Guest Columnist

An arts education and the American Dream

UNLV campus

Students navigate the UNLV campus in 2017. (Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Talk about a full plate — Dr. Nancy Uscher’s is overflowing as she guides arts education at UNLV, from where students trained in the arts can be launched into careers that enrich our city, our culture and our image to the world. Overseeing seven departments, eight gallery spaces, six theater venues and the UNLV Performing Arts Center requires major multitasking skills. Before joining UNLV in 2016, Dr. Uscher had not only built an impressive array of academic credentials, but had an international career as a concert violist for more than 20 years. That included six years as co-principal violist of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, performances on six continents and recordings of works by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. She knows her way around the arts and — as she explains below — how to turn the dreams they inspire into reality.     

The Las Vegas high school graduate sat in the UNLV College of Fine Arts Dean’s conference room and recalled how he hadn’t been at all sure he was ready for college or “admissible” to a university.

While he spent the summer participating in an inspiring theater program for students from diverse backgrounds — Broadway in the H.O.O.D. — the question about whether the student would apply for college surfaced. Was college possible for him? The perceptive UNLV College of Fine Arts staff realized — just a few days before UNLV‘s admission deadline — that this student, a fine actor, was actually extremely well qualified for college. He was quickly shepherded through the admissions process at a whirlwind pace. He was easily accepted and started at UNLV as a theater major this fall.

This wonderful vignette brings to mind that an educational pathway in the arts is indeed a way into the American Dream. Students with a passion driven by an artistic talent, and fueled by the discipline that artists need to master one of the arts métiers, are likely to experience great satisfaction throughout their lives.

In the case of UNLV, one of the most diverse universities in the country, many arts students are the first in their families to go to college. We in the College of Fine Arts at UNLV encourage all of our more than 2,000 majors to boldly pursue their dreams. We believe that having a deep passion for what one does in life will lead to resounding success through the agency, grit and resilience that is required.

Dr. Nancy J. Uscher

How is an arts education a pathway and catalyst to the American Dream?

Here are three points to consider:

Artists make a living wage in the gig economy and are very satisfied with their career choices:
“What are you going to do with that degree?” is a question often asked by well-meaning family and friends of arts graduates. An excellent and prescient video called Uncle Henry is Wrong, produced by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, explains that based on data from more than 100,000 arts graduates, artists are in fact very satisfied with their career choices. Interestingly, 74 percent work in a field related to their arts degree, as compared with biology (58 percent), accounting (56 percent) and mechanical engineering (53 percent). Furthermore, contrary to common assumptions, artists experience relatively low unemployment.

Artists have a rich array of transferable skills:
An artist has a toolkit replete with skills that can be useful to many other professions in addition to the arts.  Creativity — a key focus of training in the arts — is highly prized in the 21st century as a top quality for leadership. In fact, this characteristic is often rated as one of the most valued attributes by employers representing a host of different occupations. Other distinguishing proficiencies of artists – including discipline, emotional intelligence, flexibility, and excellent communication skills — make members of the creative class very competitive in the marketplace.

Democratization of access to the arts:
The capacity to nurture artistic talent, thus unlocking the potential for a lifetime of success in the arts disciplines, should cross all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. This will be the case when the arts are equally accessible to all. Unfortunately access to the arts in the K-12 system in many states is not yet equitable and this needs to change.

A note of optimism here: Projects such as partnerships among The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Desert Research Institute, UNLV and the Nevada Museum of Art, train school teachers to examine the arts in the context of STEAM — an educational approach using science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the arts to guide student learning. This underscores the close relationship and integration of art and science.

Thus, national programs such as The Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child, and programs such as Broadway in the H.O.O.D — in which students wrote their own material for the 2018 musical Bring in the Light — demonstrate that clear strides are being made to move toward universal access to an arts education.

After all, no one should be excluded from the American Dream – and its promise of a good life. An arts education is a powerful way to get there.

Voices of Vegas features guest columnists from all walks of public life in Las Vegas. With columns touching on local cultural, historical, social, civic, educational and humanitarian topics, among others, they weave a tapestry of perspectives that emphasize the dynamism, depth and benefits of the Southern Nevada tourism industry.

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DR. NANCY J. USCHER, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Nevada Las Vegas

DR. NANCY J. USCHER, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Nevada Las Vegas