School Budget Cuts Threaten District's Annual Art Show

Posted: June 09, 1994

Every spring for 35 years, the School District of Philadelphia has mounted its annual spring art show at the museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center.

Featuring 1,500 pieces of art work representing students from kindergarten through senior high at 200 schools, the show is a moving and impressive display of creative energy and talent.

It is the largest show of its kind in the nation - a perennial jewel in the tarnished crown of public education. But under budget cuts that will be made unless the bailout promised by the mayor and the president of City Council materializes, "Young Artists 1994" will be the district's last student exhibition. The Civic Center Museum will also close its doors for good.

The array of color and creativity embraces a visitor, touring the show with Tessie Varthas, who honchos the exhibit as coordinator of art education for the public schools.

Varthas, an art teacher for 16 years, remembers when 20 people worked in support services to art programs. When she took over a year ago, support services had a staff of four.

With the budget cuts, Varthas will be all alone next year. Even if the cuts are restored, she says, support for art education ranks last under ''prioritized restorations" - district-speak for who gets paid if any money dribbles back after the bloodletting.

"(The cuts) sound good to the public - which thinks school administration is top-heavy," says Varthas. But she knows the work she and her staff do is both invisible and essential. Besides the mammoth task of coordinating the annual art competition and show, they provide year-round guidance to art teachers, help arrange art festivals in each region, conduct professional development workshops for worn-down but dedicated instructors.

"I'd like to carry on," says Varthas, "but how can one person provide professional development to 260 art teachers?"

Some of those teachers function like traveling sideshows, their supplies loaded on carts, moving from room to room. Because art is "non-essential," those who teach it often are first to lose their classrooms when schools are overcrowded.

Despite that humiliation, the display at the Civic Center Museum is eloquent testimony that they do carry on.

This year, the show generated $9,000 in awards and scholarships for participants, many of whom are headed for college. "Although art education is perceived as a frill, there are studies that show art programs increase test scores, critical thinking skills, motivation and problem solving," Varthas explains. "People only think about pretty pictures on the wall and kids wasting time - but that's a myth. My mission is to dispel it."

She leads me through the displays of art work, telling stories of achievement.

There's David Cruz, painter and sculptor, a presidential scholar headed for Pratt Institute; portrait artist Damali Kenya, of Girls High, bound for Moore College of Art; and Michelle Burnett, a fourth-grader at Heston Elementary, whose scene of colorful rowhomes won her a scholarship to the Main Line Arts Center.

There are collective works - friendship quilts, pottery, a wall of haunting Holocaust perspectives, paintings of "music" created in conjunction with a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra, batiks, collages and a whimsical mobile by students at Dobson Elementary, directed by substitute teacher Diane Craven.

"The creative energy from the inner city is incredible," Varthas says. ''It's so much more - so much better than the suburbs." She adds that black organizations provide most of the awards for the young artists.

"The show is a statement of affirmation, that what we do is right and beautiful and works," says Varthas with pride. "Seeing the program disintegrate is sad."

It is sad and it is stupid - just like the subtly racist habit too many Philadelphians have of damning public schools for failure, while undoing what they do right.

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