It wasn’t long after Randall Reid-Smith became the commissioner at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History that he realized the agency needed to be forward-looking — and that meant developing and strengthening programs that reach West Virginia’s young people.
“The more we can engage our youth in the arts, culture and history of our state, the stronger our future becomes,” said Reid-Smith, now West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History curator. “When we give them opportunities to be creative, we give them skills that will serve them well.”
Across the U.S., the National Endowment for the Arts, National Association of State Arts Agencies and Americans for the Arts encourage the development of arts education opportunities in and outside of the classroom. In its “Arts Education Navigator,” Americans for the Arts includes statistics about the importance of arts education and says, “The arts teach students innumerable lessons. ... They teach children that there are several paths to take when approaching problems and that all problems have more than one solution.”
West Virginia and the Kanawha Valley have several programs in place that support and nurture the arts.
On the state level, the Department of Arts, Culture and History annually sponsors several programs.
In 2018, 42 students from around West Virginia competed in the Poetry Out Loud state competition. More than 4,500 high school students and 162 teachers in 43 high schools took part in local competitions. Each year, the state winner goes on to compete at the national level.
In April 2018, more than 500 students participated in the three-day West Virginia State Dance Festival. Now in its 37th year, the festival gives students the opportunity to take dance classes from nationally acclaimed instructors and see adjudicated performances by some of the dance schools and companies that attend.
The VH1 Save The Music Foundation is helping to sustain music programs around the state. Partnering with the foundation and generous contributors, Culture and History is able to supply musical instruments and books to West Virginia public middle schools. In 2019, the program will have reached 94 of the state’s 160 middle schools and brought $3,290,000 in musical instruments into the state.
“Additionally, our support of the Congressional youth arts competition, Emerging Artists Juried Exhibition and the governor’s student art competition allow us to place more attention on the arts,” said Reid-Smith.
The state, the Clay Center and West Virginia Symphony Orchestra are encouraging schools to incorporate more arts in the classroom through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs.
Culture and History offers the STEAM Power WV grant initiative with support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The statewide initiative funds K-12 projects that integrate arts with the sciences.
West Virginia Symphony Orchestra annually presents a Young People’s Concert Series in Charleston, Parkersburg and Morgantown. The WVSO provides a STEAM-based curriculum guide that is aligned with current West Virginia curriculum standards to enhance the students’ learning.
“We want our programs to inspire curiosity and creativity,” said Betty King, WVSO vice president of education and operations. “We have a lifelong learning philosophy here that reaches young students outside of the classroom with the youth orchestra and master classes and people of all ages with our pre-concert behind-the-scenes programs.”
The Clay Center Impact Grants serve schools and after-school programs with funding for arts and sciences projects, which help young people learn about the importance of both through opportunities to meet scientists and artists as they participate in projects.
“We want the grant program to help young people see the connections between science and art and to begin to realize that they can be working artists in West Virginia,” said Kayte Kincaid, director of education at the Clay Center. “If students aren’t exposed to the idea that there can be a creative collaboration between arts and science fields, they might miss opportunities for their own futures.”
For the Charleston Ballet, arts education is close to home. Joining forces with the Partnership of African American Churches, the Charleston Ballet offers lessons to young students in Rand, Dunbar and Charleston. According to Kim Pauley, artistic director and CEO of the Charleston Ballet, the program is a learning experience for the instructors as well as the students.
“We offer the students opportunities to learn more about dance and to discover the structure, discipline and work ethic that make you not just a better dancer, but better prepared for school, work and everyday life,” Pauley said. “In turn, these young people teach us what appeals to them and keep our thinking fresh.”