The Czech Republic boasts a unique network of art schools focused on music, ballet, drama and visual arts. The institutions, which are quite generously subsidized by the state, are open to kids from the age of five. Just recently, a nationwide project promoting the so-called "zušky" took place around the country, giving the children and their teachers a rare opportunity to show their skills to the public. The happening was initiated by the Magdalena Kožená Endowement Fund, which was established to promote art education in the Czech Republic.
More than 350 art schools around the Czech Republic took part in the first edition of ZUŠ Open, an event promoting the country’s unique network of art schools. One of the institutions that took part was a small school in Prague’s district of Nusle, Lounských, which was established more than 70 years ago.
Some of the kids who are performing in the packed classrooms might eventually become professional musicians, just like the world-renowned opera singer Magdalena Kožená, who herself started a career in one of these art schools.
One year ago, the Czech opera star decided to establish an endowment fund with the aim to support and promote the country’s system of art education. I asked its director, Dana Syrová, about the motives behind her decision.
“It was Magdalena Kožená’s personal decision. She has been thinking for quite a long time about what would be the right section that needed her help. And in fact, it came quite naturally, since she herself started her career in one of the art schools.
“The system is really unique and very accessible, also financially, because it supported by municipalities. But nowadays it is quite hard for these schools to attract the attention of parents or the media. So that’s why we started to discuss the idea and to organize a happening where the schools can present their work.”
Even though the art schools are often the first to spot an unusual talent, Mrs Syrová stresses that they are open to more or less anybody who is interested in studying the subject.
“It is indeed an incredible network where talents can be detected. But in itself, the schools are not about preparing professionals. The schools are educating future audiences and people who are sensible to different forms of art.
“Because these ‘ZUŠky’, as we call our art schools, they teach music, but there are also visual arts, there is drama, and dance. So as a kid, you can go in and see where your talents lie.”
Altogether 355 art schools from 280 towns and municipalities around the country joined in the first edition of the ZUŠ Open event, which took place on May 30.
Thousands of people attended open-air concerts, workshops and children’s performances and visited some of the schools, which opened their doors to the public. The event wrapped up with a concert in the Church of the Sacred Heart of the Lord on Prague’s Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad.
Among those who attended the closing event was film and theatre director Alice Nellis. Ms Nellis was one of the guarantors of the project and she attended several arts classes as a child.
“I have very fond memories of the art school, because unlike in the normal school where I went in the morning, I could choose what I was going to do, what I felt like doing. I loved to spend time there, so I basically grabbed whatever class there was.
“I played the piano and flute and I also sang and went to drawing classes. For me, it was much more than playing an instrument. It was about the people, about the friends I had and about a space where I felt free and where I could express myself.”
The Czech Republic’s art schools are open to children from the age of five, who start in preparation courses before moving on to basic and secondary levels. The children receive grades and at the end of each year they have to perform in front of a committee in order to be admitted to another year. I asked Alice Nellis if she didn’t find the system a bit too strict as a child:
“I think that at some point, everybody finds out that if they want to do something they like and they want to be good in it, there will be a certain amount of routine and technique, that they actually won’t like that much.
“But that part of being able to do something you really enjoy is to sit through these periods. That is what the art school teaches you, but on a much more individual basis, because you have your own teacher for the instrument and the contact is much more intense.
“I think it is much very good motivation how to get through these harder period and how to stick with things. And then you find out that if you work hard, than you can perform at a concert, you can be part of a chamber orchestra, and you start to find out that it pays back and that it actually works.”
At present there are nearly 500 art schools around the country, and in the past decade the interest in their courses has been growing quite steadily. But according to Alice Nellis, they still require special support in order to attract more attention of the public.
“We take them very often for granted. But if we want to sustain or even improve the quality and make good working conditions to attract more teachers, they need a continuous support.
“Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about sports and how important it is for the children to have the space and place where to use their energy in some more meaningful way. I think the same is true for arts. These schools offer a community of like-minded kids where they can safely do something together and I think it’s rare and important.”
The words of Alice Nellis are echoed by other Czech artists, Maxim Velčovský, who also started a career in one of the country’s numerous art schools, before moving on to the Secondary school of Applied Arts and eventually to the Academy of Applied Arts.
He says "zuška" was first of all a place where he got acquainted with all sorts of artistic techniques and also a place where he could use his imagination without restraint. Just like Alice Nellis, he emphasizes the importance of creativity for children’s development:
“Through art, children are able to learn things in a very different way than in sports. Sport is definitely important, but in the end it is much more competitive. In arts, every person has their own imaginary world.
“I myself learned that you can do the same thing in a different way by painting it or by trying to imagine it. We were always able to come up with our own approach in the collective of small kids. We were always looking what the others do, learning from their mistakes and from their imagination, because their way of expression was very much different from my own.
“I think art widens your imagination and I think. We need kids to be creative because we need a creative population. We need creative politicians, we need creative bakers and teachers, and I think this system is a tool to support child’s creativity.”