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What We’ve Learned About Innovations in Arts Education During a Pandemic

Date: 15 April 2021

COVID Success Stories Blog Post Graphic

AEP recently published a series of success stories featuring partners’ and affiliates’ pandemic-related innovations. We asked common questions of each interviewee about factors that led them to innovate, relationships they had to leverage or build, barriers they experienced and what they would do differently if they could go back in time. For this post, we analyzed these interviews for common themes and present them here as learning opportunities for the future.

Barriers to Arts Learning

When asked what barriers they encountered and how they dealt with them, interviewees all cited logistics as a challenge: coordinating learners who were in different physical spaces, getting timely information to families about changes and navigating circumstances that caused students to learn and process information differently.

Educators in Council Bluffs School District, for example, were teaching different groups of orchestra students in remote and hybrid learning models, often simultaneously. Interviewees also talked about financial and attitudinal barriers, including their communities not perceiving arts education as crucial during an emergency when compared to needs for food or housing. These barriers required flexibility and new thinking about how to serve communities in a changed environment.

Factors That Led to Innovation

Every interviewee experienced either a complete shutdown of their physical space, or in cases where spaces remained open, significant limitations on activities. For example, Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School did not close, but students couldn’t congregate without masks or to sing; this made producing a live musical extremely difficult. The school instead created a virtual awards show as a creative alternative.

Some created new programs – like Artportunity Knocks’ STEAM n’ Meals delivering meals and art kits to families – while others adapted existing programs for remote learning – like Houston Ballet’s Academy using new Synchrobox technology to eliminate videoconferencing lag. In each case, the organization had to do something different beyond replicating in-person programming in a new platform.

Each interviewee shared that they leaned on existing relationships most heavily and that long-standing and diverse relationships were most impactful. For example, Band of Angels relied on existing relationships with the University of Kansas and professional musicians, and Cathedral Arts Project depended on a deep relationship with the local school district and district superintendent. These existing relationships were supplemented by small collaborations with new contacts, but prior relationships were universally most important in each organization’s successful innovation.

Learning From Experience

Finally, we asked interviewees what they would do differently if they could go back in time. Cathedral Arts Project wished they had started making emergency plans in January 2020 when the pandemic was first getting public attention. Houston Ballet mentioned that they would have slowed down and been okay with having little control over much of what was happening.

What we’ve learned from these interviewees is that flexibility and community were crucial in their responses to the pandemic and will continue to be important as they adapt their services. For the organizations we interviewed, it has been especially important to rely on existing partners and collaborators with varied expertise. Having broad networks allowed interviewees to focus on shifting services for their communities rather than trying to build relationships in the middle of a crisis. AEP hopes to carry forward this lesson as we work to build stronger relationships with AEP’s existing partner and affiliate organizations, as well as with new connections in the field.