Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has a good thing going. With visual art and theatre courses at local middle and high schools and music programs at all levels, the arts are flourishing in the District at a time when schools across the nation cannot budget for such programs.
“We have an elementary instrumental and choral program,” says Linda Gross, Executive Director of Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation (SMMEF). “If you had interviewed me two years ago, I would not have been able to say that.”
That the SMMUSD has managed to increase arts education as publicly-funded belts continue to tighten is no small feat, nor is it a matter of sheer luck. Existing programs have developed while new classes continue to emerge, thanks to the effort of District officials and local residents in creating and maintaining the For the Arts endowment.
According to Gross, the program began at the urging of SMMUSD parents Greg and Carol Coote, who offered to volunteer time to help organize fundraisers for a District-wide arts endowment. For the Arts, which functions as a wing of the SMMEF, aims to create a permanent endowment to fund classes in visual arts, music, drama and dance. Per the organization’s mission statement, the goal is to be able to invest the principal to generate $825,000 in annual revenue to be used to fund arts instruction. Funds are raised primarily through a series of events, the most prominent being the For the Arts concert, now in its fourth year, which is scheduled for June 2 at Barnum Hall on the campus of Santa Monica High School. For the Arts places a portion of the proceeds into the endowment and uses the rest to fund music programs for the next school year.
Among the projects the benefit concert has helped launch are Dream Wind and Dream Strings, which provide “semi-private” classes for in-need students. Additionally, the concerts have helped fund a guitar course at Olympic High School, the first music class that the continuation school has offered. Students from this group will be performing at this year’s concert.
But the June 2 concert, featuring performances by Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Venice and David Campbell, isn’t simply about raising money. “What’s most exciting about this,” says Gross, “is that it is a community-wide effort.”
Kipp Lennon, vocalist for the band Venice, describes the events as “very communal.” His band was invited by friend Jackson Browne to play at the inaugural For the Arts concert, which he says was “very inspiring for everyone involved.” The experience led the musicians to help form Artists for the Arts, the nonprofit organization that now produces the concerts.
“We basically went from being performers who were happy to be helping out a great cause to putting together our own nonprofit foundation, Artists for the Arts, to try to not only help put on this annual event with Jackson and all the great people at For the Arts, but also shoot for putting on more events at other districts,” says Lennon.
A large part of Artists for the Arts’ job is to secure underwriters for the events so that 100 percent of the ticket sales can benefit the students.
“Even if a cause is a great one, sometimes a big chunk of the money raised can end up paying for things like catering or equipment,” Lennon explains. “With the right funding to cover such costs, every penny of ticket sales can go directly to the charity.”
This year’s event is sponsored by Yahoo!, Intel and City National Bank. In addition, West L.A. Music, DW Drums and the Grammys have all donated items to be auctioned on the same night.
The For the Arts concert also provides the opportunity for the District’s students to show off what they have learned at school and for residents to see that these programs are working. This year’s pop art-hued flyer was created by students in a digital design class at Santa Monica High, and the performances will include many student musicians. In addition to the Olympic High School students, a selection of the District’s orchestra and jazz musicians will appear on stage.
“[The students] are just such a perfect, tangible example of what we need to preserve and promote in schools,” says Lennon, whose cousin and bandmate Michael is the musical director of the event.
“For those students, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Gross. “Who gets to be 16, 17, 18 years old and performing with Jackson Browne, David Crosby and Venice?”
Indeed, it is not often that student musicians have the opportunity to rehearse and perform with artists of such a high caliber. Gross adds, though, that the students “rise to the occasion” when in such renowned company. “You would think that they would be nervous and flustered, but they really shine.”
Lennon notes that working with young musicians has been the “most fulfilling” aspect of his involvement with For the Arts.
“You know, you have these kids taking the time to learn to play instruments that are sometimes not the most common ones – stringed instruments, woodwinds, etc.,” he adds. “These aren’t exactly ’singing around the campfire’ type instruments, so they don’t often get to be featured in a pop music setting like this. They are suddenly being given a taste of the recognition they deserve for all of their hard hours of practice. [It] sounds a bit heady, I know, but it’s the truth. You can see it on their faces and feel it from the crowd – appreciation for talent and devotion to the arts. In this age of samples and computers, aspiring musicians need all the encouragement they can get. Plus, it’s fun [to] hang backstage jamming and rehearsing with the kids.”For information or to buy tickets, call 310.396.4557