Joshua Tehee

NEA chair Jane Chu gets glimpse of art education in Fresno

Jane Chu has visited 105 communities in 30 states during her time as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

If she has discovered anything in her travels, it is a sense of singularity.

“If you’ve seen one community, you’ve seen one community,” Chu said during a meeting with leaders of Valley arts education programs earlier this week. The meeting was the final stop on Chu’s visit to Fresno, which included a public town hall at Arte Américas and stops at Radio Bilingüe and Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (Binational Center for the Development of the Indigenous Communities).

The meeting was facilitated by Robert Bullwinkel, the visual and performing arts manager for Fresno County’s Office of Education and a self-described “serial convener.” Seated around the table in the Fresno Art Museum’s library were representatives from the Fresno Youth Orchestra and the Philharmonic, Fresno County’s Office of Education, ArtVenture Academy at McLane High School, Milestones Youth Jazz Workshop, and the Arts Business Coalition.

It was a good representation of the community’s collaborative spirit.

While this exact group of individuals had never met around a table before, its members, in different configurations, have all worked together on projects in the past (sometimes at the behest of Bullwinkel, often with the Fresno Art Museum as a hub).

Each of the members is working (or has worked) with the museum on a major project.

“You are in the company of miraculous people,” Bullwinkel told Chu as a means of setting the tone for the meeting.

Miraculous in their passion for the work.

Jim Page, for example, realized that jazz education wasn’t equitable, geographically speaking. So he took it upon himself to start the Milestones Youth Jazz Workshop, which now works with Valley musicians and educators to bring jazz performance opportunities to underserved areas.

Everyone at the table could tell a similar story.

Group members are also miraculous for what they’ve been able to get done over past few years, despite the area’s economic circumstances.

Fresno has the most entrenched generational poverty in the nation, Bullwinkel said. It has been called the Appalachia of the West and the Detroit of California.

It is a place that all but decimated its arts education in schools during budget crunches in the early and mid-2000s.

But it’s making gigantic strides to provide access to arts for children both inside and outside of the schools, Bullwinkel said.

Access to art was a major point in many of Chu’s discussions while in Fresno.

Of course, there are levels of access, and organizations in Fresno have to think beyond merely offering “free” arts courses. Even free programs (or those offered through scholarships) can have economic costs for families struggling with day care and transportation issues, said Julia Copeland, executive director of Youth Orchestras of Fresno. It’s something the orchestra discovered when it offered free lessons on Sundays.

And the outcomes of the work of those in the room is visible and also less so.

Visibly, there are children such as Guillermo Najera. The 11-year-old sixth-grader at Edison-Bethune Charter Academy was one of three musicians from the Fresno Youth Orchestra invited to play for Chu before the meeting. They played a segment from the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s D minor violin concerto that echoed hauntingly through the museum’s foyer.

Guillermo, who’s known as Willie, is a product of the orchestra’s Accent on Access after-school program. He started playing in second grade and is currently working with a professor at Fresno State. Watching him play, it is easy to see this is more than mere after-school fun.

Copeland confirms it.

“Willie is destined to be a violinist,” she said.

But one kid like Willie, or even a dozen, isn’t enough.

“All the other kids are what we’re there for,” Copeland said.

And that’s the reason Darius Assemi is sitting at the table.

The Fresno developer, who was at the meeting to represent the Art Business Coalition, was the odd man out. He’s not “into” art (although he said he appreciates the talent of local artists and mentioned Fresno glass blower Bob Kliss by name), and he’s not interested in creating future classical musicians.

Instead, he said he sees arts and arts education as a means toward equity, toward social justice and, because he is a businessman, toward a better trained workforce capable of the kind of creative problem-solving that an arts education invokes.

“If you want to have a prosperous community, you have to have arts education,” he said.

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee