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  • Elizabeth Tobias

“Visual and Performing Arts for All Children!” declares Commissioner, Doreen Schonbrun.

Updated: Jan 5

The little girl shuffled excitedly in her chair. In front of her were yellow, brown, red, green and black paint daubs on a paper plate, seemingly animated, asking to be painted. The little girl, taking in the fresh smell of the tempera, took a long breath, paused and dove her long brush into the mix. She put brush to paper and repeated her strokes again and again until a shape emerged. It was a giraffe.


A wave of calm delight came over the little girl. Her painting made her happy. Ecstatically happy. The giraffe looked happy too. The experience felt like a touch of magic.


That moment etched itself into her memory and ignited her mission; to bring visual and performing arts education into the lives of all children.


It is the story of District 1 Art Commissioner, Doreen Schonbrun.


Flash forward to present moment. Commissioner Schonbrun pauses her story. With her characteristic passion and determination she asserts, “I will continue, until my last breath, to help children and to try to make a difference in humanity, through the love and practice of the arts.”


She is as fierce as she is gentle. She is thoughtful, playful and wise. She knows her purpose and she is a living embodiment of it.


Her unwavering history of philanthropy and arts advocacy have played an instrumental role in shaping the cultural landscape of San Diego. She has worked on behalf of such nonprofit mainstays as Patrons of the Prado, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute.


Her vast accomplishments, listed on her Art Commission Biography, include her education in Art History at UCSD, her classes for at-risk children at the San Diego Center for Children and her philanthropy. Schonbrun has served as Chair of the San Diego Center for Children's annual fundraiser for six years and was a member of San Diego Museum of Art's Presidents Circle member for 14 years.


She was appointed to the Art Commission seven years ago by the mayor. Working with then Director, Robert Gleason, she dove deep into local advocacy. She learned of the hundreds of unrecognized arts non-profits in the community and the Commission helped to set up grant programs to help fund their work. She assisted in creating classes and workshops to prepare applicants for the grant process so that all groups had an equitable chance of earning support.

“In the early days of the commission, there was very little support for arts education,” she recalls. An opportunity arose to partner with UCSD and together with Russ Sperling, VAPA Director of the San Diego Unified School District and former Art Commissioner, Larry Baza, they formed The VAPA Foundation.


The VAPA Foundation believes that an education infused with the arts transforms the lives of young people. Research has shown that an arts education improves school climate and culture, and increases student and parent engagement, ultimately contributing to improved academic achievement.


“This is an area where parents, educators, administrators and researchers agree: An arts education enriches the lives of our students,” said Russ Sperling, Director of VAPA. “I am proud that San Diego Unified is committed to giving every student an arts education, while also supporting teachers with a new stream of resources.”

The Foundation will offer grants to help teachers achieve artistic literacy, innovation, creativity, and excellence in the arts by providing a high quality, sequential, TK-12 arts experience for all students, Sperling said. The VAPA Foundation grants will cover professional development, special projects, activities and materials not funded in a school’s operating budget. This year the Foundation will award 14 grants ranging from $500 to $2,500, totaling $11,000.


In addition to continuing an annual grant program, the VAPA Foundation will serve as resource for teachers by creating connections and collaborations with community arts organizations, and developing resources to help SDUSD teachers achieve quality, access and equity in arts education.


San Diego Unified is nationally known for its commitment to art in schools, having been named one of America's Best Music Communities two years in a row, and being honored by the Kennedy Center in 2011. The District believes this will be the first of many new arts opportunities that will allow students to thrive both inside and outside of the classroom.


Commissioner Schonbrun’s large scale visions are inextricably linked with her very personal passions. Teaching at The San Diego Center for Children is her happy place.


“My favorite thing to do is be with these children,” Schonbrun said. “I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and I can’t wait to see what they create. These are my angels. I adore these kids, and I want to see every single one of them make it.” she declared in a feature story dedicated to her work in The San Diego Union Tribune.


Now, speaking with me, an Expressive Arts Therapist, and fellow advocate of healing and transformation through the arts, she affirms the potential for art therapy as a highly effective tool of positive change.


“I see how art therapy can change a persons life. It’s proven that continuous art therapy can create outstanding academic improvement in students, up to 70% improvement. It is the most effective kind of therapy with a child. It is cathartic, it brings joy, builds self esteem. It is grounding. It makes you want to be present on this planet,” she says.


“Everyone goes through struggles in life, but it’s the difficulties that give you power,” she says.


Commissioner Doreen Schonbrun, Self Portrait, Age 5 or 6

Our meeting pauses for a quick break. She returns with an armful of paintings, her childhood paintings. The paper is yellowed but the paint is vibrant and the figures seem to jump into action. And there she is, as a little girl, waving her arms at me. With bright eyes and perfectly coiffed hair, she is as fierce as she is gentle. She is thoughtful, playful and wise. She knows her purpose and she is a living embodiment of it.