Art education has a tenuous history of being underfunded and under-taught compared to subjects like reading and math. Too often you hear: “It’s not practical” or “How will art help you get a job?” or “Students shouldn’t get an artistic education unless they want to.”

To Allison Galloway, executive director of Any Given Child, teaching children about the arts is so much more. Art education is pivotable to developing what Galloway calls “the whole child.” Regardless whether the child decides to become an artist or not, she said young students can never try too many things.

“It [the ‘whole child’] means everything about playtime and getting outside to critical thinking skills, along with writing, STEM subjects and with the arts,” said Galloway.

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If schools neglect arts programs, students will miss out on opportunities to think differently. Galloway advocates adding art in the acronym of what are deemed the most important subjects, STEAM rather than STEM. She said students shouldn’t have a rigid career set in mind when they’re young.

Any Given Child is a volunteer-based organization that acts as a facilitator, connecting professional artists and college instructors with schools and students, but it all started with the Cathedral Arts Project that was founded in the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in 1993. What started as a small group of volunteers giving bi-weekly art lessons to children in community centers eventually lead the way to establishing an AGCprogram in Jacksonville.

In 2014, Jacksonville was the fourteenth city to be given the honor by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts joining cities like Portland, Sacramento and Austin.

“The programs we do are incubated pilots and case studies and [we] let them go off to be successful on their own,” Galloway said. “We’ve helped connect funding and people in Jacksonville. Now, they’re up and running and being successful.”

One of these connections was between special-needs students and Theatre Jacksonville. Galloway said many students with special needs are heavily taught communication and speech skills and don’t get to participate in the arts.

“AGC helped Theatre Jacksonville run a program for outreach through which we were able to elicit an amazing amount of new communication skills for these kids because they’re doing it through an art form.”

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A major achievement of AGC was the transformation of Fort Caroline Middle School. It fell 500 students under capacity and its doors could’ve been shut. Any Given Child helped Fort Caroline through the application process to become an arts magnet school, like LaVilla School of the Arts. Fort Caroline grabbed the arts designation, which solved two problems: it kept Fort Caroline open and gave AGC a platform to engage more students in the arts.

Then AGC teamed up with JASMYN (Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network) to offer workshops to teachers learn how to engage and support LGBT students.

“There’s an inclusivity that happens with the arts that can really embrace a lot of different kinds of students,” Galloway said.

As for the challenges, Any Given Child located pockets of students who weren’t getting an adequate arts education. Galloway said Title I schools (low-income) schools are typically stripped of what are deemed “extra” resources so they can focus on the achievement gap. Galloway said these students can’t go down the street and take piano lessons or learn to paint. Just like there are food deserts, there are also art deserts.

“So, you aren’t giving them something in schools that they want and need, and they don’t have direct access to it either in their neighborhoods or via travel, and certainly without the expense,” Galloway said.

The process to reform arts education in K-8 depends on the efforts of a community-based process. Any Given Child gathered local leaders from all over the community — not just in the arts, but the business sector, the military sector, policy makers and general education — in a room and started talking about gaps in arts programs.

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Galloway spoke on how an arts education affects students socially and academically, and fosters self-growth.

“Learning through the arts creates a better learning environment. Participating in the arts gives us appreciation for human beings and it allows us to be reflective in a way that rote learning doesn’t necessarily allow.”

“Like test scores?” I ask.

“Exactly,” Galloway said. “It [art education] allows a level of self-expression that’s just not reflective of any other type of learning in K through 12.

Though Galloway hesitated to say that Jacksonville should become a Portland or an Austin because The River City has its own style, she said every city would benefit from a vibrant arts and culture scene.

“I think arts and culture drives tourism, it drives new business, new jobs and quality of life in a city that no other industry can bring. Look at Portland, look at Austin, look at Atlanta. We don’t have to be like any of those other cities, but yes there is a side goal that Jacksonville can become a place of arts and culture.”