Making Art Education Available

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:37 pm

Of the 96,000 students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools, 18,000 are not receiving instruction in the arts, due to budget constraints. A program spearheaded by Teri Sullivan and Kimberly Abler seeks to offer those services to 10,000 students through Arts @ Large. But federal funds sustaining the program are running out.

“People at the federal level were really endorsing this program,” Sullivan said. “But now we’re back to running on pennies because federal grant programs for arts education have been eliminated.” Basically there won’t be a program. We really need the local community to step up to the plate with federal dollars diminishing.”

Its first pilot grant of $245,000 from the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 succeeded in allowing the program to reach four schools in MPS. A second, $1 million three-year grant for the following school year doubled the reach of Arts @ Large. To date, the program has reached 16 schools. But of the 222 current MPS schools, 49 are without an art specialist on staff.

Arts @ Large evolved into a non-profit in 2005 for sustainability purposes and has only one paid staff member. Its board of directors has businesswomen such as Ellen Homb, owner of E & Co., Milwaukee. Congresswoman Gwen Moore sits on Arts @Large’s advisory board.

Sullivan said Arts @ Large has enough money to be present in only one school in the upcoming school year, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Helen Bader Foundation and a $5,000 donation from the U.S. Bank Foundation, but wants to be in 10 schools. To keep an arts-rich atmosphere in 10 schools for one year, it will cost about $375,000, or about $75 per student in a 500-student school.

The $2 million in grant monies that Arts @ Large has received since 2001 has been infused into the Milwaukee Community, and more than $1 million of those monies has gone to support small businesses run by local artists, community organizations and higher education.

“Without Arts @ Large, it would be devastating,” said Constance Clark, executive director of the African American Children’s Theatre, who now sits on the Arts @ Large board of directors. “A lot of children learn through the arts. They solve problems. Children learn how to use their imaginations, learn to perform and learn the discipline of completing a project.”

Additional funding came from the National Endowment for the Arts Grants for the 2002 to 2003 and 2005 to 2006 school years, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund and the Junior League of Milwaukee, which sponsored the Arts @ Large Children’s Court project.

Children created art, some of which is interactive, for other children to look at while they wait in the Children’s Court facility, Abler said.

“(The building) was somber,” said Abler, who taught arts education in MPS for the last 20 years and now heads up the MPS district art curriculum. “Now it’s alive with color and art.”

Based on the success of this initial project, the Children’s Court invited Arts @ Large to come back and create additional pieces, Sullivan said.

“It’s a blank canvas waiting to be transformed,” she said.

Sullivan, who founded Sulli & Associates, a consulting business, has had strong support of arts and coordinating them in schools at an administrative level.

“I am the left brain, Kim is the right brain,” Sullivan said. “There needs to be balance between creativity, vision and running the organization in a really strong, structured manner.”

That structure includes helping teachers develop very individualized programs through a model the deuce has created. Teachers choose which artists to work with, and Arts @ Large helps school teams examine what subjects should be integrated and how. That also means determining whether the program will be integrated into classroom work, after school curriculum or summer school.

“The program helps teachers integrate the arts into the regular curriculum in order to teach to the sensitive areas of concern in the student’s lives through an artistic approach,” said Deborah Jolitz, an art specialist and Arts @ Large Team Leader at Pierce School.

Because of Arts @ Large, Pierce had the opportunity to work with photographer Paul Calhoun, Milwaukee Public Theater, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and Woodland Pattern Book Center.  

“The children would not be able to be a part of these rich experiences, (which they) need in order to bridge the achievement gap,” Jolitz said.

Arts @ Large pays for professional development for teachers, substitute teachers to fill in while that development takes place and arts integration strategies so students may gain experience in visual arts, theatre, dance and music, Abler said.

New community artists who can contribute to the Arts @ Large goal are identified by participating schools. Those artists have then gone on to work with other schools. Arts @ Large has about 50 community artists currently involved with the program.

The artists, supplies, equipment, musical instruments and transportation costs, and the costs for students to venture from the school into the community to experience an art opening, symphony or concert, were paid through the grant monies.

Arts @ Large is launching its New Arts Garden Project in La Escuela Fratney. The project involves the K through 5 students at the school, their parents and community members to participate in the sculpting of an arts garden in conjunction with the Urban Ecology Center.

The students completed surveys and wrote specific comments to a UEC landscape architect, Margarete Harvey. Harvey took those comments and is working to make those students’ requests reality.

 The students review the plans to see how an architect puts a project like this together, which is a mathematical element.

The next step is to contact sculptors to create visual elements in the garden, Abler said.

This particular style of teaching, project based learning, engages both the right and left brain, appealing to a wider audience of students, Sullivan and Abler said.

However, without support, programs and efforts like these may not return next school year.

“Business people are parents too,” Sullivan said. “If they feel their own children should experience art, it should be made available to all children. Businesses can contact their political representatives. When they talk to them they can be an advocate for arts education.”

Business people interested in contributing to the Arts @ Large nonprofit program can obtain additional information at (262) 692-2002.

Arts @ Large

address: P.O. Box 080273, Milwaukee 53208

Web site:


2001, Incorporated in 2005

Services: Arts enrichment in Milwaukee Public Schools

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