E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative connects St. Louis students with local arts agencies

by | Aug 9, 2022

The Collaborative recently hosted its annual kickoff with nearly 30 fine arts partner organizations, plus teachers from 17 St. Louis-area school districts.
Des Lee kickoff 2022

The National Blues Museum is just one of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative’s many partners in the St. Louis area. (Photos by Heather Riske)

From building a guitar amp to learning ballroom dancing to receiving a free piano, St. Louis-area students have plenty of unique ways to get engaged with the arts. And the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative wants to make sure both students and educators are fully aware of those opportunities.

The Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative is dedicated to enhancing the quality, influence, attitudes and accessibility of fine arts by connecting educators, artists and performers with students in the St. Louis area, with a special emphasis on underserved populations. In addition to providing educational fine arts programs, concerts, clinics, master classes and other educational experiences for participating schools and providing support for music and fine arts educators, the Collaborative aims to increase and enhance arts education programming for an ethnically and culturally diverse population where most students qualify for free and reduced-cost meals.

And for the first time in two years, the Collaborative was able to host its annual kickoff for the new school year in person. Last week, nearly 30 Des Lee fine arts partner organizations, along with teachers from 17 St. Louis-area school districts, gathered at The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries Ballroom in Midtown to learn about opportunities for area students and teachers over the next year.

After greeting guests and sharing a few words about the Collaborative’s mission, Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, turned the floor over to the arts organizations that make up the Collaborative. Representatives from partner organizations such as The Bach Society of St. Louis, Girl Conductor and The St. Louis Children’s Choirs each shared an elevator pitch about their organization, including specific opportunities they offer to immerse students in the arts.

While the pandemic and subsequent switch to virtual learning posed a unique challenge for music and arts education, many of these organizations were able to adapt quickly with virtual programming for students. The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, for instance, conducted its Broadway Master Classes – including one with Tony nominee Taylor Louderman –  virtually, while Opera Theatre of Saint Louis continues to offer both in-person and virtual programming, such as “Opera on the GO!”.

Of course, many educators and arts representatives celebrated a return to the classroom. Jessica Ingraham, director of education at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, expressed a desire to work alongside teachers to get students excited about music, adding that the venerable organization will be bringing back in-school programming this year. The National Blues Museum is expanding its educational programs with the new Guitar St. Louis program, which specifically highlights Blues and African American contributions to music. The program will use STEAM-focused instruction to teach students how to play the guitar as well as how to build their own guitar and amp.

In addition to its two studios on Cherokee Street in South St. Louis and in Ferguson, Pianos for People offers St. Louis families, community organizations and schools the opportunity to apply for a free piano of their own. And St. Louis Dancing Classrooms aims to empower youth – primarily at the fifth-grade level – by teaching respectful interaction and promoting teamwork through the art of ballroom dancing.

Des Lee kickoff 2022

Kathy Lawton Brown, on-air host of Classic 107.3, and Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education at UMSL.

As the microphone was passed around the room to representatives from some of St. Louis’ biggest and brightest arts organizations, the impact of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative quickly came into focus. Kathy Lawton Brown, on-air host of Classic 107.3, the Collaborative’s newest partner, urged educators in the audience to capitalize on the unique opportunities it affords.

“Take advantage of these incredible opportunities,” she said. “Every one of these presenters is here for you and your students to help them thrive. It’s a tremendous opportunity and a unique one. Take advantage of it.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske