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Keeping the arts alive

Tony Bennett does it all

Created date

September 21st, 2009

[caption id="attachment_3087" align="alignright" width="280" caption="The new building for the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts gives students access to a state-of-the-art concert hall, dance studio, and media rooms. The school s new home was built through funding raised by Tony Bennett s nonprofit, Exploring the Arts. (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Welner)"][/caption] Tony Bennett s voice is one of the most recognizable in show business. Throughout his decades-long career, he s sold over 50 million records and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. But he s also earned a reputation as an ardent supporter of the arts. In 1999, Bennett and his wife started Exploring the Arts (, a nonprofit with the goal of promoting art education in schools. Most recently, the organization mounted a campaign to fund the construction of a state-of-the-art building for the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Bennett s hometown of Astoria, Queens. Last month, the singer spoke with the Tribune about his foundation s work and also reflected on his own career as an artist. ET: What was the inspiration behind starting Exploring the Arts (ETA)? [caption id="attachment_3088" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Show business legend Tony Bennett. (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Welner)"][/caption] TB: I was fortunate enough, growing up in New York City, to receive an excellent arts education in the public schools. I studied both art and music and had excellent teachers. Over the years, the emphasis on the arts has suffered, and it is always the first thing to get cut from public schools. I think it s sad that after a child finishes kindergarten, they take the crayons away. So many schools have virtually no music program anymore, and their arts programs are minimal. I grew up in the Depression; economic times were tough, but arts were considered an essential part of education, and now that has changed. My wife, Susan, and I wanted to help bring back arts education to public schools, so we started Exploring the Arts. ET: What was involved in building this initiative? TB: Well, about the same time that Susan and I thought about how lamentable it was that arts education was dwindling, my best friend and mentor Frank Sinatra passed away. I wanted to do something to honor Frank, who was a great performer and just exemplified excellence, and we decided to found a New York City public arts high school and name it Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. ET: Speaking of Sinatra, he once said that you were his favorite singer. How did that make you feel? TB: I couldn t believe it when someone showed me LIFE magazine and I saw what he had said in an article they had written about him. It was such an honor that, from that point on, I made sure that I lived up to the praise he had given me. Sinatra was the best everything he did, he did with great care and excellence. ET: ETA s mission has some interesting components namely, teaching young artists to embrace true craft over the cult of fame. Is this problem something you ve seen throughout your career? TB: I think in recent years, the emphasis has been on hitting it big right away, and unfortunately young artists and performers just starting out don t have a chance to develop. If their album doesn t sell millions of records right away they get dropped, and it s a very cruel environment. I remember when I first started out with Pearl Bailey. She told me, It s going to take you ten years just to learn how to walk out on the stage. ET: The organization s advisory committee has some big names like Al Pacino and Harry Connick, Jr. Considering its mission, was there an outpouring of support when you first approached them? TB: I think if you ask any artist, they will tell you that there was a teacher they had growing up who encouraged them to pursue their craft. So artists value the arts in education, and we have had tremendous support from them. ET: Where did you get your training as an artist? TB: As I mentioned, I got a very good foundation in the New York City public schools, and I was accepted into the High School of Industrial Arts (now called the High School of Art & Design) and was taught about all kinds of arts there silk screening, ceramics, just everything. We used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as a practice they would have us copy the masterpieces in the museum. ET: And you re pretty well known for your paintings too. How does that fit into your life? TB: I have been painting all my life, and whenever I am on the road or at home, I paint every day. ET: Do you feel as though you re still learning as an artist? TB: If you stop learning, you stop living.