Bob Bates: Changing the Galaxy, One Child At A Time

Posted by admin on August 27th, 2012, Comments Off

By: Vanessa Garcia

In the late 80s Bob Bates was having a Spiritual Crisis. Asking himself the fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? When, out of the silence of a meditation, came a voice that said: Build an arts space for kids. Today, twenty-three years later, Inner-City-Arts is the answer to that call. In the heart of Skid Row, one of LA’s toughest neighborhoods, lies an oasis where kids can go to explore creativity, which Bates believes is at the center of solving the world’s most complicated problems.
During the week, kids from kindergarten and well into their teens are bussed to Inner-City-Arts from public, charter, and parochial schools around the area . Some kids come on their own, after school and on Saturdays. Here, they learn music, animation, dance, theatre, visual arts, and participate in Bates’ Creativity Lab.

In the lab, they learn how to combine science and art; physics, architecture, and design. “It’s a place where they can work out ideas,” explains Bates, “it’s like when Kennedy said, we’ll put a man on the moon, that was an idea that became a reality.” And that is exactly the principle at work in the lab — invent and create models with basic tools: staples, glue, modular materials. Then use the scientific method –design, test, adjust the design. Like this, kids create marble runs and simple machines; each individual, each a solution to a problem.

[Photo: Bob Bates]

“Einstein said that Imagination is more important than knowledge,” says Bates, “because it’s not the knowledge that’s important, it’s what you do with it.” Bates goes on to illustrate this principle through an extended metaphor. “Take a river,” he says, “it’s alive while it’s flowing, but put the water in a bucket and it’s stagnant; dead.” Inner-City-Arts wants to keep the river flowing, teach kids to use that energy in their own lives and out in the world. “It’s proven that kids that come here do better in school,” says Bates. “Art connects so many dots within human beings. Without it kids are handicapped.”
These are the facts: According to Inner-City Arts’ website, 29% of California schools are without arts education. According to the California Department of Education, drop-out rates in Los Angeles are over 20%. “Testing in schools has created a system in which kids think there’s only one right answer,” says Bates. And yet, here at Inner-City-Arts, Bates and the center’s co-founder Irwin Jaeger, have created a program that works with over 60 schools at time, that has put 150,000 kids through their arts education program, and has grown exponentially throughout the years from a vision, to an organization staffing 30 full-time employees and harnessing a budget of nearly 3 million dollars a year.
This didn’t happen overnight!

Bates story begins in the Midwest, where he became an artist in his own right. Graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute with a BA, and the University of Cincinnati with an MFA, he eventually married another artist and moved to New York. New York made him tougher, taught him a lot, but it also exhausted him. He and his wife decided to leave the Big Apple, take to the road, and eventually go West. They were driving down the coast of California, when they reached San Diego. “We drove and drove until there was no more California,” he says.

They lived on a deserted chicken ranch and their lives began to open up. They were making things in their studio, and Bates had started teaching at Para Los Niños, an organization that’s still going strong, whose mission it is to provide academic success and social well-being for at-risk children. Which is around the time that his meditations, like his life, also began to open up, and he was called to do better.

Still, Bates wasn’t sure what to do with the call, he wasn’t sure how to begin to “build an arts space for kids,” until he met Irwin Jaeger, a wealthy developer who wanted to help. Together, they started Inner-City-Arts with one school. It grew from there to include ties with four schools. Little by little, they began to hire teachers, artists, and staff. Today they are the considered one of the nation’s most effective arts-education providers.

“You can never stop growing,” says Bates, moving into anecdote. Bates, who both collects and makes instruments, was buying a guitar one day from a master craftsman. The guitar-maker hands over the guitar to Bates and says: “I’ve solved all the problems, everything, there’s nothing left to solve, I’ve done it all.” Bates knew he wouldn’t like the instrument, that it would lie flat in his hands. “He’d stopped growing,” says Bates of the music-maker. You get the feeling, talking to Bates, that Inner-City-Arts will not commit the same mistake.

“You know, as people, we lose touch,” says Bates, “we sit with our phones and talk to Siri, and meanwhile we are moving around the sun and the moon is moving around us and we are just one of 160 billion earth-like planets, one of millions of galaxies…I might not have a whole lot of power in the big picture, but we can keep growing, changing the lives of individuals.”

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist