A New Framework for Understanding the “Teaching Artist” Field
Eric Booth, February 2015

Let’s start with three agreements.
1. Let’s use the term “teaching artist” as a basket that contains other names for artists who work in communities and other participatory settings. Decades of semantic separation has fostered a sense of fragmentation that has discouraged the coming together of affiliated parts. We can have that semantic discussion at a later time, but for now let’s use “teaching artist” as an inclusive term.

2. Let’s recognize that the 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. Yet this workforce is deeply embedded in institutions and communities, is relied upon in many sectors, and is essential for future growth and innovation.

3. Let’s admit that the funding community has not focused on supporting or building the teaching artist field. Certainly many artists have been supported in work based in communities and in many other settings, but the focus on creating an infrastructure to build this field has been absent, for a variety of reasons.

Let’s also acknowledge that like some amoeboid mass, the field of teaching artistry is hard to define. That doesn’t mean we haven’t tried; we have come steadily closer to a definition that helps to describe the field. Here is my latest definition—this clay shape has had many hands pushing and pulling it a little here and there over two decades, and most everyone nowadays is willing to accept this version as good enough—not perfect, not catchy, but not troubling either; so let’s accept this as a working definition.

A teaching artist is a practicing artist who develops the skills, curiosities, and habits of mind of an educator, in order to achieve a wide variety of learning goals in, through, and about the arts, with a wide variety of learners.


Traditionally, the national field of teaching artistry (including practitioners and those who train and employ them) is described by type of employer, by location of work, by type of project. This tradition has 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, with multiple employers across the misleading segmentation—there is far more cohesion and commonality than traditional thinking recognizes.

For the past five 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 teaching 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 six main purposes, plus one additional one that is a little different but helpful to name.

Such purposes are never entirely discrete in practice; they naturally overlap. In prioritizing one purpose, we know that others will be incidentally (and valuably) accomplished—for example in engaging people artistically to make their community more livable, a teaching artist 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 this work?”

Using these Purpose Threads has proven useful to many, as a way to: refine teaching artist training, sharpen effectiveness of practice (clarifying the goal), help TAs themselves 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 teaching 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?” Distinguishing the variety of ways in which teaching artists are valuable is a more accurate representation of the way teaching artistry is growing in the world.

The Six (plus one) Purpose Threads of the Teaching Artist Field

Name of thread                              Primary purpose of the work

Work of art.                                To enhance the encounter with art works.
Art skills development.                To deepen the development of art-making skills.
Arts integration.                           To catalyze the learning of non-arts content.
Community quality of life.          To increase the livability of communities.
Social/personal development.   To develop personal or social capacities.
Other instrumental goals.           To achieve non-arts goals important to institutions.
+ Digital.                                  To activate personal artistry in digital media.

Here is a brief discussion of each thread, with examples of programs that use TAs 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. TAs 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 have participants create works of art as a tool in this process, and seeing works of art is common too. What unifies all the practices 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 art and its impact.

Skills development—in which we seek to deepen the development of art-making skills. This is a new kid on the teaching artist block, and the kid is still a little controversial. Some people are not so sure that the strict ballet mistress who focuses on technique should be considered a teaching artist. Let’s accept some gray area to acknowledge that many experienced teaching artists teach the skills of their discipline, but they add something bigger, more expansive that deepens the development of that learner. We are only now embracing the fact that teaching artistry has something powerful to bring to the development of artists. In the NY Philharmonic School Partnership Program, they teach kids to play recorder, but in the context of learning so much more, exciting and extending the relevance of what they learn. Marwen, in Chicago, nurtures extraordinary young visual artists, and changes their lives in the process. If you were to assess the TAs work in this thread, you would seek to assess the motivation of the learner, the speed with which skills and individual voice develops, the investment in the art form and in connections made within and outside of it by the learner.

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 nation, 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.

Community quality of life—in which we seek to increase the livability of communities. This has been the domain of “community artists,” a deep and proud tradition, vibrant around the world, in which artists serve community needs. From Theater for Social Development across Africa, to participatory mural projects in 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, Philadelphia Mural Project, and Cornerstone Theater Company. If you were to assess the TA’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.

Social/personal development—in which we seek to develop personal or social capacities through the arts. This is the fastest-growing thread. Teaching 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 single 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 and improved morale and health outcomes in senior centers, to reduced recitivism rates, to reduced gang and crime involvement and high school graduation for El Sistema.

Other instrumental 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 TAs 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 accuracy 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 much investigated this thread 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 TAs’ 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, what teaching artists know and can do is painfully absent—what is the distinctive quality of engagement TAs can bring to internet connections? TA work appears in digital media in electronic portfolios, in searches and communications, in workshops, but the power of teaching artistry 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—six threads plus one. I invite you to use it in whatever way makes sense for you. It has enabled previously estranged organizations 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 prompted fresh interest in assessing teaching artist impact. It makes clearer to those outside the arts what teaching artists can accomplish. 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.

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