Home Community Blog The Arts at Waterford

Andrew Patteson, Waterford’s Dean of Arts shared his thoughts on the value of
the arts at Waterford during a Parent Association meeting, October 2022

Good morning. I am honored to be speaking with you today. I have such appreciation for our parents and the sacrifices they make to support their children’s growth and learning. This is my sixteenth year at Waterford, and in that time I have come to know many of you parents as friends.

But… Imagine that I came to the podium today and said:

“This morning you are going to write an essay on the role of shifting agricultural practices in the early Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. Here is a textbook you can refer to.” Would you feel comfortable getting started on that right now?

Or perhaps:

“Here is a lump of clay and here are some potters’ wheels. Today you are each going to make a wheel-thrown vase that is at least 8 inches tall, in any shape you like.” How many of you would feel confident about making that happen?

Of course we can’t do that to our students. We have to build their skills, step by step. We have to build their confidence. We have to show them examples. We have to show them what an essay is, and how to write one… what a wheel does, and how to throw a vase on it. And in many cases students also benefit from us explaining why we are pursuing this knowledge or these skills.

It occurs to me that there is a parallel here to the relationship we—the School—have with you—the parents who entrust us with your precious children.  We are quite confident about the great things that happen for our students over the course of the years they spend here. We know that what we have here is special, and incredibly important for our students. But it wouldn’t feel quite right if we just said to parents, “Trust us—we know what we’re doing!” and left it at that. We of course want to show you what we do, and how we do what we do. What classes will students take? What support will they have? What will we do to create a community of learners? And so many more questions that we love to answer.

So, since we are focusing on Waterford’s Arts programs today: what do we do? We seek to provide a thoughtfully scaffolded vertical curriculum that offers intensive, age-appropriate experiences in visual and performing arts to all of our students, from the youngest to the oldest. We seek to offer to all of our students an opportunity to grow and thrive and see themselves as artists. And discover themselves as artists.

In many schools, the arts are seen as a pleasant “extra” to supplement the “real” work of teaching academic subjects. It is not like that here.

This is ambitious. It is unusual. It requires a substantial investment of resources.  Not many schools do this. How do we do it?

  • We make an investment in our facilities. Our performance venues—you have seen the Concert Hall, and hopefully the Black Box theater. These speak for themselves. Our studios and our classrooms are purpose-built.  Our faculty and students have the space and equipment and materials they need to learn how to do amazing things.
  • We make an investment in our faculty. We work to hire and develop and retain gifted artist-teachers whose own personal art practices feed their teaching. Our students see their teachers’ individual passion for making art, and it is meaningful for them to see it.
  • We make an investment of time in our students’ schedules—in the amount of time that all students spend pursuing the arts—in the Lower School, substantial dedicated specialist time every week—in the Middle School, three years of performing arts classes and over two years of visual arts classes—and in the Upper School, at least two years each in one performing art and one visual art. And then our most passionate young artists can choose to take even more.

These are choices that the School has made. Important choices that affect how we allocate limited resources. And it is fair, once you know the what and the how, to ask “why”? 

Sometimes the why can be more complicated for a school to communicate. But I hope you will bear with me, because I think if this connects for you it could be a meaningful thing.

Let’s take a step back from the visual and performing arts for a moment. Waterford is built around a Liberal Arts philosophy—it is at the heart of everything we do. That, too, is an unusual and consequential choice.

The “why” behind this choice can be tricky because it is not a simple transaction.  If your children engage deeply with a powerful, carefully crafted Liberal Arts education, will it improve their chances of getting into the college they dream of?  Yes, it likely will. Is that why we do it? No, it is not. Will it help them learn about themselves, and their own humanity? Will it help them learn about who they are, and who they want to become? Will it help them become engaged citizens of a complex world? Yes, it likely will. Is that why we do it? Yes, for those reasons and more.

In a Liberal Arts education, students and teachers pursue foundational questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to live an “examined” life.  A liberal arts education emphasizes a spirit of inquiry, of exploration, and of investigation—especially of the self.

In the Fine Arts—which is one name for the combined Visual and Performing Arts —it is also not a simple transaction. It’s not a manufacturing process.

There are studies published regularly that attempt to find a correlation between studying art and higher math scores, or better critical thinking. Does pursuing art make our students better at other things? Very likely. Is that why we do it? No, it is not.

At Waterford we have folded in dedicated study in the visual and performing arts partly because we believe that the act of creation is one of the essential parts of being human.

Personally, I think the human drive to create is as ancient as the human drive to develop language. The oldest known musical instrument was made about 60,000 years ago. The use of the voice as an instrument certainly goes back farther than that, and perhaps it intertwines with the development of oral language, many hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The fine arts can be part of fostering that spirit of self-investigation that is so important to a liberal arts education.  As our young artists learn to create—to paint and act and sculpt and sing and photograph and dance and play an instrument—they are implicitly seeking answers to questions: Who am I? What matters to me?

And, within the act of creation can be an act of connection with others: Who else sees what I see, or hears what I hear, or feels what I feel?

These ideas I’ve been trying to convey are part of the why. They connect to the thinking we have done about these subjects that we care very much about. But the why isn’t only philosophy—the why is based on the students we have known and the outcomes we have seen. Another way of addressing the why would be to invite you to meet some of our brilliant alumni who are out there making their way in the world. A small number have gone on to make their careers in art, and we are proud of them, of course. Many more have gone on to all sorts of other fields, but speak profoundly about the deep connection with the arts that they have carried with them. A lifelong connection.

Another way to get a sense of the why is by thinking about the student experience. The performances and exhibitions are our highlights, of course, and they are the public face of our programs.  But in my opinion just as much beauty takes place in the day-to-day interactions and learning and practice and struggle and growth.

Our teachers work to provide a meaningful experience for all of their students: for the “stars” of their programs and for the kids who are just there to fulfill their credits. And on occasion, something unexpected happens for the kid who is “just passing through”, and they become one of the stars!  We all have stories like that.

But if we are talking about the student experience, it’s even better if you can hear their voices. We are lucky today to have two students joining us to talk about their own experiences with the Arts at Waterford. Madi, from Class XII, and Arav from Class V. Please join me in welcoming them, and thank you so much for your time and attention.

Visual Arts

More From Our Blog

Return to Blog

Subscribe to Our Blog

Stay up to date! Receive email notifications whenever a new blog article is published.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.