The Wallace Foundation Thinks the Boys and Girls Club Will Set the National Standard for Arts Education. Here's Why.

Steve Jobs famously said, "Customers don't know what they want until you show it to them." Thankfully, the Atlanta-based Boys and Girls Clubs of America ignored that advice when creating their Youth Arts Initiative. They interviewed over 150 "tweens" for their opinions on what they're looking for in an arts program and the Wallace Foundation rewarded the organization with a $5.35 million, two-and-a-half year commitment.

Don't get us wrong, there's something to be said about presenting something unique or foreign to a customer (or in this case, an under-served "tween"). But the aforementioned logic doesn't apply to the nonprofit arts education world. For starters, organizations—unlike Apple—lack the multi-million dollar marketing budgets to foist new products on unsuspecting customers. Nonprofit arts organizations need to develop programs the old-fashioned way—through rigorous research, which is precisely what the Boys and Girls Club did.

Before we take a closer look at the most interesting elements of this announcement, we should first address the elephant in the room: the dubious state of arts education in America. Although the US economy may be slowly recovering, many public schools still haven't seen arts funding restored to pre-recession levels. (Check out IP's take on arts education in California public schools here.) Furthermore, the lack of high-quality arts education across youth clubs and after-school programs is even more severe. Communities continue to be forced to do "more with less."

Enter the Boys and Girls Club, who is essentially saying, "We can't control the quality of arts education in public schools, but we can improve it after school is out." That said, no one expects a group like the Wallace Foundation to blindly cut a check. The Boys and Girls club had to do their homework to create a compelling youth arts education model. And to do it they relied on three main inputs:

  • Studies documenting best practices at other programs across the country.
  • Interviews with experts in the fields of arts education and youth development.
  • Interviews with over 150 "tweens" around what they are looking for in arts programs.

Again, we'd like to point your attention to the latter element. Intuitively speaking, it would seem that asking kids what they want is a no-brainer. But oftentimes—most often due to lack of funding and resources—program architects skip this step. This can prove problematic because kids these days tent to be a more technologically sophisticated than many adults. These kinds of interviews can reveal that, for example, participants would rather learn drawing skills on an iPad versus pen and paper. It sounds like simple stuff, but if it can engage under-served youth in the arts, it's a big deal.

In fact, the foundation seems to think it's a big deal as well. Not only will this program inform the composition of arts education programs at Boys and Girls Clubs, but it will also serve as a model for other arts education organizations across the US.