The Power of Arts & Education

 The Power of Arts & Education

Muse Machine strives to engage young audiences around the Miami Valley.

Natasha Baker

Ask Mary Campbell-Zopf, executive director of Muse Machine, what she believes is one the biggest opportunities facing her organization and she will enthusiastically share about their close work with teachers and principals to identify gaps in key curriculum and how Muse Machine is developing learning techniques that can be applied across community schools. 

“We can’t lose sight of the power of the arts to help kids be engaged learners and be able to put learning in context. We know the benefits are so great. For a lot of kids, these are the door-opening, compelling, transformative experiences that we want to see. We are creating lifelong, engaged learners. That’s exciting work!” she says.

Founded in 1982 by Suzi Bassani, who was also the founder of the Human Race Theatre, Muse Machine was inspired by Bassani’s desire to get young people engaged in the arts. After researching other youth arts organizations around the country, Bassani pulled together the best of what she saw—student art engagement, student produced theater and a strong educational presence for arts.

Fast-forward 32 years and the organization is fundamentally strong from a business standpoint. With a defined vision and mission focused on arts education in schools, Muse’s finance committee has been on board for more than 17 years and saw the organization through the latest economic downturn to remain in good standing. Muse’s board of directors, member organizations, artistic partners and volunteers are not only supportive of the organization, but believe in bright future of Muse Machine.

Focus On The Classroom

Muse Machine may be known for amazing young artist productions, but it is recognized for arts education programs that are bringing music, art and creativity back to classrooms across the Miami Valley. 

Dayton area elementary-through-high schools can choose to become a Muse Machine member. Muse works with partner schools to develop in-school programs bringing musicians, artists, dancers, filmmakers and even sound technicians and other behind-the-scenes folks to create exciting learning around arts. In his 20th year at Muse Machine, Doug Merk, director of student programs, believes Muse brings students from all corners of the Dayton community together to explore arts in a way they may never have had access to before. 

“They forge relationships and friendships through these bridges we create,” he shares. “Our mission is to insure that money isn’t the deciding factor to experiencing arts for our area youth.” 

But arts-related curriculum is only part of what Muse does for its member teachers. The organization offers professional development for the in-school Muse advisors who come once a month for professional development and networking. 

“The challenge is to present something that is genuinely useful to them and inspires them in their classroom, no matter what they teach,” says Merk. “They feel energized and that they are treated and celebrated as artists themselves.” 

Merk adds that the Muse in-house advisors aren’t always the art or drama teacher—it could be the history, math or science teacher. In fact one of the biggest supporters and a longtime Muse advisor is Tecumseh High School English teacher Julie Davis. 

“I can’t even count how many activities and curriculum I have developed across the board with all of my classes,” Davis says. “Recently, one of my classes did a project called ‘On Fire for Dante’ where they develop their own demons based on modern crime for the nine stages of hell. I was inspired by a Muse program and the students loved the freedom to create while learning about this important work.”

According to Davis, the Advanced Teacher Training programs she attended last summer had a “huge impact” on her teaching style. “We were in New York City at the Metropolitan Art Museum. The instructor talked about giving kids just enough to be curious, but then leave them to discover learning on their own. It changed my teaching philosophy and both the students and I are benefitting from the results,” she says.

“We tell parents, ‘You want your kids in these classrooms with these faculty members,’” says Merk. “These teachers have fantastic approaches to learning thanks to the work of Muse Machine. They make fun out of the toughest subjects so that students learn in a way they will never forget. ”

Time In The Spotlight

For Elena Elmore it was being a part of Muse Machine as a student at Stivers School for the Arts that convinced her she had a future in musical theater. Her experiences onstage and lessons learned about audition protocol, professionalism and performance gave her confidence to succeed. She majored in vocal performance and opera in college and was fortunate enough to perform in various organizations up and down the Eastern seaboard and internationally. She is back at the organization overseeing a fourth through fifth grade literacy program. 

“This organization, more than any other, is so divinely created around a sense of community. I have benefitted from Muse full circle. We come together to understand things within ourselves we didn’t know existed. Collectively, it’s about reaching a bigger community and reaching back to help others up,” she says.

For Alisa Vukasinovich, whose family has been involved with Muse for more than 30 years, giving back to the organization is natural. Most recently, she served as a volunteer costume coordinator for the production of Mary Poppins. 

“I believe the arts are what set us apart as humans,” Vukasinovich says. “As a family, we passionately believe that the arts are important for all children. There was no pushing to get all four of my kids involved in Muse. I just had to expose them.” 

According to Merk, the annual musical and summer concerts have grown in both reputation and quality. “People leave saying, ‘Wow I wasn’t expecting that,’ and kids want to be here. They love coming to rehearsal after rehearsal. They get to meet and work with really fine artists. It just cultivates joy. When the curtain goes up it is evident that those kids really want to be there,” he says.

Up Next

The future is indeed bright for the organization. Muse intends to deepen its connection to member schools and in-school advisors while also working together with the Dayton arts community to reach all of the area schools. 

“We are excited about the new CultureWorks plan and its focus on arts education,” adds Campbell-Zopf. “While the work Muse does for schools is important, we know the change that needs to happen is bigger than the schools themselves. We need to work together as an arts community to develop inquiry-based education and create habits of mind that make our students flexible, long-term learners. Creative learning environments make creative communities.”