By Jamie Shoaf, ‘11, with Collin Wilson, C‘13

Music has always struck a deep chord in Joan Oates’ life. Beginning with her education at Bennington College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, she has incorporated music into her everyday life. Today, she continues this tradition by endowing the Partner in the Arts (PIA) program at the University of Richmond.

Partners in the Arts was established in 1994 when the National Endowment for the Arts funded a proposal, submitted by Joan Oates and the Arts Council of Richmond, for an arts-in-education program.

Seventeen years ago, Oates never could have imagined the program blossoming into the success it has become today.

Oates discovered the power of art at a young age through her studies in art and music at Bennington. As many prominent artists commuted from Bennington into New York City on the train, Oates recalls interacting with a number of influential artists during her time there.

After relocating to Richmond years later, Oates was able to share her passion for the arts in Central Virginia as a member of the Arts Council of Richmond and teacher at Collegiate School. One day at Collegiate, she was asked to fill the role of a music teacher. It was this role that sparked a cross-curriculum learning experiment through art.

“My second graders had an interest in snowflakes one day, and that sparked a multi-subject education through art,” Oates recalls from a snowy day at Collegiate. “They started writing poems about snowflakes, learning the science of snowflakes, we even did a play about snowflakes... and here I thought this would begin as a music lesson incorporating snowflakes.

This lesson lead to a concept in which teachers could come as a group, “just like children,” and integrate the arts to teach all subjects.

After obtaining the initial grant that funded Partners in the Arts, finding classroom space in which the first batch of teachers could meet was the only logistical issue remaining for PIA founders Oates and Adrienne G. Hines of the Art Council.

Oates recalls overcoming this challenge. “The first day, I remember Stephanie Micas, a former professor here, marching right into [School of Professional and Continuing Studies Dean] James Narduzzi’s office and asking him for a room. He had no choice but to say yes and has been an adamant supporter of the program ever since.”

The School of Professional and Continuing and Studies and the Partners in the Arts program fit each other naturally, and the program has remained connected to the School since. Senior Associate Dean Patricia Brown now oversees the program for the School.

Recruiting twelve area teachers from well-regarded schools for the first year of PIA, Oates still keeps in touch with teachers from that first graduating class.

Under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Sheehan, the Summer Institute is now open to all public school teachers in the City of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico and Powhatan, as well as to K-12 teachers from a number of private schools.

From networking experiences to program exploration, Oates has seen the program evolve to attract a greater number and range of teachers. With teachers from all subject areas and grade levels, a unique bond forms among teachers who would not normally interact on the same level at their home schools.

“Teachers usually arrive in a group from the same school, yet they do not even know each other that well. By the end of the program, teachers from different subject areas share a close bond that they can bring back to their schools and collaborate on lesson plans to share with their students.”

The program empowers teachers to develop projects themselves and write individual project proposals that compete for funding from Partner in the Arts. Oates finds this aspect of the program allows “teachers to do what they know best.”

Just as Oates originally put her energy into funding Partners in the Arts when Richmond’s Art Council called her in 1990 to start an arts-in-education program, she continues to work to fund the program for the future with the help of outside grants from Altria, Verizon, MeadWestvaco, and a number of other corporate foundations.

Looking towards the future, Oates continues to be just as involved as she was almost twenty years ago when she and Hines established the program.

She embraces the program’s collaboration with the University of Richmond. “The University continues to support our growing program and provide relevant resources that cannot be found many other places.” University museums, arts faculty and studio facilities, and expertise in new media are just a few examples of this.

Partners in the Arts, including the newly endowed and renamed Joan Oates Institute for Partners in the Arts, looks forward to the possibility of expanding into two summer institutes and even to establishing a graduate program—all taking place, of course, with the continual support and compelling drive of Joan Oates.