This is evident in the fact that Abilene has cultural attractions that other cities its size do not, including a zoo, a philharmonic, and a national museum for children’s illustrated literature. One such program unique to Abilene is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – Young Audiences of Abilene.
The nonprofit program introduces the arts to children at a young age using professional performers. Young Audiences works with schools to show that the fine arts can help students in all academic areas.
When Abilene native and Dallas arts supporter Edith Jones O’Donnell suggested the city start a Young Audiences chapter, there were concerns that Abilene wasn’t big enough to support such a program. The program requires numerous professional performers, cooperative schools and funding.
As always, determined Abilenians made it happen.
O’Donnell contacted Larry Gill with the family’s Dodge Jones Foundation to gauge their interest in starting a chapter of Young Audiences in Abilene, recalls Lynn Barnett, executive director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council. O’Donnell and her close friend, Mitch Jericho, had been instrumental in starting a successful YA chapter in Dallas.
“They hoped that children in Abilene would benefit from such a wonderful program,” Barnett said.
Gill met with representatives from the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, who in turn visited with Charles Hundley, the Abilene Independent School District superintendent at the time. Hundley was encouraging about the prospect of being involved.
O’Donnell and Jericho hosted a group from Abilene in Dallas so they could visit with staff of the Dallas YA program.
“Everyone was very excited about the prospect of launching our own chapter, and the planning began to raise the necessary funds for the first executive director and programming,” Barnett said.
Junior League of Abilene and other groups stepped up with funding and volunteers. Abilene was selected as a pilot project for Young Audiences Inc. in 1993. Leigh Black was hired as the first executive director.
“It was exciting to introduce the concept of Young Audiences to our schools and community, but especially to our local artists,” Black said. “Abilene was a perfect choice to pilot Young Audiences in a rural area because of our three local universities and the wealth of talent in our community.”
At the beginning, YA worked with professional artists through the Dallas chapter of YA. In its eighth year, Betty Hukill was hired as YA’s second executive director. She spent the next three and a half years continuing to develop local talent to create new programs.
“Developing a script that was entertaining and full of information, but also involved the students’ interaction, was a challenge with a big reward,” Hukill said. “Mostly, I loved watching the reaction of the youngsters as they experienced live performances. Young Audiences is a wonderful program that Abilene is fortunate to have.”
In 1996, Young Audiences of Abilene applied to become a full chapter. During a two-year trial period, YA developed a three-year plan and underwent close scrutiny by the Young Audiences Certification Team, which is made up of arts-in-education experts from across the nation.
After the trial period, Young Audiences of Abilene was accredited with its own chapter in April 1997. There are 31 chapters of YA, which is the oldest and largest arts-in-education group in America. Abilene was – and still is – the smallest city in the nation to have its own Young Audiences chapter.
And it’s been going strong ever since.
In April 2008, the National Young Audiences Certification Team voted unanimously to recommend that Young Audiences of Abilene be re-certified for the full term of five years.
The program operates under the guidance of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, which is an affiliate of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce. Half of YA’s funding comes from the schools it serves and the rest comes from donations from local organizations, businesses, foundations and arts groups.
The paid artists who perform with YA in the schools are highly skilled professional musicians, dancers, singers and actors who are selected for their artistic excellence and their ability to communicate effectively with young people. Artists are auditioned and contracted to present assembly performances and workshops, residencies, teacher workshops and community performances. Specially prepared study guides are provided to the teachers prior to the performances.
YA has been a presence in Abilene elementary schools since 1993. Each year, every kindergarten, first and second grade student in Abilene ISD experiences at least one 45-minute assembly presentation. Every third, fourth, and fifth grade student in Abilene ISD participates in a Young Audiences show every other year.
Young Audiences routinely travels to rural schools throughout Region 14, performing for children on campuses in the Big Country. During the 2012-13 school year, 14,475 children experienced a Young Audiences program.
The program partners regularly with the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, the Old Jail Art Center in Albany and The Grace Museum to provide original programs to accompany exhibits. YA collaborates with the Abilene Public Library for a summer performance series. This summer, Young Audiences of Abilene presented the 18th Summer Performance Series with the library, enabling an audience of 1,600 to watch and participate in four programs.
The programs incorporate Young Audience’s signature elements: experiencing the art form, understanding the art form, creating the art form, and connecting the learning to other areas of study or life skills.
“Independent evaluations of Young Audiences programs have shown that nothing engages the heart, mind, and enthusiasm of students like experiencing the arts,” said Victoria Spangler, YA’s current executive director.