Remembering Sally Smith, the pioneering arts educator

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It was a catered evening reception at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but this event didn’t signal an exhibit opening for a famous painter.

It was a catered evening reception at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but this event didn’t signal an exhibit opening for a famous painter.

The guests of honor were 30 outstanding, though generally unheralded, elementary and high school art teachers. They were from across the country and were flown to Washington to receive a personalized award and a print signed by artist James Rosenquist. The hostess of the reception and patron of these art educators was Sally Smith, founder and director of the Lab School of Washington and nationally renowned champion of arts education for learning disabled children.

You couldn’t miss her–blond, ebullient and bejeweled with polka-dot nail polish, a brightly colored dress and scarf, in the middle of things with a ready “Hello” and broad smile. Bringing the teachers to Washington was her way of recognizing them for their creative work in enriching the lives of children through arts in the classroom. Too often to our detriment, arts instruction is so marginalized that when education budget cuts are considered, beleaguered art teachers are often among the first to get pink slips.

We lost Sally a year ago on December 1, 2007, but her legacy as a champion for arts education lives on. That legacy began in 1967 when her youngest son, Gary, a bright and creative child, began acting out in school out of frustration over his inability to read or do math.

When she learned that he had a severe learning disability, the only options school officials offered were to put him with retarded or disturbed children. Neither was acceptable, but Sally puzzled over where she could take her son.

That’s when she decided to create her own school starting with Gary and three other students. This was a school that embraced the potential and intelligence of learning disabled children within an innovative curriculum built around the arts. Although she was trying something new, Sally wasn’t a novice in education or the arts. She graduated in 1950 from Bennington College where she studied modern dance with Martha Graham and was a student of prominent psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.

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