Why Do Art Clubs Disappear? (Ep. 011)

Art clubs always start out with a sense of excitement and passion, but that feeling rarely continues all the way until June. How do we keep our students interested and our art clubs productive throughout the school year? Tim and Andrew get together for a great discussion on these topics, offering some specific takeaways that can keep your art club going strong.

The guys talk about new ideas for scheduling your activities and keeping the excitement going (8:00), Andrew shares his ideas about letting students use catapults to launch pianos across the room (11:00), and they both talk about why it’s a good idea to let students take the initiative (14:30). Tim closes the show by sharing his 3 tips to keep your art club not only surviving, but thriving. Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

We are going to delve into the topic of art clubs today, and more importantly, the question of why art clubs disappear. It’s a far too common occurrence. We start out excited, kids and teachers alike, and at the beginning everything is wonderful, but slowly over time the excitement starts to fade, and sometimes, unfortunately, the art club itself fades as well. What can we do to keep our art clubs alive? What can we do to make them active and thriving? We’ll talk to my favorite co-host Andrew McCormick about some of these ideas, try to answer some of these questions, and I’m going to give you my three biggest tips to keep your art club vibrant, visible, and meaningful for your students.

Ten years ago, my art club was thriving like never before. I had forty or fifty kids at every meeting, a palpable feeling of excitement in the room, and just an incredible budget that we raised that let us work on these huge collaborative projects. If you fast forward to this year, there’s still a handful of dedicated kids that are running the show, planning great projects, doing wonderful things, but it’s definitely not the same. The energy, the life, the excitement, it’s lacking. It’s been kind of a slow decline, but that’s how these things happen. That’s how art clubs disappear.

First, you have fewer kids showing up to the meetings. It’s a relief honestly. You can take a breath, you can relax. Then, even fewer students are showing up, and then your budget gets cut a little bit. Then all of a sudden they say, “Oh hey. School budgets are getting cut. You’re getting paid less to do everything that you’ve been doing.” You’re losing motivation, the kids are starting to lose motivation, and if you’re not paying attention, you look up one day and your art club’s gone. That is what we need to avoid.

You can always recruit kids, and try and get more kids to those meetings, but unless it’s your passion, do you really want to do that? I’m busy myself recruiting and retaining kids for my classes, and trying to keep my whole program visible and viable. Having to recruit kids for a club on top of that, that can be something that’s really difficult. Whether you’re recruiting or not, it gets harder each year to keep a good number of kids involved. I mean kids are flat out over scheduled with what they do. They are involved in so many activities, and they have so many things that they want to do. For me, my seniors, who should be running that club, they have early out from school, they work, they have sports. They don’t show up for meetings because they can’t show up for meetings. There’s simply too much going on with everything that they do.

That sort of leaves us in a conundrum. Like, do we change what we’re doing with the art club, or do we change our expectations? For me, I think it’s a balance between the two. Trying to, I guess, make that compromise, and trying to come up with a solution leads me to three big ideas for what I like to do, and what I think everybody can do to keep their art club thriving and alive.

First, as a teacher in your art club you need to make things new and exciting. Whether that’s collaborative sculptures, or silkscreen prints, or throwing on the wheel, doing some large scale murals. Things that you can’t do as easily in the everyday classroom setting. That gives your club some appeal, some vibrancy. When there are always new things happening, kids keep wanting to come back.

Secondly, another thing you can do with middle and high school is National Junior Art Honor Society, or National Art Honor Society, which most people refer to as NJAHS, or NAHS. It’s a great way to keep kids accountable for what they’re doing with art club because it involves community service hours, amongst other things. Those can be any kinds of things that make your school and your community better. We like to volunteer at arts festivals, or making art and displays for the school at large. You can make cards for retirement homes, or veterans homes, or for the troops, or you can be bringing art in all sorts of different ways to your community. I know that NAHS isn’t available for elementary schools, but at the same time, that community connection still is. You can think about what you can do to bring artwork to your community, or bring people and parts of the community to your artists at school, whether that be local artists, or visiting artists, or anything like that. If you know people in the community, and you can show kids what people in the community are doing with the arts, that’s an incredible connection that’s going to work for your club.

Third, I like to have the officers run the activities and the meetings. This works for any grade, elementary through high school. In secondary you can have your officers planning the meetings. You can have them asking people to come, rallying people to come via social media. In elementary, you’re probably not going to use as much social media but you can still make posters, you can advertise, you can spread the message via word of mouth. If you can let the kids plan what they want to do, if you can let them advertise, you can let them build that excitement, kids are going to want to come. If you can develop and kind of harness that passion that kids have for art, that’s going to make your club an exciting and engaging place to be. All of these types of things get kids invested in what you’re doing. Kids take pride in being part of something bigger. Let those dedicated few run the show, and allow the excitement and the interest that they build to sustain your club.

Now, can these ideas save every club? Maybe, maybe not. I know Andrew has struggled with a lot of these issues himself, so I think now is a good time to bring him on. We’re going to chat about what we do with both of our art clubs.

Andrew, welcome to the show. How are you doing?

Andrew: Hey Tim, I’m doing good man. How are you doing?

Tim: Good. Now, I hate to bring you on just to talk about all of our collective failures, but we’re going to do it anyway. I talked in the introduction about how my art club numbers are dwindling, and I know that’s kind of happened to you too. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with running an art club?

Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been doing it for now, kind of in different permutations and versions, for I think three or four years. Without fail, every year it’s like the first art meeting, it’s like twenty kids yeah, and there’s like a ton of energy, and we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that, and we’re going go on a field trip, and we’re going to raise money. Then, by the time like March rolls around it’s like three kids, or two kids. It’s like what do we want to do? “I want to play Minecraft on this computer.” It’s like, oh my gosh. I think the challenge for an art teacher who runs an art club, or an after school something is to like best structure your arts club so that you kind of keep that momentum going. By no means like have I solved the Rubik’s Cube of the art club yet, but I’m definitely like learning a lot as a go. I’ve got some things that I’m excited to try next year that I actually think will work a lot better.

Tim: You can start off really strong again, and then watch it dwindle out. Is that the plan?

Andrew: No, so I think like I can start strong, and then I know what some of the pitfalls are, so that I can maybe work around them. Then, like find ways to like have little like flare-ups of activity. I don’t know if we want to get too specific into it too quickly, but I think the idea of having like a short term big project where everyone kind of gets on board with, and then it runs its course, and then there’s sort of like a natural cycle. You come for a little bit, we did this great thing, and now we’re done for little bit, and we can check out for a few weeks. Like, maybe we don’t come … Maybe in those two weeks we plan like the next big thing, and not everyone needs to come. Then there’s sort of like a launch of the next big thing. It’s almost like you’re having like multiple like, that first month meeting where everyone’s excited, spread throughout the year if that makes any sense.

Tim: Yeah, and that’s something I talked about in the intro is just trying to keep that excitement going with all kinds of different projects because I think a lot of times teachers run into this idea where they’re like, “Oh we’re going to paint this giant mural! It’s going to be spectacular!” It’s really cool for about two months, and then all of a sudden you look up and you’re only like a third done, and kids just lose interest in that. Those things can be really cool, but you need to I guess, how do I want to say this, change what you’re doing every so often just to kind of keep that excitement going. I really like that idea.

Andrew: Yeah, for sure, like I feel like I’ve got an internal clock with just my normal middle school art classes. It’s like, if we’ve been doing something for three weeks, we’re doing something wrong. The kids are getting kind of burnt out. I’m maybe feeling a little burnt out, and I think with an art club, it feels like it’s a month. Like for me, and you know I teach younger students, eighth and ninth grade, if we were doing something for more than four weeks a month as an art club, like it’s time to move on. I’ve been trying to think deliberately about month long challenges with maybe a little bit of downtime while we plan the next big thing, and then promote it, and then kind of get it off the ground again so that it’s not just like this kind of ongoing slough.

My problem has been a little bit different than yours. I’ll have students who are really, really passionate, and really interested, and they’ll come in one day and they’ll say, “Let’s do this!” You get sixteen, fifteen kids just super ramped up, and then those two students who were super excited about the idea to start with, they never come back again. Then it’s like sort of the leader behind the idea that got us like so, so excited they check out. I’m trying to do less of like a leader centric like getting us jazzed about something, and like making sure it’s coming from the group and it’s like authentic, and everyone can get down with it, and not just like one or two students.

Tim: Yeah, and I think actually that’s something that I wanted to talk about a little bit later, but you can mess up my schedule here. We’ll go to it now. I mentioned about letting kids kind of decide what’s happening, letting them do the planning for the meetings. A lot of times they have that excitement even if it does kind of come from the group, they don’t always follow through with that. I guess, if you do turn it over to the kids, how do you keep them accountable for that? Is it a matter of just making sure it doesn’t go on too long, or do you have other ways of kind of keeping them accountable for what they want to do?

Andrew: Well, I mean I think our job as art club people is to be advisors. When they say, “We’re going to make a giant catapult, and it’s going to launch a piano into the practice field, and it’ll be a STEM project.” Like, wait a second. That’s not going to work. Let’s scale this down a little bit. Let’s make it be a little bit more rational and reasonable. I mean, our job is then to kind of be kind of like a diplomat, and say like how can we do something that’s feasible, and also has everyone into it, and it doesn’t just feel like one or two students kind of going off on their own. That I think can actually be a real, sort of like, art club killer where you have three different directions you’re going. Then it’s like, well there’s not enough energy for any one of those directions to kind of come to fruition. Then when students kind of see like what the heck are we doing, then they stop coming. Once they stop coming, and there’s only like a handful left, kids kind of look around and are like, “Well why are we like the only three or four kids here anymore?” Then they just stop.

That’s why I think, yeah as a diplomat you kind of get that one big project, it runs kind of like a mini series, six episodes, and then boom, next thing up. Maybe even get like a whole different crew of kids in because the focus is a little bit different. That can also be really cool too to have like kids who kind of check out because they don’t want a mural. I don’t know who the heck wouldn’t ever want to do a mural, but then it’s like oh I do want to do this big giant legacy sculpture. That sounds fun. You might even have kids sort of self-selecting and kind of coming and going where it makes sense to them, and where they’re most passionate about.

Tim: Yeah, I like that. I like the idea of kind of parlaying that passion into some activism, I guess, and really getting them involved with stuff. Speaking, I guess of catapults and launching pianos all over the place, I know you’re kind of doing a Makerspace at your school now. I’m not implying that you’re launching pianos with catapults, but can you talk a little bit about what that’s all about? Kind of describe what’s going on with that and how things are going for you.

Andrew: Well, it’s wall to wall 24/7 launching pianos with catapults in the name of the club. I wish. It’s funny because I’m actually technically not running an art club per say, this year. It’s the first year I haven’t done it in a while because I’ve sort of moved my focus and attention to this Makerspace, kind of after school activity, but it feels so familiar to me because the first couple months, twenty kids were busting at the seam, and were super excited. Then, it’s like December hits, January hits, and we’ve got about those four or five students who come every time, but a lot of the energy and excitement has kind of drained out.

I think there’s a kind of elephant in the room when it comes to extracurricular activities. I find that some of our best students, my best students at my school, are also the ones that are involved in everything, so they can’t come to art club or Makerspace even though they’d really like to because they’re in cross country, and volleyball, and basketball, and wrestling, and show choir, and all of this. We kind of run into a problem of diluting the sort of talent pool, or the interest pool. Like all of the kids who are really interesting and interested in stuff, they’ve got a a lot of different opportunities, so sometimes we’re not even getting all of the students who’d be like the most into it.

I definitely feel that with my Makerspace. I’ve run it kind of back to the real question of kind of what it’s like. I mean we try to run challenges, I also try to have it be open-ended. I think the thing that I’ve learned is it’s probably become too open-ended. A lot of the things that I’ve presented to the students have been too tough, and when they know that they don’t have to do these things that are tough and challenging, Minecraft is warm and comforting, so they will just go play Minecraft for Makerspace time. Which, it’s fine. Like I actually think Minecraft is a really creative video game, but I think next year I’m going to have like Minecraft Monday, and then I will not see Minecraft any other day but Monday. Like that’s it. You had your one day to have fun and experiment, but then the other days are the more robotic-y stuff, the more sewing, the more 3-D printing. We’ve kind of got away from that a little bit.

Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s one of those things where you’re just kind of learning as you go, right?

Andrew: Yeah. I’ve been talking a lot to people, both kind of in the area and outside the area. I think Makerspaces are this really hot topic right now, and like I’m all for it. I love them, and I love the sort of ethos of tinkering and finding things out on your own, but the central message I’ve been telling a lot of people about this is like, manpower over tools everyday of the week. Like, it doesn’t matter what sort of like fancy 3-D pen, or 3-D printer, or robotics kit you have. What’s actually more important is that you have passionate, energetic staff that are willing to volunteer and kind of structure, and work the space, and help out. If you’re only doing it with like two or three people, you’re kind of bound to fail or just run a little thin, you know?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s a good point, and we’ll circle back around to that in just a second. First, I have to interrupt our interview to ask you a different question. Do you have any idea what’s happening on July 14th?

Andrew: Is it your birthday?

Tim Bogatz: No, no. July 14th is even bigger than my birthday. It is Art Ed Now conference.

Andrew: Oh that’s right.

Tim: The world’s online conference for art teachers. It is an affordable, one day event that features over twenty inspiring and innovative Ted Talk style presentations covering topics that are relevant right now in art education. Presentations are hand selected by the Art of Ed, so you know they’re going to be spectacular. Every single presentation comes with free downloads, and practical ideas that you can take back to the classroom. Plus, I’m going to be presenting, so honestly why wouldn’t you want to be there right? People who are podcast listeners know Andrea Slusarski, Abby Schukei, Nic Hahn, are all going to be presenting there, as well as classroom management guru, Michael Linsin. It’s a pretty impressive list. Andrew, what are you excited about for the Art Ed Now conference? Any of those that really jump out at you?

Andrew: Well, I would say yours but I don’t want it to like go to your head.

Tim: It already has, let’s be honest.

Andrew: I actually am really excited to see Abby Schukei’s talk about the most awesome, or most engaging graphic design project out there. I know a little bit about her project because I think she wrote an article about it-

Tim: Yeah, yeah, the emojis.

Andrew: Yeah the emoji project, and I actually did that with my students on a day where I was going to be gone and I was like, “We could do this kind of fun two or three day lesson.” I’ve got to say, like I need to watch this presentation because her student work turned out like a million times better than my students. I must have missed something in the directions or the recipe there that she’ll fill me in on during that presentation.

Tim: There you go. That’ll be perfect. Hey, so whoever is interested in doing that, visit to see all the details and register for the conference. Okay, so Andrew though I want to swing back around to what you said about man power and running things. It takes a lot of effort to run an art club, and I guess where do you find the passion for it? A lot of people get paid, but not paid very well. Some people run an art club just without pay, which is crazy to me to put that many hours in. Like how big of a roll does the teacher passion play in making it successful?

Andrew: Oh I mean I think it’s huge because you’re right, I mean even if you do get paid, when you break it down by like per month you’re like seriously? Like I mean it’s not even noticeable really.

Tim: I get thirty-two dollars a month to run the art club.

Andrew: Yeah. I mean, so no one does it … I got to say, that’s kind of a pet peeve of mine. There’s people out there who say, “Well if teachers just got paid better, they’d be better teachers.” Which, the insinuation is that because we don’t get paid very well, we’re not very good. It’s like man that is just bogus. I bust my hump and do everything I can because like it’s a passion of mine. I want to see my kids do well. I mean, little secret, and don’t tell my district this, I would do my job for free because I like it that much, but like I mean getting a paycheck is nice.

One of the things I think I’ve tried to do with like my art clubs and my Makerspace is I really have tried to be hands off. Especially with the Makerspace. It’s like as long as no one’s doing anything dangerous or ridiculous, and they’re not going to break anything, like I’m kind of off to the side watching them. I mean I’m doing some grading stuff, I’m doing some like lesson planning, so I mean I’m actually able to kind of double dip a little bit. I mean it’s not like I’m in there for an hour just like knee deep in it the entire time. I think that’s one way.

I think the other really great way, when I’ve had projects that have really, really clicked with my art clubs, it’s because I’ve involved volunteer people from out in the community. It’s kind of a great way to outsource some of the energy that you’re going to have to expend. I have the luxury of having the University of Northern Iowa right in my back woods, and I can call up the art ed department and collaborate with them, and they can bring some of their pre-service teachers. People out there that have something like that, whether it’s an art center, or an art group, or a university, like that’s a great resource to have some of the energy spread sort of amongst multiple people.

Tim: Yes, very true, and actually I think that is the perfect place to wrap this up because I talked, in the intro, just so much about bringing the community in or taking artwork to the community. Like you said, that energy between the two is such a big deal, so I think that’s a great point for people to take home.

Andrew: Yeah, I mean I just … We’ve got to realize we can’t do it all, and we shouldn’t do it all. Like, when we incorporate other people like it’s going to work better the more ideas and all that stuff.

Tim: Exactly, exactly. All right, so we’re going to close it up there. Andrew, good talking to you, and we’ll talk to you soon.

Andrew: Right on. Thanks Tim. We’ll talk to you later.

Tim: All right, bye.

There are a million ways to help your art club survive, and even thrive, but those are going to be different for everyone. The key here, what we all have in common, is that it’s about passion and persistence. The passion comes back to that first tip that I talked about. Make your club exciting. Do some projects that you’ve been wanting to try. Use your art club as your guinea pigs. Your kids are going to love that. It’s a special feeling to try something that no one has done before. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but either way it’s going to be an experience.

Now, as far as persistence, again you need to keep working as a teacher to find those new and exciting things. Keep your kids accountable for having and running a good art club, whether it’s through NAHS or anything else. Find those community connections. Make that work for you.

The third tip, letting the kids run the show comes back around to that passion piece again. If you let kids do what they find interesting, they are undoubtedly going to be passionate about it. Kids are the lifeboat of any art club, or any extracurricular that you run. They can’t succeed, however, if you don’t give them a role. Let them plan what they want to do. Let them plan how to do it. It’s their club after all. There’s no shame in turning it over to them. Allow kids to run the show, and allow them to take pride in being part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you to all of you that have subscribed to the show, and we appreciate all the comments we’ve received on iTunes because we’re always looking to get better. Hit up where you can find this and every episode, and some great extra reads and resources for your classrooms. New episodes are released every Tuesday, so look for us then.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.