Community From the Inside Out

Community is defined as a group of people with common interests, and this term lends itself well to the arts. After all, singing and drumming have been around almost since the beginning of time to bring people together during times of struggle, to spread the word about a specific need or want, or simply to share in joyful moments. Opening up to the creative process can make one vulnerable, but when it’s shared with others, both strength and community are developed. Whether it’s making music as a group, working together to create visual art, or writing a collective script for a new play; the exchange of ideas toward a common purpose is where the real magic happens. 

Prairie Music & Arts is grounded in this belief that the artistic experience is more vibrant and meaningful when shared. Just the title “community school of the arts” expresses the importance of the term. It not only evokes a sense of place for artists of all types to relate under one roof, but it also implies a certain purpose of giving to a greater community outside of the physical walls of the school. We have worked hard through the years to foster an environment that approaches artistic learning in a manner that not only fosters community within but also beyond.

Community in the Midst of Chaos and Isolation

At no time in our 21 years has Prairie Music & Arts’ sense of community been threatened more than in the past year’s COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020 we were forced to shut our doors in just a matter of days. Events were cancelled, private music lessons were moved to a virtual format, and all of our group music classes and outreach visual art and drama programs were suspended. It was beyond anything any of us could have foreseen. Though it was comforting to know that our private students and instructors were able to move forward with lessons, it was disappointing to suspend programs in which students were sharing in the creative process. At a time when the world was socially distanced and children needed connection more than ever, the impact on our school community was substantial on many fronts.

As the pandemic unfolded and the country was reeling from countless acts of violence and political unrest, the arts, however, made it clear that they had an important role to play. From virtual tours of museums, readings of popular movies by celebrities, or merely grandchildren sharing music over Facetime; the arts captured us, gave respite, and brought people together. 

One such example of the arts showing it’s worth was demonstrated in Atlanta, GA in May 2020. Misty Lackey, a local teacher and artist, created a mural outside the Piedmont Fayette Hospital to show support for the healthcare workers who were working tirelessly to give care to patients with COVID-19. In her words expressed in the news story at Alive 11 in Atlanta, “It’s just to say thank you,” Lackey said. “I really feel like that’s the least I can do. I can paint, and I can encourage kindness.” Countless videos of singers offering songs of hope circled through social media, while quarantined Italian neighbors sang together on their balconies. This was all very powerful stuff and the arts continued to do what it does best – bringing people together!

Building Community from the Inside

The question of how to maintain connection among people occupied not only the international conversation, but also the discussions within our school. After all, with students isolated at home, how were we ever going to keep our community together? 

Once we settled into a new routine, our faculty embraced the demands of teaching through technology head-on. In just 14 months they have created activity videos for youth to experience the arts from home, produced three virtual concerts to give our student musicians a forum for sharing their talents, developed new virtual programs for students to collaborate musically, and created group curricula for bi-monthly classes in which private music students explored the role of the arts during challenging times. Though nothing can replace the value of in-person experiences, these activities kept our students engaged and our faculty working.

Partnership = Community Impact

Partnerships have always been an important part of our school mission. No one person or one school can do it all, and it is only through the assistance of donors and community partners that we are able to offer programs to students who would otherwise not have access to after school arts experiences. As outlined in the study The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth, published by the National Endowment for the Arts, children who take part in the arts, particularly at-risk students, achieve at a higher level in school, develop a stronger sense of civic engagement, and have improved career success. 

Over the past year, the economic and social inequality experienced by many children weighed heavily on our school leadership and guided a choice to reach out in spite of the challenges of the pandemic. Again, it takes many hands to get a job done and it was only through a partnership with the Sun Prairie Community Schools  that we were able to expand our outreach programs. With their help, we have provided art kits directly to children at meal distribution sites throughout the city, offered virtual visual art and drama programs to three area schools, and developed a virtual collaboration between our private music students and the students within the outreach programs. It’s hard to say who learned more from the year – the students, or our school leadership and teachers. 

A Fresh Perspective

Now that we’re moving beyond the pandemic and our doors are reopening this summer, we have much to do to regain our footing. Like many, the time away from normalcy has brought awareness to things that we’re doing well as a school and it’s shed light on where we can learn and grow. The financial loss is by no means inconsequential and as a small nonprofit, it’s going to be sometime before we truly recover. None of us are the same from this experience, and that’s not all bad. We’ll continue to carry all that we’ve learned as well as work toward becoming the kind of school that can fully walk the walk and not just talk. Just a few of the lessons learned and plans for the future include the following:

Lessons Learned

  • Change brings fresh perspective. It’s easy to get into a routine of doing things the same way. Having a chance to teach in new ways and reevaluate who we are as a school has made us stronger.
  • To truly live our mission, we have to be an active participant in the conversation for racial equality and inclusivity.
  • That we’re a village both within our walls and throughout our community. Partnerships make the work even richer and offer even more possibilities.

What’s in Store!

  • Partnerships and a commitment to diversity will take on an even bigger role.
  • We’re beginning the process of rebooting group programs. We hope to continue popular and familiar classes such as Friends at the Piano, S.I.N.G., Drama, and Art, but new programs that emphasize technology and virtual learning will continue to be developed.
  • New staff and faculty will be welcomed over the next few months. Our faculty has not been exempt from the effects of the pandemic and many have moved on. With loss though, comes the enthusiasm and fresh ideas of new faces.
  • We’ll continue to strengthen infrastructure to support staff and strengthen sustainability.

So, here’s to a new beginning and the next step! We’ve learned a lot about who we are over the past year. Where many businesses did not survive, we’re fortunate to still be here. It is only through the support of our school Community of students, families, faculty, school leaders, donors, and federal aid that we’re still standing and it’s with that in mind that we’ll continue to do our part to serve the extended Community as a whole. It’s going to be an exciting year and we’re looking forward to being together again!

-Kari Walton, PMA Executive Director