Expanding the Range of Essential Skills of 21st Century Artists

This document challenges our sense of the status quo by announcing an overlooked trend that is decidedly underway. This change is now breaking the surface norms into visibility in several stakeholder fields at the same time. It is not overstating the trend to call it a redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of a 21st century artist.

Let me begin with a few indicators of this trend.

An emerging profession. Seven years ago, a student of mine from Juilliard was being deported for visa violations. At her INS hearing, she claimed she should be allowed to stay because her work provided a specialized and crucial service. The INS officer raised an eyebrow. She said she was a teaching artist and described her work. The officer interrupted her, saying, “A specialized and crucial profession, eh? Can you get a degree in it at a university? Does it have a professional journal?” At that time the answer to both questions was no. Seven years later, the answer to both questions is yes. Columbia College Chicago now has a Master’s program with a degree, and the peer-reviewed Teaching Artist Journal was launched in 2003 and is off to a rocketing start. Conservatories and artist training programs at colleges and universities across the country are adding education, pedagogy, outreach skill classes and workshops, and new degree programs or emphasis status are in the works. Demand for teaching artists is increasing in a number of fields. In the first five minutes of a workshop at the 2004 Arts Presenters conference, presenters listed over 20 ways they would love to make use of artists who had teaching and advocacy skills. Supply is inadequate to the demand.

Professionalization. There is a banner term in the field of arts learning, heard in its various sectors across the country: The Professionalization of the Teaching Artist. A non-field of disconnected individual artists who happened to have an interest in education, hired for their natural skills by institutions of various kinds, is becoming a field. Field-building activity is widespread. Arts education institutions are beginning to collaborate—roundtables have sprung up in dozens of cities across the country. In these new collaborations, organizations distill their common needs and interests, take inventory of the ways they develop, use and sustain their assets, especially the greatest asset—skilled teaching artists. Arts education programs of every kind are offering significantly more training for teaching artists. (The very reason I cannot attend this Assembly is because I am leading a first-ever statewide conference focusing on teaching artists in Hawaii, having just left a similar conference of all the Young Audiences chapters in the U.S. (the largest arts education network in the country) focusing for the first time on the professional development of teaching artists, and heading to another first-ever national conference in Chicago on developing teaching artist skills for working with people with disabilities.)
Experimental arts education programs like the Center for Arts Education, the Empire State Partnership, A+ Schools, Galef, the Bernstein Center, Lincoln Center Institute focus schools, are developing a cadre of advanced teaching artists through years of professional development and research. Teaching artists themselves are gathering to advance their own work—groups like NECAP in New England, Artist to Artist in Minneapolis, and Teaching Artists Organized in the San Francisco Area, as well as semi-formal book study groups, monthly salons and regular coffee clubs are popping up in large and small towns across the country. The goals are the same—find common voice, deepen practice, learn from one another, advance the emerging field of artists who are both artists and educators.

Assembly of Conservatory Leaders. At a gathering I facilitated and helped design of Conservatory Leaders, Service Organization heads, and major funders in 2002, convened by the Kenan Institute for the Arts in Winston-Salem (Columbia’s Bruce Ferguson participated), many ideas and challenges were aired in this unprecedented gathering that discussed the training of 21st century artists. Among the many complex realities, a general agreement grew clear—two conflicting trends were underway in the training of artists. First, the technical training of artists has reached a new level of excellence in America today—developing more artists of greater skill than at any time in human history. And concurrently, just as this achievement is settling in, a contrary trend is appearing. There is an emerging set of additional skills that are essential to the success of a 21st century artist. Great technique and knowledge are no longer enough to fulfill the demands and responsibilities of this century. These additional skills are not so easily named or identified. They include entrepreneurial and organizational skills, education skills, advocacy and communication skills, artistic design, production and marketing skills.

Those who train these new artists are at something of a loss for how to address this additional, amorphous skillset. Do we take time away from studio work? How do we balance focus? What do we do with studio faculty who don’t agree? Where do we find the time? Students are sharply aware of the need and the lack of effective preparation—the students at the conference, and students I deal with everywhere, complain that they are unprepared to be successful in the real world they enter. Elective classes are increasingly offered at conservatories and training programs, but the offerings are largely uncoordinated. Some conservatories have developed programs to address this, but the thinking is only beginning to make an impact on higher education in general. The increasing demand is as much student driven, as market driven. Conservatory leaders countered that if education and advocacy skills were so crucial, why are they still not considered in the orchestral audition process. “Change the factors you consider in hiring, and we will change our training.” Conference attendees saw it as a Catch 22.

Arts in schools. The teaching artist brings a crucial expertise to a significant change in American arts education. Teaching artists have had a presence in schools for many decades, but their numbers began to increase in the 1980s. Their contribution on a national scale has been modest, but growing. To this day, no one in the U.S. can confirm how many work in schools—even educated guesses of the numbers are guesses. (We do know that the vast majority, perhaps as high as 90% of all professional artists end up teaching at some time, not always in schools, and only a small minority have had formal study in how to teach effectively.) (And many who do teach, even at the higher education level, do not have much background in pedagogy, do not have the skills of teaching artists. What a difference it could make to higher education arts learning if the faculty learned the powerful pedagogical tools that teaching artists possess.)

There is historic shift underway—the emergence of a third reason for the arts to be in American public schools. The first two reasons have sustained the arts’ largely-peripheral presence since the arts came into schools around 1900; these reasons are the inherent and the instrumental reasons: Art for art’s sake (arts engagement develops essential human and social necessities that are important even if we can’t articulate exactly what they are), and art for the sake of the workplace (arts learning promotes skills that pay off in practical ways our culture cares about). These are both alive and well and sustaining art’s tenuous place in American schooling.

The historic change is the emergence of a third reason, which is both inherent and instrumental, and which is likely to inform the future of the arts in schools; this emerging focus can potentially can make a major contribution to school reform and the revitalization of the arts in America. This third reason is: art for the sake of learning. We are discovering that artistic engagement does something catalytic to a learner. Teaching artists are the primary contributors and service providers of this new priority. The field is beginning to organize the practices that make effective and efficient use of arts-integration programs, which are springing up widely. Research is finding significant results, and practitioners are learning quickly. This trend is likely to become the arts education success story of this century—and teaching artists stand at the exact center of this emerging trend as practitioners, essential professional developers, and the leading braintrust. Neither artist training or teaching training in higher education has responded to this trend. This means that practitioners, teaching artists and arts specialists in schools, are having to piece together their changes in practice, after they are already in the field, overworked and undersupported to make significant changes in the way they think about their practice.

I must mention that in an arts learning field that is dramatically rethinking and reorganizing its practice, the pre-service training of teachers, especially arts and general elementary classroom teachers, is the single most resistant piece of the national puzzle. Across the country I hear frustration that everyone is embracing change except the programs that produce teachers. This has slowed the trend and handed over the development of more effective practices to the professional arena. The terms I frequently hear used are obdurate, tradition-bound, out-of-touch and frightened.

Education skills enhance artistry. “Those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” This familiar condescending bromide colors the view of the entire teaching profession, including the view of education within the arts. There is an abiding prejudice that those artists with “extra” skills, particularly education skills, are the bleeding heart softies or those who couldn’t cut it artistically. This prejudice appeared at Juilliard for my Arts and Education program, where even top musicians who were learning education skills were sometimes labeled as less competitive artistically, and patted on the back for having an interest in this elective program that was “nice” but not artistically significant. That is until they started getting more work than others, and being in demand for their wider range of skills.

There is certainly some truth buried in this pile of bologna—musicians and other artists who choose not to pursue full-time, professional careers for a variety of reasons (lacking the competitive skill being just one of many such reasons) do teach. But there is not a direct correlation between less skill and more teaching. Indeed, the field is beginning to notice that education skills produce income for young artists in a variety of ways. Music ensembles frequently survive because of their education programs. Teaching artists manage to sustain a life in the arts with their expanded set of skills rather than having to take other part time jobs. Presenters seek performers with these skills. So, the utilitarian benefits are becoming clearer and more attractive to all students, even the musically gifted. Only now is this reality beginning to change the prejudice of associating education skills with lesser artistry.

And there is another truth that radically challenges all of us. I first heard this from my students at Juilliard, and now I hear it spoken of more widely: developing expanded skills makes artists better artists. Teaching artists report that what they learn as educators enriches the way the work as artists. They begin to think about their performing differently. As they become more sophisticated in understanding how people take in music, they begin to adjust the way they share it with audiences. As they learn how to expand people’s capacity to decode and respond to dance, they expand their expressivity, change their rehearsing processes, ask different questions of themselves and their material. They begin to have richer conversations with artists in other fields, and with non-artists. They start to see they are involved in bigger issues, glorious fundamental arts inquiries, and not just improved technique. In short, developing skills as educators, as advocates and entrepreneurs, makes them better artists. In many cases it makes the difference between a self-definition of becoming a technician within a discipline, and becoming an artist.

Fundamental Questions of the Emerging Trend

At the 2004 Association of Performing Arts Presenters Convention in NYC, I led a workshop session that addressed these issues in the light of the valuable new report from the Dana Foundation, Acts of Achievement, which addresses this emerging trend. Here is the general structure of that workshop that provoked deeply engaged discussion and some clarification of the opportunities, the current capacities, and the beginnings of a dialogue about possibilities of expanding the range of skills higher education can develop in artists. Unfortunately, no record of that dialogue was made. Rather than report recollections, let me report the key questions I used to structure the session, with hopes that they provoke equally engaged answering from other colleagues.

What are the actual opportunities for the use of these expanded skills? Performing arts centers, arts education organizations (like Young Audiences, the 21 Aesthetic Education Institutes, and dozens in every mid and large sized city), outreach programs from arts organizations, all seek artists with skills as educators, advocates, ambassadors. When I popped this question, an instant rush of response identified over 20 actual professional situations in which Arts Presenters attendees now use, or would love to use, artists who had these additional skills. These opportunities range from short- and long-term residencies in schools, to after-school programs, to community engagement, to work in creative aging centers, to work with Boards of Directors, to adult education, to marketing and training events with businesses and in health care, even to work with Marketing Departments, website design and online programs. The abundance and specificity of the answers underscored the growing demand for effective teaching artists. The recently released Leveraging Investments in Creativity report from The Urban Institute cited this growing demand, for which a supply of talent is not adequate.

Connected to this is an emerging trend in the sector of the arts world that attends to the relationship to the businesses. These leaders have been describing a historic change beginning between these two worlds—adjusting the one way relationship of art organizations asking business for support, turning it into a two-way relationship in which art can provide business with skills and expertise it requires (like creative thinking, improved training, etc.)—teaching artists are the essential component of this promising new relationship.

What skills do artists need to be successful in these opportunities beyond their performance skills? When I asked this question, again Arts Presenters workshop participants burst forth with a torrent of ideas, listing fifteen or twenty skills in a few minutes. I challenged them to distill this daunting list down the key skills, the essential core capacities that one could really emphasize in artist training. We developed a short list, a list that would require more thinking and dialogue before it is offered as a statement to the field, but it included such things as capacity to identify and draw people into powerful essential questions of the arts; communicate succinctly and in universal language regarding crucial aspects of an art; group management skills to actively engage creative participation and focus it on specific learning objectives; a joyful attitude of open, inclusivity and more.

The workshop participants then broke into three smaller groups to investigate one of three fundamental questions. The lively dialogues provided far too much insight and discovery to share in the short time for reporting-out at the session. The clear consensus was that the following three key questions, and the followup question that leads to action planning, were rich areas the entire field needs to explore.

I was able to cite a number of actual programs and experiments around the country that the participants didn’t know about. These programs, in higher education, and in the professional world, are developing exactly the artists with expanded capacities the field is calling for.

A recent realization for me is that no one in the arts or arts education knows what is going on in the development of teaching artists. Certainly those directly involved know about their own and some other related programs, or programs in their region, but no person or organization in the country has ever gathered this information, or has a real overview of it. In preparing a recent special series of articles in the Teaching Artist Journal, we focused on precisely this issue, trying to gather information about best practices and exemplary teaching artist professional development programs in different arts disciplines. After extensive exploration, we determined that there is an enormous amount of activity around the country, many fine examples the field could learn from, but absolutely no one in the country knows what is happening. The challenge was beyond the scope of volunteer writers making phone calls; our article called for the need to undertake a proper study of the field, an inventory, or an assessment of the state of capacity—all agreed what a crucial and valuable next step this would be.

These are the three questions the APAP session breakout groups addressed:

What is the current state of capacity of artists to meet and succeed in these opportunities for use of their “expanded” range of skills?

How do artists currently learn these “expanded” skills?

In ideal settings, how would these skills be developed?

The workshop was building to this follow-up inquiry, but the time didn’t allow us to even scratch the surface: In our less than ideal settings, what steps can we take to develop these capacities? What have we seen that works, and what else is possible?

A philosophical change
Let me close with a semantic suggestion. I believe this expanded set of skills can be viewed as an adjustment in the focus of American arts. A shift to emphasize the verbs of art in a healthier balance with the nouns. I have written about this at length elsewhere. In brief: the nouns of art, the paintings, poems and performances, are what we think of as art. The verbs—those processes people engage in to create those nouns and to create personally relevant connections to the nouns others have made—open up the learning potential. When over-commodified, the arts undervalue the capacity to have arts experiences. I believe the whole arts field would be in much healthier shape if we focused on arts experiencing and not just arts-offerings. The view of the arts in higher education does not reflect this healthier balance.

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde draws a distinction between the market economy (in which we buy and sell goods and services, ending relationships when at the completion of the implied contract) and the gift economy (in which gifts must be passed along to have value, in which longterm bonds of community are built). The arts must hold a balance between these two economies, and Hyde points out their unique position in that regard. But, in our society they are imbalanced toward the market concerns, exacerbating the estranged relationship between America and art. Artists are too often trained into this imbalance in higher education. Expanding the range of skills of artists, emphasizing the gift economy in which they also must function if they are going to have emotionally, creatively, spiritually sustainable careers as artists, and lives as people, is absolutely essential to the viability of the arts, and the vitality of the arts contribution to society.

People come to the arts, believe they have a place in the arts, care a lick about the arts, only in relation to the verbs of art, to the quality of the experiences they get in and from the arts. At our best, we are all agents of artistic experience. We all have this same job title—whether we are performers, presenters, arts professors, concert hall ushers or ballet company assistant marketing managers—we are agents of artistic experience, given the charge and opportunity to support and advance people’s capacities (including our own and our colleague’s) to have rewarding artistic experiences. These are the experiences that bring people back to the arts and that provide the birthright benefits the arts have always given humans.

Artists with expanded skills are the crucial agents of artistic experience. They are the exemplars, the inspirers—they are the guides to a better future for the arts. Teaching artists have the skills to show the entire arts field how to uncover the relevance of art in our arts-disinterested culture. They can lead the exploration of new, artistically authentic, ways to transform the ways the arts can invite wider communities into discovering the relevance, resilience and effectiveness of the arts. They are the leaders the arts require. Let’s support the widespread development of their skills, in all artists, in their crucial formative time of training in higher education.

Eric Booth is widely described as the public voice of teaching artists. He is on the faculty of Juilliard (where he designed and led their Arts and Education program, and now is Artistic Director of Mentoring), of Lincoln Center Institute (where he started as a teaching artist almost 25 years ago and now consults, designing programs), of the Kennedy Center. He is the Founding Editor of the Teaching Artist Journal, author of the award-winning, Book of the Month Club selected book, The Everyday Work of Art, and he writes the education column in Chamber Music magazine. A former Broadway actor, and founder of Alert Publishing (a remarkable entrepreneurial success story), he is a frequent keynote speaker, leads workshops and consults with arts and service organizations, and school districts across the country, and holds one of six Chairs on The College Board’s Arts Advisory Committee.

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