CAPA grads urged to 'fail productively'
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As Pittsburgh CAPA's 2011 graduates venture into the future, they should remember to fail enthusiastically and often, said National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman.
Studying creative and performing arts helped teach them what it takes to succeed, he told the 130 graduating seniors, along with their parents, friends and teachers inside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland Sunday. But too few people recognize how important it is to fail -- fail productively, that is.
"We can become too focused on success, on being perfect, on answering all the questions correctly," said Mr. Landesman. "But the key to winning the future is innovation, and innovation cannot come without failure."
Pittsburgh CAPA won the visit by Mr. Landesman as one of five runners-up in President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top Commencement Challenge," in which public high schools demonstrated that they had prepared students for college and a career. Mr. Obama delivered the commencement speech at the winning school, Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., on May 16.
Mr. Landesman, who became the NEA's chairman in 2009, graduated from a public high school in Clayton, Mo., and later, from the Yale School of Drama. Mr. Landesman went on to start his own investment firm and produce the Tony Award-winning Broadway shows "Angels in America" and "The Producers." He owns five Broadway theaters.
His visit to Pittsburgh on Sunday comes as proposed state budget cuts threaten small arts organizations and arts education across Pennsylvania. House Republicans have cut $6.2 million in funding for the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts from Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget, which would have kept funding at about $9.2 million.
Pennsylvania first lady Susan Corbett, chairwoman of the PCA, has joined Democratic senators in asking for the cuts to be restored.
"The arts budget is so small in comparison with the rest of the budget, but it has a huge impact on the quality of life," she said last week.
Democrats estimate the arts support 62,000 jobs statewide and generate $283 million in tax revenues, as well as appeal to tourists and to businesses seeking to invest in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Mr. Corbett's proposed budget would cut K-12 education funding by about 10 percent, or $550 million, forcing many districts to make hard choices about how to spend tax dollars.
But while struggling districts often cut arts education first, studying the arts should be part of every student's basic education, according to Mr. Landesman.
"When you're talking about forming a complete person, you have to include the arts," he said as he waited to deliver his commencement address. "Art is about quality of life -- living a full, rich, happy, satisfying life."
For many students, especially those from low-income families who can't afford extra lessons or summer camps, learning to play an instrument or draw or dance or sing will happen only at school. And the arts, he said, help retain students who might not excel in math and reading but who have other talents.
But in today's test-driven, financially shaky world of public education, keeping arts education alive is "hand-to-hand combat, school district by school district," he said.
Where arts education has been nurtured, as at CAPA, however, innovation born of struggle results, Mr. Landesman said.
"Productive failure" -- something the arts are particularly suited to teach, he said -- is useful in all parts of life, from medical research to the business world. If people are doing something they enjoy, he said, failing can inspire them to try harder and produce creative alternatives.
He told the graduates to think about the times they couldn't make a scene work, or couldn't complete a dance combination, or couldn't get the light right for a painting. As artists, he said, they understood the role of luck and of perseverance through failure better than almost anyone.
"You didn't quit, you tried again, you tried harder, and you tried something new -- it was productive failure," Mr. Landesman said. "Those of you who failed often, succeeded sooner."
First Published June 13, 2011 12:00 am