David Hockney doesn’t say much to Angela Karamian’s art class when all eyes are upon him. The soft-spoken, world-famous painter simply does what he does best: draw.
The assignment Thursday was to use the software program Brushes to draw a glass vase with flowers on an iPad. With mesmerizing ease, Hockney selects colors and builds a delightful picture, as a classroom of middle schoolers at the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto watches with rapt attention. (Earlier in the day, Hockney taught a class to Costaño Elemetary students who share the same campus.)
At the back of the class, a group of grown-ups responsible for this art lesson watch with the same rapt attention — including world-famous architect Frank Gehry.
Along with the California Arts Council, Gehry pulled out his own checkbook to help launch the nonprofit organization that brought Hockney here, the California chapter of Turnaround Arts. It’s a private program launched by the Obama Administration in 2011 to narrow achievement gaps in struggling schools.
The idea immediately resonated with Gehry. His sister, Doreen Gehry-Nelson, is a pioneer in design-based learning. Focused on K–12 students, the philosophy focuses children on a physically engaging project, like art. Essentially, they learn complex concepts as they work.
“This engages people at a level that turns their souls and their hearts around,” Gehry says, watching the 49ers class draw. “And their self-respect, because immediately, they’ve got a thing to be proud of.”
It so happens Gehry has designed an ambitious expansion for Facebook in neighboring Menlo Park. Gehry and Hockney, who both live in Los Angeles, are personal friends.
“He asked me to come,” 80 year-old Hockney says after his demonstration before the class. “I said OK. I haven’t been inside a school for 40 years or more, and it’s very nice. The kids give off energy and I get it back.”
Lauren Swezey, sustainability and community outreach manager at Facebook, shares similarly positive feelings. “We want to be a good neighbor, and education is so important to the local community, and we want to be a part of that.”
Swezey declined to put a dollar amount on Facebook’s contribution to the art program here for Turnaround Arts. But she says Facebook has a habit of giving to local education programs like Code for Fun and Makerspaces.
With Facebook’s financial backing, Turnaround sent one teacher from each grade level at Costaño/49ers to participate in teacher training at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which took over administration of the national program from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“That’s really what we invest in: professional development, strategic planning,” says Malissa Shriver, the executive director of Turnaround Arts California, which supports the arts in 16 schools around the state, three of them in the Bay Area.
Turnaround also gets companies like art supply maker Crayola and organizations like the National Association of Music Merchants to donate arts materials and musical instruments. But Shriver says many schools are most in need of the teaching skills to offer a sophisticated arts curriculum.
“It’s always the first thing cut,” says Shriver. “And if you have a system, like ours, that is funded by property taxes, there is going to be an inherent inequity. The children who benefit the most ironically get the least.”
Gehry has big plans for the budding artists at at Costaño/49ers. The architect plans to turn the kids’ images into big prints. He says he wants to put them up at Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park, where the students will later visit on a field trip. “They’re going to go and see them there,” he says with a big, satisfied smile.
That’s his short-term plan. In the long term? Gehry says, “We’re hoping that they (Facebook) get more involved than just the one school.”