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The Value of Arts Education Programs

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

Both the arts and education sectors benefit from school programs offered by Alberta arts organizations, but what more can be done to support their impact?

Guest Post by Rebecca Smyth

performing arts drama program

Rebecca Smyth is a nonprofit administrator and project manager with a specific interest in cross-disciplinary arts initiatives and school programs. She holds a BFA from Concordia University, and was part of the 2020-21 Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) cohort. This article is part of her RAMP ALP project. She’s grateful to live and work on Treaty 7 land, in her own tiny museum with her roommate, partner and dog. You can reach her at to talk about school program design and strategy, neurodiversity, or anything interesting you recently learned.


I’ve been working as a school program facilitator and administrator in Calgary’s arts and culture sector since 2016, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) that I began to explore exactly how much of Alberta’s arts curriculum is delivered to students in collaboration with arts nonprofits. Large institutions like the Glenbow Museum and the National Music Center host robust field trip programs, but many smaller organizations working in the visual, literary and performing arts also impact Alberta students and teachers through artist residencies, talks, workshops and touring shows.

I consulted with 11 different arts nonprofits and specialists for my RAMP Action Learning Project (ALP), wanting to understand what value art education initiatives brought to their organizations, and how such programs fit into their mandates and strategies. I learned how organizations design and fund programs, how they tailor programs to school audiences, and where they need additional support to improve program impact. Many people also shared their perspectives on sector-wide issues and offered solutions for improving arts education outcomes for both arts and education stakeholders.

Arts nonprofits play a key role in student art education in our province, and I hope that organizations can use some of the key takeaways from my ALP consultations to advocate for the important work they do.

The Value of Arts Education to Arts Organizations

  • Arts Education Programs Have Strategic Value

Overwhelmingly, arts organizations believe that school and youth initiatives have strategic value and contribute to their mission. For some, this value is in the business impact of marketing to schools: matinee performances or field trip bookings help bring in additional audiences and revenue, maximizing the investment made into general programming. For most organizations though, audience diversification is the primary benefit of school and youth programs. Many organizations have a mandate to engage people of all cultures, genders, identities, and ages. Promoting youth programs through the school system is often the most efficient way for arts organizations to increase their engagement with the greatest diversity of young people, as schools and education programs include youth from all communities.

  • The Benefits of Promoting to Schools

Although students and youth are the target audience, adults make decisions about program registration, and marketing to teachers and club leaders will result in different youth engagement outcomes than marketing to families. School programs can expect higher engagement numbers, as teachers and club leaders often register upwards of 20 students for a program. School groups are also much more likely to include youth who wouldn’t typically engage in arts programming due to personal interest levels, marginalization, or lack of time and/or financial ability, boosting quantitative and qualitative audience impact.

  • Long-Term Audience Development

Offering targeted programs can help organizations include young people in their immediate audience, while also providing long-term benefits to audience development. One study of teen programs at the Whitney Museum found that up to 19 years later, over 95% of participants had recently visited another museum, 79% had held a professional position in the arts, and nearly 60% said that the museum program had a significant impact on their current career path. Intentionally inviting and welcoming youth into arts spaces cultivates future arts audiences and advocates.

The Value of Arts Education to Teachers, Schools, and School Boards

  • The Learning Benefits of Arts Education and Integration

There is significant Canadian research showing that arts education supports overall student engagement and learning outcomes across all subjects, not just the arts.

A study of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s “Learning Through the Arts” (LTTA) arts integration initiative found that the impact of physical movement when students sang, acted, or danced as part of their learning increased engagement and motivation in participating Grade 6 students. At the end of the three-year study, these students were also scoring 11 percentile points higher in mathematical tests than their counterparts in control schools.

In a study funded by The Rozsa Foundation, UCalgary professor Dr. Brittany Martin found that a Trickster Theatre school program increased student outcomes like collaboration, leadership and creativity, which each contribute to students’ intellectual engagement. This boost in engagement was notably higher for English Language Learners, indicating that arts integration can be an effective way “to engage students who are often marginalized by traditional teaching strategies”.

  • Why Do Teachers Come to Arts Organizations for Programming?

Despite the demonstrated benefits of teaching and integrating the arts in schools, many teachers struggle due to lack of resources, expertise, or comfort with arts education practices. Most Alberta Elementary schools, and even Junior and Senior High schools in smaller communities, rely on “generalist” teachers to deliver arts curriculum, a model that relies on teachers having the interest, capacity, and confidence to develop their own knowledge of the wide variety of artistic disciplines.

To support teachers in bringing the benefits of art education and integration to students, teachers and administrators often turn to external specialists to bring supplementary arts programming to their schools. These experiences are funded through a combination of school budgets, parent council fundraising, and artist-in-residence grants offered to schools by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

Supporting Arts Education in Alberta

  • Funding Arts Organizations To Help Deliver Curriculum

School programs offered by Alberta arts organizations are important resources that help schools and teachers deliver provincial arts curriculum to students. By providing high-quality creative learning experiences for students, designed and delivered by working artists, arts organizations develop their current and future audiences while creating additional work opportunities for artists.

And yet, despite this mutual benefit, there is very little practical support for arts nonprofits that offer school programs, from either the Alberta Arts or Education sectors. At this time, there are no targeted funding programs for arts organizations to build out and offer programming for schools and youth. Most organizations rely on corporate sponsorships, revenue from program registration, and portions of their operational funding to cover program development, promotion, delivery and evaluation expenses, which can be significant. Schools can apply to the AFA’s Artists and Education program to subsidize artist residency fees; however, this initiative does not cover other arts education experiences such as performances or field trips. And as school budgets face increasing cuts year to year, supplementary programming becomes inaccessible to schools in low-income communities, where parent council fundraising is less feasible.

  • A Need for Advocacy

Both arts organizations and teachers struggle with a lack of capacity and expertise around arts education, so to conclude, I’d like to share some of the recommendations and suggestions for support made to me by both arts administrators and educators:

  1. Creating a culture of teachers who understand, champion, and teach the arts starts with teacher education and B.Ed programs. All student teachers, not just arts specialists, should be trained in the benefits and techniques of arts-integrated teaching practices.

  2. Arts organizations would benefit from education-specific support from funding bodies in the form of targeted operational and project funding for youth outreach initiatives, and through access to arts education specialists to improve program design.

  3. Smaller organizations would benefit from collaborative approaches to program promotion, such as a province-wide program database, to make programs easier for teachers to find.

  4. Formalizing arts education collaboration in the sector, for example by establishing a Provincial Arts Service Organization, would help organize advocacy to funding bodies, Universities, and government agencies, and promote public awareness of the benefits of arts education.


Thank you to all the individuals and organizations who took the time to share their experiences, program strategies and resources with me for this project. You can learn more about their work with schools and youth in the links below:

Ayla Stephen, The Shakespeare Company & The Rozsa Foundation

Dr. Brittany Harker Martin, UCalgary, Werklund School of Education

Catherine McClelland and Amanda Smith, Honens Piano Competition

Dani Spady, Calgary Opera

David Chantler, Trickster Theatre

Eva Verity and Parisa Ramandesh, The Esker Foundation

Nikki Loach, Quest Theatre

Rita Sirignano and Beth Ed, Wordfest

Shaun Elder and Robey Stothard, The Royal Conservatory of Music

Stephanie Gregorwich, The Young Alberta Book Society

Tracy Wormsbecker, Albert Printmakers

(Image via Wix Media)

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