Mason’s Potomac Arts Academy Fills Important Cultural Niche
By Cathy Cruise
“Art is virtually a part of every living human being’s life.”
This statement from Dean Bill Reeder of Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts sums up the mission of the Potomac Arts Academy, a labor of love for Reeder who, despite his humble beginnings, always seemed to find a way to fit creativity into his life.
“I lived on a farm in a rural setting,” says Reeder, who is a retired opera performer, “so we didn’t have access to many formal artistic opportunities. But people made music and painted and did all the artistic things. Everybody has hope in their heart that they will be creative. The question is, how do we encourage that?”
The answer, for Reeder, was to fashion an outreach program that brings Mason’s quality arts instruction to the community through an assortment of special events and classes. Reeder helped create the academy (then known as the Potomac Music Academy) 10 years ago with a donation from longtime donors Donald and Nancy de Laski.
What began with a handful of summer programs has transformed, under the direction of Elizabeth Curtis, into a broad range of offerings that extend throughout the Washington, D.C., region. Classes, programs, and private lessons are now offered year-round and serve thousands of people of all ages in music, dance, visual arts, theater, and even computer game design.
While many summer programs and classes are held on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, most take place in a nearby building on Chain Bridge Road, where Curtis and associate director Mary Lechter work to make it all happen. From the start, their challenge has been to keep the academy primarily self-supporting and financially sustainable.
“When the money [from the de Laskis's donation] was fully utilized, everybody wanted the programs to continue,” says Curtis, who was hired as the academy’s director five years ago. They began to build revenue by collaborating with existing arts organizations, including an early childhood program called Little Hands and a choral program for older adults called Encore Creativity. In 2011, the academy officially joined with Acting for Young People, a group run by Lechter, a professional actor. Already a successful theater education program for children ages 5 to 18, it now makes up the organization’s official theater division.
“Because I was a Mason faculty member, we were able to rent space in the summers,” Lechter says of the acting group. “When it became clear the goal was to have our own arts program, we were lucky enough to be included to complete that part of the puzzle. As Mason’s Theater Department was growing its theater education program, we were able to solidify those teaching opportunities. And that’s been the key component here.”
Teaching opportunities make up a large part of the academy’s core mission as well. In-school service programs, such as Musical Ambassadors, send Mason students into area schools to conduct outreach for specific targeted populations. They also offer musical ensembles, interactive programs, and concerts.
Instruments in the Attic, perhaps the academy’s most well-known community service venture, originally started as a donation program for Mason music students who needed to learn to play—but couldn’t afford to buy—a number of different instruments. Organizers solicited instrument donations from the public and soon had far more than they needed.
“After we collected about 200 instruments, we had to figure out what to do with them and how we could make this program effective for the community at large,” Curtis says. They decided to pass along the instruments for use in after-school programs in area schools with Mason students providing instruction. One was Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston, Virginia, which is now enjoying a fifth year of its academy-sponsored Saturday School for the Arts, held at a local community center.
This outreach activity, Curtis says, is the “perfect coming together of different entities—Hunters Woods, Mason, and Southgate Community Center—so there’s the county, state university, and the public school system that have merged together to serve a very deserving population.”
The academy’s Teaching Scholars program sends instruments and student teachers into schools to conduct weekly enrichment classes for children who are unable to afford private music lessons. This year, that proved especially vital for Woodburn Elementary, a school of fine arts in Falls Church, Virginia.
“Fairfax County cut fourth-grade band this year,” Curtis explains. “Since we’d already been serving the fifth- and sixth-grade population at Woodburn, the principal asked whether we could help save the fourth-grade band. So we sent in the needed instruments and teachers.”
Mason music education student Malia Pereyra says the Teaching Scholars program is preparing her for her career. “This has definitely taught me time management, patience, and how to think on my feet for when I have a class of my own,” she says. “And it touches my heart to see elementary students so passionate about music.”
Sara Speer, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music education, says she’s impressed by how much her students have gained. “I think the students are learning more than they expected to,” she says. “When my students remember what I’ve taught them in previous weeks, I know I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”
While many universities offer community arts opportunities, traditional models incorporating a preparatory division, especially in schools of music, often deliver instruction only to those considered most capable.
“If a child was especially talented, they could come in and work with one of the faculty on a Saturday,” Curtis says. “Universities were used to that model because it was good recruitment for them and a bit of community outreach. This is a whole different ballgame with Potomac—and intentionally so.”
Reeder is proud to note that economic means is not a factor either. “Our programs include everybody. Because economically challenged families want the same things for their kids as the wealthiest ones do.”
With art and music being shoved to the back burner in so many schools, entities such as the academy are vital, Curtis believes, to keep the arts alive. “One of the many challenges we face is what’s happening to arts education in this country,” says Curtis, a lyric soprano who has performed professionally throughout the country. “What boat are we missing that we have to continually try to justify our existence? We’ve done a great job of being performers up on stage but not such a great job of directly relating to the public—letting them experience what it is that we experience.”
While there seems to be no shortage of interested students for the academy, there is now a shortage of space that Reeder hopes to remedy by building more academies throughout Fairfax County.
“The idea is to have eight community schools,” Reeder says, “one in each of the other magisterial districts of the county that would serve between 3,000 and 7,000 students. There are so many people who want [this opportunity], and it needs to be integrated into busy lives.”
Potomac Arts Academy keeps creativity flowing throughout the summer with camps for kids and teens in music, acting, dance, video and film production, and even computer game design. The academy hosts an array of summer programs for adults as well, with workshops and forums in music and dance, many of which provide teacher training for certification and recertification, and can be taken for graduate credit. See the academy website for a full schedule.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 Mason Spirit.