Interview: Bob Bates on how art gives kids lifelong problem-solving skills
Urban arts programs often build confidence and agency among youth who are disheartened by, or disconnected from, public schools. Starting today, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting a series on Art and Urban Youth, featuring interviews with leaders in this field. At a time when education is being shaped by a rigid test-taking culture, these educators often succeed in eliciting a sense of inquiry and belonging among their students.
Twenty years ago, Bob Bates was a part-time volunteer with a vision: to create a space for inner-city kids to make art. He believes that giving children the opportunity and the time to conceive and produce their own designs equips them with skills that can carry them through academia and into the real world. Bates created Inner-City Arts not to train artists, but to engage kids in creative problem solving. His Los Angeles-based organization now serves over 16,000 students and trains 1,800 teachers per year. Bates spoke with Dowser about his teaching method, the importance of artistic freedom, and how his endeavor to create Inner-City Arts took some creative problem solving of his own.
Dowser: Start at the beginning. How did Inner-City Arts come about?
Bates: I was 40 and still not sure what I was going to do with my life. I was living downtown and volunteering part-time as an art teacher at a youth center. The L.A. public schools had recently cut all their arts programs, which was incomprehensible to me. Anyway, one day I was meditating and I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Get an art space for kids.’
Pretty direct. What did you do?
I didn’t know what to do. I looked around at spaces, even though I had no money. Then one day, a wealthy man from Beverly Hills, Irwin Jaeger, walked into the youth center where I was teaching. We got to talking and he said, ‘Let’s do something for these kids.’ So he rented the space and I taught art classes.
So far, so good.
Then one day the fire department came to check out the sprinkler system. They smelled something and went next door. A clothing company was acid-washing blue jeans. One of the firefighters said, ‘OK, after today, you can never have children in proximity to these chemicals again.’ It was like: The End.
But it was just the beginning.
It was. An article ran in the L.A. Times, with the headline ‘Fledgling Art Center Loses Its Space.’ Someone called from the Mark Taper Foundation asking how they could help. They bought our first building for $750,000, which meant we could work with even more kids.
Inner-City Arts claims it’s not training budding artists. What is it doing?
A whole lot of problem solving, to help the children realize they can do anything they set their minds to.
Making art requires thinking and decisions: what color will I use, how can I make this stand up, how can I make this stronger, quieter, brighter, more bendable. As they make art, and solve these problems, they begin to believe in themselves. That confidence helps them in everything they do.
UCLA documented this. They found that the academic performance of your students went up quite a bit. Now you train teachers, too. How did a few art classes evolve into this innovative teaching model?
Well, it took 20 years. And it’s still a work in progress. We set out to learn about creativity, not just teach art. Having a study that measures the impact of creativity on our students’ academic performance informs what we do here; but it also means more schools want to send us their kids.
Your new renovation is quite beautiful inside and out. You didn’t skimp on aesthetics.
We’ve created an oasis in the middle of a dingy, tough, industrial part of town, on purpose. We are surrounded by the underside of life here: prostitution, drug dealers, crime. Our students live in this part of town, where there is little beauty, natural or otherwise. Beauty nurtures creativity. This is for them.
What’s the difference between creativity and art?
Art is a tool, not an end in itself. Creativity is the ability to look at reality and make new connections; connections that have not been made before. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to do art. Yet art develops the same capacity a rocket scientist needs: the ability to manipulate complex materials, data, information, and structures.
How does that play out in the classroom?
Creativity expert Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi found that all creative people, musicians and brain surgeons, experience what he calls ‘the flow’— where time stops and you’re only focused on what you’re doing. It’s a moment of great concentration of energy. We try to create that moment for the students. Because ‘the flow’ is the place of maximum human potential.
How does ‘the flow’ help the kids from low-income backgrounds in L.A.?
Kids here learn that they can throw away all the objects they make, because they can make more. Because the ideas and solutions and innovations come from within them. This is a transformative experience for a child who has nothing.
Who are your personal inspirations on a creative level?
Albert Einstein, Miles Davis, Jesus, the Buddha, Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, Yo-Yo Ma, and an amazing musician on Paraguayan harp named Edmar Castaneda. Here at the school, I work with amazing people who inspire me every day.
Why don’t more schools value that connection between creativity and academic achievement?
Many people in power have a misunderstanding of what the arts actually do. The intuitive and the rational parts of the brain, the right and left hemispheres, work simultaneously when a person is being creative. This expands what we can accomplish. Part of our mission is to make the truth be known: that art is vital to the development of human beings.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Inner-City Arts