A New Framework for Understanding the Field of Artists Who Work in
Education and Community Settings
Used in the Lincoln Center Education Teaching Artist Development Labs
by Eric Booth, January 2017
Let’s start with a few agreements.
1. Let’s recognize that there are certain capacities inherent to artistry that, when
developed, can grow into an expansion of artmaking beyond the studio and
performances into participatory engagement with many different people, in many
settings, for many purposes. Those artists who have naturally developed this part of
their careers, and others who have been introduced to those capacities and have
been able develop them, comprise a field (whatever it is called) of expanded artistry
that is a crucial workforce in the U.S.—crucial to the future of the arts, and crucial to
the achievement of many social, cultural and political goals.
2. Let’s recognize that this national practitioner field is disorganized, lacks a public
voice, identity, and clear pathways for entry and advancement—this is largely true
on the local level too. Even so, this workforce is deeply embedded in institutions
and communities, and many individuals work on their own without intermediary
institutions. The work of these artists is relied upon in many sectors, and yet is far
less visible than its current contribution warrants, and that its potential impact
Let’s also acknowledge that like some amoeboid mass, the field of artists who wish
to expand their art-making to include participatory involvement and impact is hard
to define. It includes various job titles—teaching artist, community artist, citizen
artist, artist-in-residence, artist-activist, etc—each with its own history and
tradition and uncertain relationship with being part of a larger whole. The
practitioner field, both within each job title and in the wider ecosystem, is
disorganized, lacking clear pathways for entry and advancement. There are some
networks that connect parts of this field, and shining examples of great practice and
influence within each segment, but the infrastructure to support a larger field is
absent, for a variety of reasons.
To help define this larger field, here is a definition--not perfect, not catchy, not even
very specific, but not troubling either; so let’s accept this as a working definition.
Artists who work in schools and communities are practicing artists who develop the
skills, curiosities, and habits of mind needed to achieve a wide variety of social and
learning goals in, through, and about the arts, with a wide variety of participants.
Notice the key points:
They are active artists;
their work is more than a kitbag of activities but a broad suite of internalized
approaches and proclivities;
their expertise can be deployed to achieve many kinds of goals, from enhanced
quality of life to increased engagement in schools to reduced prison recidivism
and prescription drug intake for seniors;
they can work with the widest array of audiences, basically anyone, including arts
disinterested people and those with dementia;
they often achieve “instrumental” outcomes that institutions and communities want
(those goals are frequently the rationale for a project), but they recognize that
the only way to achieve those outcomes is by activating the “intrinsic” artistry in
REFRAMING THE FIELD
Traditionally, the national field of these artists (including practitioners and those
who train and employ them) is described by type of employer, by location of work,
by type of project. It has also been segmented into terms like “teaching artists,”
“community artists,” as well as “civic practice,” and “social practice” and an
additional dozen sub-sets that are less common. These traditions have underscored
the sense of its fragmentation and even a sense of separate camps that don’t
connect. In reality, the same individuals work in a variety of settings, for a variety of
purposes, wearing different labels; they are hired by multiple employers across the
misleading boundaries of segmentation, and they also work independently—there is
far more cohesion and commonality than traditional thinking recognizes.
For the past six years, I have proposed a different framework for understanding the
field, a way that has proven to be helpful and true to the way the field actually
functions: to organize it around the different purposes for which these artists are
employed. The key question is: What is the primary purpose of the project? I find
the breadth of work can be distilled to seven main purposes, plus one additional one
that is a little different but helpful to name.
Such purposes are never entirely discrete in practice, of course; they naturally
overlap. In prioritizing one purpose, we know that others will be incidentally (and
valuably) accomplished—for example in engaging people to enrich an aspect of
their community life, any artist working in that setting is likely to create artworks.
So, a work of art is involved (quite possibly in all threads), but the main priority that
guides decision making is about community life. The value of thinking about
purpose threads is that they prompt the questions: “What is most important for me
to aim for this work?” and “What would I want to have assessed about the impact of
Using these Purpose Threads has proven useful to many, as a way to: enrich and
refine artist training, sharpen effectiveness of practice (clarifying the goal), help
artists understand and advance their careers, help with assessment of impact,
illuminate inchoate partnerships that have never been fully tapped, and clarify for
those outside our field how widespread, effective, and relied upon these artists are.
This purpose thread framework is used to structure the national/international
Teaching Artist Development Lab at Lincoln Center Education.
Thinking about purpose threads prompts valuable questions for practitioners,
program leaders and funders: “What is most important to aim for this work?” and
“What should we assess about the impact of this work?”
The Seven (plus one) Purpose Threads of Artists Who Work in Schools and
Name of thread Primary purpose of the work
Work of art. To enhance the encounter with art works.
Community. To enhance the life of communities.
Art skills development. To deepen the development of art-making skills.
Arts integration. To catalyze the learning of non-arts content.
Activism. To impact a political or social movement.
Social/personal development. To develop personal or social capacities.
Partnering for non-art goals. To achieve goals important to other institutions.
+ Digital. To activate personal artistry in digital media.
Here is a brief discussion of each thread, with examples of programs that use artists
to achieve that goal.
Work of art—in which we seek to enhance the encounter with art works. This is
the goal of “outreach” in many arts organizations: to introduce, excite, interest
people in their art offerings. Teaching artists accomplish this goal in many ways, in
many settings. It is the central work of “aesthetic education” at Lincoln Center
Education (where the term “teaching artist” was born), and it has been the mainstay
of Young Audiences, the largest and oldest network using teaching artists in the U.S.
It was the instinct of Leonard Bernstein in his Young People’s Concerts, and is the
goal of Visual Thinking Strategies, so widely adopted in the museum world. TAs
often guide participants to create works of art as a tool in this process, and carefully
viewing works of art is common too. What unifies all the practices of this thread is
that they seek to deepen personal connections with works of art. If you were to
assess the TA’s work in this thread, you would seek to assess the quality of
engagement with the artworks and the impact of such encounters.
Community—in which artists seek to activate and enhance the artistic assets
within a community in order to enrich its quality of life. This has been the domain of
“community artists,” and “civic artistic practice”; it has deep and proud traditions
around the world, and it is about artists serving community needs, often helping in
surfacing, identifying, and building consensus around addressing those needs. From
community choruses to participatory mural projects in almost every major city in
the world, to Creative Placemaking projects in the U.S., a broad definition of art is
dedicated to a broad inclusion of participants. There are programs with especially
deep traditions in the U.S., like Appalshop, and the Philadelphia Mural Project. If
you were to assess the artist’s work in this thread, you would seek to assess the
impact on community members, how their attitudes and perhaps their behaviors
have changed, even how the functioning of the community has changed.
Skills development—in which the teaching artist or arts teacher seeks to deepen
the development of art-making skills. Going beyond technical, mechanical and
copycat learning, teaching artistry aspires to produce artistically alive people. This
is a new kid on the teaching artist block, and the kid is still a little controversial.
There is no clear line separating an arts teacher from teaching artist, and let’s not
argue whether the ballet mistress who focuses exclusively on technique should be
considered a teaching artist or not. Let’s accept some gray area to acknowledge that
many experienced arts teachers are teaching artists, and teaching artists teach the
skills of their discipline, but they add something more than the tools of the art
form—they teach artistry in the art form and beyond. We are only now embracing
the fact that teaching artistry has something powerful to bring to the development
of artists. Teaching Artists at Say Sí in San Antonio develop young artists in many
disciplines, but those young artists are not just actors and filmmakers; they are
community-minded contributors through their art. The TAs at Marwen, in Chicago,
nurture professional-level accomplishment in their young visual artists, in such a
way that dramatic life change is a consistent side-effect of the art learning. And
many school-of-the-arts/university/conservatory teachers should be considered
teaching artists when they prioritize opening wide the artistic lives of their students
and not merely teaching for skill mastery. If you were to assess the TA's work in
this thread, you would seek to assess the motivation of the learner, the student's
ownership of a skill (an understanding of how it may be used for one's own
expressive purposes and the ability to apply it in varying contexts), the development
of individual voice, and the strength of connections the learner makes inside and
outside of the discipline, as well as the ways the TA goes about nurturing those four
Arts integration—in which we seek to catalyze the learning of non-arts content.
This is the largest experiment happening in U.S. arts education. Its gamble is that by
bringing arts learning together with learning other material both will advance
further and deeper than they would on their own. This can be a tricky balancing act
in partnership, so that the arts component doesn’t become a handmaiden to the
more urgent and formally-tested material of the other subject—a way to pep up a
boring curriculum; and conversely so that the subject matter is not a legitimizing
excuse to do a cool art project. Usually the TA leads in this partnership, and must
show discipline to ensure the balance, amid a school setting that cares much less
about the arts than other content. There are hundreds of programs and
experiments of this kind across the U.S., and they go by many names including STEM
to STEAM, arts project based learning, arts-rich and arts-infused curriculum. The
network of Leonard Bernstein Center’s Artful Learning schools work deeply in this
thread, as do many charter schools, and the national programs of Young Audiences
and The Kennedy Center work this thread, as well as programs like Symphony Space
Education, Lincoln Center Education schools. If you were to assess the TA’s work in
this thread, you would seek to assess the learning in both the art and the other
subject area. For example in a theater and history project, you might assess what
students have learned about writing strong scenes, as well as their grasp of the
historical material they were dramatizing.
Activism—in which an artist seeks to impact a political or social movement. This
thread is connected to the community life thread, and has a long public history,
sometimes including artworks labeled “propaganda,” and often intends to be
controversial or provocative. This thread has included Theater for Social
Development, Cornerstone Theater Company, street theater, group singing, political
artworks, graffiti, and public artworks to change minds, challenge ideas, and build
solidarity. The thread currently appears widely, including in the Black Lives Matter
movement, in the actions of the US Department of Arts and Culture, and in the work
of Banksy. Many artists naturally apply their artistic skills to causes they care about
by making artworks that carry their messages, and some develop additional activist
skills that intensify their impact in community and political organizing. If you were
to assess the artist-activist’s work in this thread, you would try to determine impact,
and the lingering effect in people’s hearts and minds. Certainly imitation is a
measure of impact, as Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” image for Barack Obama has shown.
Whole genres of an art form have been born out of an activist movement, such as the
Nigerian rock music movement of the 1960s, and krumping (a dance form born in
Los Angeles) in the 1990s.
Social/personal development—in which we seek to develop personal or social
capacities through the arts. This is the fastest-growing thread. Teaching artists, or
“social practice artists” work with social service organization partners to achieve
social goals. This is the thread of El Sistema around the world, which seeks to
redirect the lives of young people in poverty through intensive, long-term youth
orchestra engagement. This thread contains the work of creative aging, the fastest
growing sector of the TA field, and many prison and juvenile detention arts
programs, and of Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby project that seeks to strengthen bonds and
health outcomes of teenage mothers and their babies. If you were to assess the TA’s
work in this thread, you would seek to assess the development of the desired social
outcomes, from reduced medications, improved morale, health outcomes in senior
centers, to reduced recidivism rates, to reduced gang and crime involvement and
high school graduation for El Sistema.
Partnering for non-art goals—in which we seek to achieve non-arts goals
important to institutions. I know this is a terrible title for this thread, but the range
of experimentation is so broad, I don’t know how else to hold it. This thread finds
artists applying their skills to attain goals that other institutions care about. They
work with businesses to increase innovation (Second City corporate division), to
build teamwork, to boost creativity, to develop leadership. They work with doctors
in training to sharpen diagnostic acuity and build patient empathy. They work with
planning commissions to bring creative vitality to urban planning. This thread is
growing unpredictably, as organizations discover ways that creative engagement
can help them achieve their objectives. The TA field has not investigated this thread
much yet, and because the employment opportunities are so scattered, it does not
communicate well about the practices or the learning. If you were to assess the
artist’s work in this thread, you would focus on the goals of the project and find out
if they are being attained.
+ Digital—in which we seek to activate personal artistry in digital media. This isn’t
really a thread, but it should be. For all the activity in the electronic/digital realm,
the distinctive quality of engagement TAs can bring to internet connections is
largely absent. (There are some examples of strong work.) Artists who work in
communities and schools use digital media in many ways, in electronic portfolios, in
searches and communications, in workshops, but their distinctive power has not yet
found its footing through the internet, so I identify it as a possible thread because I
believe there is a world of opportunity. Such work does appear, as in the Global
Exchange of Carnegie Hall, and in online creative projects that appear from
individual artists, but this thread still lives in the future.
There is the new framework—seven threads plus one. I invite you to use it in
whatever way makes sense for you. It has enabled previously disconnected
organizations (like medical schools and museums, like Carnegie Hall and a juvenile
detention center) to have conversations as colleagues. It has enabled school arts
specialists and teaching artists to set aside the historic uncertainty of their
relationship and accomplish their goals in better coordination. It has obviated old
separations when “teaching artists” and “community artists” work together on a
project. It has prompted fresh interest in assessing teaching artist impact. It makes
clearer to those outside the arts what artists who work in participatory settings can
accomplish. It helps artists clarify their career choices and become more intentional
in having their artistry have impact in the world. It makes clear to teaching artists
themselves that they are part of a big field, with many kinds of expertise, and that
any particular area of expertise is just one among many. And perhaps, it can help
funders envision ways to build infrastructure to grow this field, to better accomplish
the many important changes we wish to bring into the world.