A recently released study has indicated that almost 70% of students entering Toronto's public art-focused high schools identify as white, and predominantly come from wealthier households, which as you can imagine, has called into question not only the admissions process, but the courses themselves. I don't think that it takes a lot of inquiry to identify the root causes of this problem: first, accessibility to the key genres of art that are assessed in the admissions process, and second, accessibility (and reality) of the ability to create and sustain a career in the arts if you do not come from a position of privilege.
Lets deal with the first point; what is taught. Art schools tend to admit students who have a pre-identified strength in an area, whether it be music, dance, visual art, and the criteria for these strengths lends itself to favour those who have had some kind of training. How, for example, could someone with no formal training in dance walk comfortably into an audition and succeed? It would be only those students who hold a particularly adept natural skill, and a significant amount of courage or self confidence. Thus as you can imagine, the first obstacle of having the courage is then met by the second obstacle of appropriate preparation, which then, if those hurdles are cleared, there is, of course, standing out in a room full of skilled and at least partially trained performers. Is it any wonder that the admitted students skew toward higher income households, where they are more likely to have access to training? When siting across that table as an audition panel, how much are we looking for a partially moulded pre-trained package, versus someone whose talent is raw and untouched, but will need a lot of work? It is so easy to default to those who already have some of the skills as a baseline, rather than give the public school opportunity to the kid who wouldn't otherwise afford to get music or dance or art lessons?
Even if we look past those hurdles, and wipe that clean, interest in those more traditional fields is an issue; if someone is a street artist, is their work going to be accepted or valued the same? What about someone who can't play piano or violin, but can work a TR8 like no one's business, and can compose music like you've never heard before? Or what about someone whose work is multidisciplinary? This is often something that even as adults is just beginning to be valued and encouraged, so is it being encouraged amongst middle schoolers applying to these stringent application criteria?
This in part leads us to the second point: feasibility. I grew up in a family where a career in the arts was something of a pipe dream, and where my own growth, education, and access was slowed by the fact that I couldn't simply afford to do free apprenticeships, volunteer my time, or go on a tour for months for a couple thousand dollars. When you grow up in a space where there are few working artists around you, and where there is no safety net enabling you to "focus only on your art" and not have a backup, your ability to develop as an artist, to take advantage of all the "emerging artist" platforms that might require you not to work another job or to fly to another city (on your own dime) are just not open to you. So if you're 13 years old, and looking at your future....does this seem reasonable? And as a parent of a 13 year old, no matter how much talent or how big the dreams of your child are, won't you want them to have something more reliable and steady that can ensure they are fed and clothed and safe as they enter adulthood? How likely are you to encourage this career path, starting at a specialized high school?
We need to do more for kids. We need to provide better public school art education from very early on. I can directly associate my own perserverence as an artist (and success, if you can call it that) to a few early connections I made. I had an amazing music teacher in elementary school, and then had an amazing opportunity to create a brand new musical whilst still in primary school with professional artists who had just come from Ukraine. As I got older, I was lucky enough to get dance training, but even that was at a huge cost to my parents who were working non stop to give us those opportunities. I recognize the good fortune and privilege I have had in that regard, and also acknowledge that it was a lot less than those around me.
We cannot allow young artists with something to say to be silenced simply due to access, and pretend to call our system "public" education. The admissions process as well as the content of courses requires serious examination to ensure the continued validity of these programs. Their necessity doesn't need proving.