovation, Arts Umbrella, which offers programs for students aged two to 22, has moved into its new home, part of the former campus of Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
And, surprise, in the midst of the third wave, the building is not empty; it’s somewhat abuzz, even. Despite the construction curveballs thrown by the pandemic, it was completed in April – only six months behind schedule – the determination to continue fuelled not just by the goal of delivering promised infrastructure, but by the matter at the heart of the operation: giving young people an education in the arts.
There are a million answers to the question of why arts education is important. One often-heard reason – especially when it comes to advocating for arts education – is that kids who study the arts build brain power and tend to do better in other subjects, like math. There are proven physical health benefits too. A 2019 World Health Organization review of more than 3,000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health and management and treatment of illness across our lives.
But there’s a different kind of answer, and it’s the one Rena Upitis prioritizes. ”The arts help us develop compassion,” says Upitis, professor of education and sustainability studies at Queen’s University. “And the arts give us many ways to creatively embrace solutions to some of the world’s most pressing concerns.”
Much attention during the pandemic has been paid to the impact on children who can no longer attend sports programs. But the loss of arts programs, for the most part, hasn’t been given the same consideration. Kids in choirs and pottery classes and acting intensives have also been dealing with the double whammy of a pandemic and losing access to the thing they love – maybe even the thing that gets them through in normal times.
Over the past year and a bit, arts educators have managed to create and deliver all sorts of online resources and instruction. Is distance learning as good as doing it in person? Of course not. Is it better than nothing? Of course – and by a lot.
At Arts Umbrella, within a few days of the pandemic shutdown in March, 2020, dance classes went online. Two parents constructed mini-barres that the dancers could use in their homes. Theatre and other programs also moved online.
“It’s so, so important to experience that feeling of what it means to be an artist. And you may go on to become a doctor, a teacher, social worker, but if you can identify your whole life as an artist, it’s such an important thing,” Arts Umbrella president and CEO Paul Larocque says.
Arts Umbrella, founded in 1979, operated for most of its existence out of a converted 1930s nail factory elsewhere on Granville Island. When Emily Carr University vacated its space for a new-purpose built campus in East Vancouver, Arts Umbrella won the bid to take over its former South Building, originally designed by Patkau Architects in 1995. The repurposing was led by architect Richard Henriquez, whose wife, Carol, co-founded Arts Umbrella.
Creating a new facility during a pandemic did offer at least one benefit: plans were changed mid-stream to upgrade the ventilation system.
And so, on a springtime Monday morning, what would at any time be a very cute sight – little people in colourful tutus ambling up a large staircase in an airy atrium for their creative dance class – was made even more enchanting by the fact that it was happening in spite of the raging pandemic. Once upstairs, they twirled and reached to the sky in a large, glassed-in studio, each of them keeping to their own large rectangle taped onto the sprung floor, making physical distancing easier.
In the studio next door, a few dancers in a postsecondary program were doing their barre work, also in rectangles, while three others participated from elsewhere – in one case, a bedroom – their images projected over a large monitor.
If seeing all these people together is a little jarring, a year into the pandemic, experts and authorities have done the math and deemed the risks of transmission low.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Adam Rysanek, an expert on building design and ventilation systems whose own three-year-old takes a dance class elsewhere in Vancouver. The assistant professor of environmental systems at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia – who was not commenting on the Arts Umbrella facility specifically – explains that there are compounding probabilities and every setting is different, but the likelihood of a child under six contracting COVID-19 in a low-occupancy, indoor classroom-like setting, even with the variants, still remains low – although not zero.
Of course, much of the work is still happening virtually. In a nearby office, video auditions for the program, usually done in person, were being reviewed. Downstairs in a computer lab, Andre Seow was starting a workshop with a Grade 1 class over Zoom. Once technical issues were sorted out, they got to work.
“We’re going to do some drawing based on birds, because I know you guys all know some birds, right?” Seow told the class.
Normally, he would have driven to the school with supplies and ideas and set up in the gymnasium or cafeteria, as part of a community project called Van Go. Programs such as this help supplement the arts curriculum offered in public schools.
One of the biggest pandemic challenges when it comes to arts education has been group singing. Choirs everywhere have had to shut down or move to virtual rehearsals.
At Arts Umbrella, officials have parked music and musical theatre programs in a new spot: the garage. It’s been converted into a studio – with curtains, a carpeted floor, piano and most importantly, ventilation from fresh air coming through the far end of the garage and fans helping to distribute it. The children are able to rehearse together in person, masked, distanced and, Larocque says, safe.
To an audience of pigeons, the kids have done vocal warmups, learned choreography, rehearsed songs for the facility’s opening celebration. “It means everything that they still get to sing,” Larocque says.
When the movie Soul – whose main character, Joe Gardner, is a music teacher – won the Academy Award last Sunday for best animated feature, its creators used their acceptance speech to thank “music teachers and art teachers everywhere” – including their own parents. “You make the world a better place,” director Pete Docter said.
How many of us can look back on a piano teacher or painting instructor or choir leader who has had a lasting influence on our lives? Especially in very difficult times.
The pandemic suddenly upended access to these important – and, not inconsequential, fun – opportunities at a time when kids needed a creative outlet more than ever. Arts Umbrella – and countless other schools, teachers and parents across Canada – have shown resilience, flexibility and creativity in their mission.
At the heart of the ambition is the understanding that there is so much more to arts education than learning how to draw a turtle or deliver a soliloquy. It’s about learning how to live.
Snapshots of arts education across the country
When artist Remy Benier, who lives alone, received his first kit of art supplies from the National accessArts Centre in April, 2020, it was his first human contact in a month. “You are better than a miracle,” he wrote to the multidisciplinary disability arts organization in Alberta. “I tried to do art on my own, but it is so dull.” The organization also facilitates contact between artists who are disabled – during online workshops or, if the artists prefer, over the phone or through mailed letters. Every month, teams deliver kits – next week, 350 – to people in and around Calgary. – Marsha Lederman
Rather than attempting to awkwardly recreate pre-pandemic plays in virtual space, Suzanne Yerxa, the director of the student-centered New Brunswick Drama Festival, and her team have been guiding teachers and students through the process of creating their own plays. Meanwhile, the professionals who usually teach workshops at the festival have been uploading them to the website instead. In 2021, the festival is set to take place May 11-14, but they’re staying flexible. Yerxa says they will accept almost any type of submission this year: monologues, songs, plays of any length. “We wanted desperately to give the kids a chance to be seen and to be heard,” she says. – Anna Stafford
The Royal Conservatory of Music strongly values the in-person teaching experience, but began working on complementary online resources a few years ago. That knowledge and infrastructure paid off in spades in March 2020, when the organization was quickly able to offer free guidance to teachers who needed to suddenly conduct their lessons virtually. The next challenge was examinations. RCM president and CEO Peter Simon cites in-house research that found students who have an exam as a goal are seven times less likely to quit their music lessons. Some 60,000 students ended up taking their exams online last year. “I could say it was maybe our finest hour,” Simon says. The RCM now plans to offer the online option even post-pandemic. – Marsha Lederman
When the Vancouver Youth Choir was no longer able to rehearse even outside safely (and videoconferencing wasn’t up to the task of synchronizing the singers), artistic director Carrie Tennant launched a series of Zoom workshops led by musical masters from around the globe. The youth have learned about African-American gospel style and history; they were taught a traditional Arabic song by a women’s quartet; they learned a Malaysian song called Jong Jong Inai. The kids sing along from home, muted. Time away from the usual bustle has also given Tennant time to put together VYC Kindred, a choir for newcomers to Canada, ages 13 to 18, set to launch in May. Youth from all over the world – including Indonesia, Uganda, Iran and China – will learn music with First Nations musicians Deanna Newton-Gestrin and Russell Wallace, including a piece written for this purpose. “The first music that newcomer youth are experiencing and learning is the music from this place, of this land,” Tennant says. – Marsha Lederman
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