Above: A COA-supported production from the before times.
How can you grade a work of art well from more than six feet away? Of all the things made difficult by the pandemic, art education is definitely one of them. Cultural Organization of the Arts (COA) director Valerie Remillard, 44, said that when she asked EG art teachers how she could help them, grading was the first thing that came to mind. So, COA helped a high school junior, Lauren Pomeroy, create a photography tutorial video so students could learn how to document their own art.
Seeing art teachers struggle under the pressure of the pandemic, Remillard said, “broke my heart.” COA, a 40-year-old nonprofit dedicated to improving arts education in EG schools, aims to ease that pressure. Remillard said that her strategy is to prepare the ground ahead of time, so teachers can incorporate new programs into their lesson plans: “I have to make it easy for them to say yes.”
Remillard, an passionate problem-solver, was hired as director of COA in October. She worked as a teaching artist before joining the EG Parks and Recreation programming around 2004. Her close connection to the EG education system and experience as a performing arts instructor made her a good fit for COA, as well as her years of service on its board.
COA’s previous director Danielle Salisbury left that role in May this year, although she remains on the COA board. Once Remillard started, she said the board was uncertain how COA could help throughout the pandemic. Thankfully, Supt. Alexis Meyer stepped in, encouraging COA to continue their work this year, pointing to the emotional and social support that arts education can provide for children.
Remillard specifically thanked parent teacher groups (PTGs) for their help this year. In a time when teachers are so busy, the PTGs have been “a wonderful bridge this year” and parents have been “fiercely loyal” in supporting their children, she said. It’s a drive mirrored by COA itself – its board is entirely volunteers and most are parents in EG.
Although the pandemic has limited arts education, Remillard did point to the possibilities that distance learning opens up: “Under normal circumstances, you’re limited by where you can bring kids in a six-hour school day. Since everything has to be remote, how far can we go?” To prove that point, COA is trying to arrange for a Hamilton cast member to teach a remote dance workshop.
The organization is also planning virtual tours of Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. and the Crayola Factory in Pennsylvania, with the help of guides from those institutions. For the Crayola “tour,” students will receive art kits – a welcome addition since art teachers can no longer hand out materials themselves. All of this, Remillard said, would be logistically impossible under other conditions.
Ultimately, COA hopes that more arts programming can be embedded in the EG curriculum. The 8th grade Shakespeare unit is just one example. COA is working with the Gamm Theatre so students can learn from the troupe’s actors as they read Shakespeare’s plays this year. Remillard wants that relationship to continue so that 8th grade students can expect it as a regular part of their education.
She sees bringing local arts and artists into education as a way to make the district exceptional. In fact, she wishes COA could support more schools: “EG is a community that values the arts, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. I wish there was a COA in every town in Rhode Island.”
COA’s first official program this school year, an online performance with Providence comedy group Bring Your Own Improv, will take place Jan. 11.
If you’re interested in supporting COA, click here to make a donation. Remillard said volunteer help is always appreciated and noted that COA is also looking for new board members.