Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—according to George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote that he never learned anything from a teacher, he taught himself everything—so maybe GBS had a little ax to grind. He got it quite wrong—the truth is that those who can do two things well, at the same time, in almost any setting, are teaching artists.
The History of Teaching Artistry in the U.S.:
Where it comes from, where it is, and where it’s heading
By Eric Booth
Originally 2010/revised 2020
To know who you are, you must know where you come from. So too for the emergent profession of teaching artistry, which might be described as a young adult—past teen years but still not moving with a twentysomething’s confident stride. This essay aspires to trace briefly the history of teaching artistry. It does not provide the academic rigor of a proper history, and I hope an ambitious historian will take up the challenge and provide an authoritative version for us all. Nor does the scope of this essay allow me to identify the dozens of specific organizations and individuals who have provided important flagstones on the path, or those who are currently doing exemplary work around the country—they deserve to be recognized and thanked. This essay offers a distilled sense of the journey, its general contours, in order to ground our sense of the complex present and clarify its proliferation of opportunity. Even though the characterizations of decades and phases are oversimplified, given the jumble of activity that unfolded during each decade, I feel the following descriptions are accurate enough to propose as the truthful story. I also offer two organizational constructs at the end of this essay in they hope they provide useful distinctions to elucidate the field’s ongoing evolution. I welcome others who wish to take this essay and expand it in additional foundation-building ways.
In setting our historical context, let’s openly acknowledge some of its “negatives.” The field of teaching artistry does not speak in a unified voice—never has and possibly never will. (This does not negate it as a field at all; does politics speak with a unified voice?) Our growing body of writing about teaching artistry enables the field to begin to know itself. There are increasing numbers of surveys that illuminate aspects of teaching artistry (the insights of which have not been gathered for handy dissemination), and only one national research study. However, there is no widely accepted definition of what a teaching artist is, no established set of work parameters to clarify what a teaching artist does, nor any set of basic practices that may be considered the agreed-upon key tools that teaching artists use. There is not even a sense of what teaching artists should teach; a strength of teaching artistry is responding inventively to specific goals, opportunities, and needs rather than delivering any established curriculum. Teaching artistry has no national organization (although the Teaching Artist Guild and the Association of Teaching Artists do serve the national field and provide some resources. The new International Teaching Artist Collaborative is building the first global network.)
U.S. teaching artistry has no national certification processes (although local and regional processes have been attempted and still exist in local areas, and Young Audiences has a certification process for in-school residencies of the kind they provide), no central location, no suggested sets of curricula, no designated advocates (although many advocate out of personal mission or positions within prominent organizations). This lack of basic organizational features may be viewed as a sign of the immaturity of the field, or as a healthy refusal to adopt structures that do not derive organically from the heart of the practice—there certainly is truth in the former view, but I incline toward the latter. In some ways I think this field is growing more wisely than it knows. Teaching artistry is indirectly choosing not to become what hasn’t worked particularly well for other arts and arts learning fields. Teaching artistry hasn’t found the embodiment as a professional field of the authentic tools that provide its power in practice. Yet.
The field has developed a handful of foundation documents that have attained widespread affirmation and utility, even though there is not universal agreement about all the language in all the documents. These foundation documents include a one-page manifesto, and three foundation documents used in the Lincoln Center Education Teaching Artist Development Labs: The Fundamentals of Teaching Artistry, the Seven Purpose Threads of Teaching Artistry, and The Development Guide. The Teaching Artist Guild’s Asset Map is the first attempt to map the field’s practitioners and organizations.
A working definition: “A teaching artist is a practicing artist who develops the complementary skills, curiosities and habits of mind of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of participants in learning experiences in, through, and about the arts.” It is not succinct, but it captures the basic elements of consensus elements. I have read a dozen other definitions that are at least as good, and have written more than a few myself. Some people think that the lack of a consensus definition demonstrates weakness in the field; perhaps so, but please show me the consensus definitions of “creativity,” “teacher,” and “friend.” Part of the challenge of defining the role is its essential hybridity—it is neither one role nor the other, but intentionally both. In an economy of specific job titles, traditional silos, and government SIC employment coding, this makes teaching artistry inconvenient to categorize, until the world catches up to recognize the new category. It is worth noting that surveys show that its two component professions—teachers and artists—are both held in low to moderate esteem in the U.S. public eye, or at least not in high regard. The opening quotation from Shaw gives a sense of the negative prejudices around teachers; the 2003 LINC research found that only 27% of Americans think artists contribute “a lot” to the general good of society, suggesting some of the bias against artists. So, to some degree, a teaching artist is tarred with the double disrespect of common prejudice. In the long run, I think the hybridity will become its distinctive contribution, eventually recognized as a new category, stronger for freedom from the limitations of either and for being an alloy.
It’s tempting to trace the roots of teaching artistry back to cave painters 32,000 years ago in Europe (although recent discoveries in Sulawesi suggest cave painting may have begun in Asia 44,000 years ago). Those artistic traditions in European caves lasted some 22,000 years, with remarkable consistency in style and technique. While we cannot be sure of the meaning or purpose of the art, we can be sure these techniques were carefully taught, the meaning of the images was taught as part of the culture, and the larger cave galleries hold different (probably large-group) images than the smaller more remote cave spaces, suggesting a difference between public and private artistic expression. There are even squiggly lines on floors and walls made by fingers (adult and child) making playful lines in mud, just like our fingerpainting. In terms of quantity of images, the vast majority are a jumble of incomplete, overlapping, rudimentary efforts, often in the deepest, most dangerous parts of the cave—using all available evidence, some researchers believe they were made by pubescent boys who dared to go to those scary locations for as long as a torch would last, and developed their artmaking skills on rock sketchpads. Many teaching artists know the same abiding spirit of danger-seeking and speedy sketching in boys they engage with in workshops.
I like to think of the pleistocene age humans who led the activity in the caves in southern France as the first teaching artists, progenitors of not only art but also religion. There is evidence of musical instruments among these humans at this time too, suggesting that visual arts and music were the more dominant arts as they have been in U.S. schooling. Theater and dance historians are right to argue for the presence of storytelling and ritualized movement as organic artistic expressions the same early era.
Speeding ahead to the modern era, teaching artistry grows from the soil of three different artistic traditions: 1) the training of artists; 2) the democratic impulse to include everyone in the cultural commons; and 3) the usefulness of artistic processes to accomplish a variety of goals. These traditions map roughly as the specialist, the generalist or democratic, and the utilitarian tracks. Let’s pause for a quick worldview before returning to these three tracks.
At UNESCO’s first-ever worldwide arts education conference (Lisbon 2006, where I delivered the closing keynote speech), I discovered what an undistinguished place the U.S. holds in the world arts education landscape. Indeed, UNESCO originally forgot to invite the U.S. to the conference (partly because it had been an unreliable supporter of UNESCO, no doubt). At that conference, it became clear to me that the U.S. is far below most other UNESCO nations in arts education commitment—U.S. public school students average less than one third the number of in-school arts education hours than the average in other UNESCO countries. Given the embarrassment of our far below average norms, I discerned four areas in which U.S. arts education practice is probably the most advanced in the world: 1) the breadth and quality of conservatory/university training; 2) the quality and depth of arts learning experiments; 3) the quality and depth of arts learning partnerships between schools and other organizations (which nurture most of those experiments); and 4) “trained” teaching artists. The U.S. has the most articulate understanding of teaching artist practices, and the broadest application of those capacities in an increasing number of settings. At that UNESCO conference I began to discover the sophistication of the “artists who work in participatory” settings in the U.K., the social/community artist practices in Africa, and an emergent aspiration to learn more about these areas of expertise from many other countries.
Called by terms other than “teaching artists” in other countries, these participatory artists have much to teach U.S. TAs in areas where their work goes deeper. The field in the United Kingdom (including Australia) is advanced in ways the U.S. field is not, and is arguably the world’s co-leader.
Back to our three teaching artist historical tracks. The artist training track might also be called the conservatory track. The U.S. can now boast the largest high-quality conservatory/university training system in the world, having earned unprecedented near parity among the many conservatory and university programs, which align with high arts training throughout Western culture, but exceed other countries in size and depth. Because our public schooling has such undistinguished arts education programs to feed this track (with some glorious exceptions), teaching artists have been used to supplement perennially-underfunded school arts programs in in-school and after-school programs, in community music and other arts schools and programs. Through most of the 20th century, schooling offered a “gifted and talented” track in music and the visual arts, while theater lived in and around English classes and dance held a place in physical education. Organizations outside of schools—music and visual arts schools, dance academies, theater programs and projects, programs at arts institutions, after school and during summers—have provided the essential education to feed the disciplinary training system. Teaching artists have appeared intermittently beside arts specialists in schools, and independently, as “enrichment” for over a century to expose kids to the feel and possibilities of the different art forms. The practices used in the conservatory track are not much different than those found throughout Western countries, and valuable as they are, this arts education track has not been the one to distinguish American teaching artistry. There is currently an exploration of the ways that teaching artistry can deepen the relevance, breadth, and effectiveness of more traditional conservatory traditions.
The second teaching artist track, the democratic impulse to provide all people, especially all young people, with arts experiences and opportunities has given birth to the power of teaching artistry. It makes sense that this phenomenon was born in the U.S. because it aligns with America’s history of establishing universal public education, a widespread public library system, the Settlement House movement, the progressive education movement, the WPA Artists Project, and so forth. Perhaps the need that drove the emergence of teaching artistry in the U.S. is less acute in other Western nations where cultural norms are more arts inclusive, holding expectations that every child will consistently participate in arts experiences. (I recall a conversation years ago with French arts educators about teaching artists. When I described how U.S. teaching artists turn young people on to the arts, making them aware of the importance and relevance of the arts, the French colleagues looked confused—they didn’t understand that special individuals were needed for this task because everyone in a young French person’s life took that necessity seriously.) Beginning as early as the 1830s, in the Boston area, the arts were brought into schools. As public schooling grew, so did the sense that the arts belonged as a part of citizenship preparation. Early in the 21st century, the arts were a norm in U.S. public schools. There were two main reasons for bringing the arts into schools: the inherent reasons that argued that artistic capacity was an essential part of becoming an educated person, and the instrumental reasons that argued that “the manual arts” (particularly music and the visual arts, still our dominant instruction disciplines) developed fine motor skills that prepared better workers for an industrial economy. It is interesting to note that the inherent and instrumental arguments are still used in arts education advocacy today, with the inherent arguments struggling for traction, and the instrumental view now arguing for the 21st century skills required in the workplace of the future. Throughout most of the 20th century, America believed that arts learning belonged in public school education—elementary school teachers across America were required to include the singing and drawing; basic piano skills were an early elementary school certification requirement. Middle schools were an uncertain few years for youth arts instruction, but high schools all offered various arts elective tracks and some general instruction for many.
This inherent valuing of the arts as a life priority being less true in the U.S. than in the Western European countries that we admired as models, cultural leaders have had to take a pro-active commitment to go out and include all young people in arts experiences, since schools didn’t care very much. The importance of such inclusion has become an article of faith for those in the arts; it is a social mission (an expensive one) we take on in an arts-ambivalent culture. School based programs have never been able to engage the entire youth population adequately, so teaching artists became a significant instrument of this endeavor. Special efforts have been made to engage young people on the low-end of the socio-economic scale, where arts access has always been even scarcer. (Similar efforts toward the “underserved” were not prioritized in most other Western nations until recently.) For some decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this inclusive impulse went so far as to propose that the arts were a primary way to socialize new immigrants and the poor, in the Settlement House movement. This sense of mission has been strongly influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey, which affirmed the essentialness of the arts in public education.
The third track of teaching artistry, the utilitarian, arises from this aspect of American-ness that choreographer Agnes De Mille noted: “We are a pioneer country. If you can’t mend a roof with it, if you can’t patch a boot with it, if you can’t manure your field with it or physic your child with it, it’s no damn good.” Individual teaching artists have entrepreneurially applied their skills to pioneer new kinds of work. Teaching artists work with corporations and within healthcare to help them achieve their goals, and the fastest area of employment growth is in creative aging—teaching artists working with older people, activating their artistry to reduce health care costs, improve morale in senior housing facilities, and increase longevity.
These three tracks—conservatory/specialist, democratic inclusion/generalist, and utilitarian still exist, usually in a healthy blend of impulses and intentions that makes them indistinguishable in practice. The following history provides a view of the growth of the role of teaching artistry from those lineages, its steady expansion into new capacities and professional aspirations, and its recent moves into whole new fields of endeavor.
RECENT HISTORY IN THE U.S.
Artists have visited schools, before and after the arts began to appear in the common public school curriculum after the turn into the 20th century. Throughout the 20th century, artists have been valued for providing schools with “enrichment experiences,” and were also seen as introducing career options, as firemen and doctors making elementary school appearances did. In my own elementary schooling in the 1950s, I recall the vivid impact of assembly programs in which performing artists spoke with and performed for us. Will Geer, a Broadway actor at the time, and social activist, later Grandpa on The Waltons, was one presenter who made a lifelong impression on me. The first national marker of this teaching artist commitment was the 1970 launch of a modest Artists-in-Schools Program at the recently established National Endowment for the Arts.
In the ‘60s, and ‘70s, outside-of-school arts education programs became more intentional in bringing performances and artists into schools. The predominant one-shot performances and lecture-demonstrations sometimes grew into longer durations, projects, and residencies. Schools had arts programs—perhaps modest, but present in almost all elementary schools, and turning into clear tracks for interested students in secondary schools. School orchestras, choruses and bands were widespread in the mid-20th century, and began to dwindle in number in later decades. The presence of the arts was consistent, plays, recitals, performances, and art displays were structural elements of the school year. The arts were valued for providing a “rounding out” of academic education, for social development, for building school community, and for serving the needs of the gifted and talented. Visiting artists added a distinctive extra shot of energy and excitement; as early as 1959, experiments like the Ford Foundation’s Composer in the Schools created three-year residencies for emerging composers like Philip Glass. Throughout this time, field trips to attend performances and museums were a regular feature of the school experience, and the instruction around and within such visits tended to be the delivery of information about the art.
Many artists were, and still are, naturally good teachers, and those who “had it” were the ones hired to bring their magic into the lives of students. The ability to engage students was seen as a personality feature, a kind of charisma—a la Leonard Bernstein, who was the international icon of this capacity. His Young People’s Concerts were a beloved and high-impact public beacon of teaching artistry, making a dramatic impression on an entire generation of Americans. Bernstein’s brilliance was so definitive, the arts world came to equate it with good teaching artistry, which was a mixed blessing. I still encounter vestiges of the “charisma trap” in less advanced arts learning programs, the uninformed belief that teaching artistry is for the subset of articulate artists with public charm, not that it is full of many roles, many capacities that can be developed, and truly the domain of all artists except a few who are just incapable of expanding their work in connection with others.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many if not most arts learning programs (both independent organizations and those connected to cultural institutions) became more complex, seeking to enhance the impact of the field trip and the artist’s presence in school. Hiring to teach in these programs sought the naturally gifted few; those who “had it”—meaning a charismatic flair to engage groups. Right into the ‘80s, most teaching artist hiring was based on the magical thinking that some had the gift and others didn’t, and you simply hired the ones who had it, and, bingo, capacity problem solved. Slowly, beginning perhaps in the mid ‘60s, recognition slowly arose that there were extended roles and some training necessary for artists to develop skills beyond performing and speaking engagingly. This training was not the traditional training in how to develop good artists, but rather, the beginnings of training in how to work with learners who were not already invested in an artform. The training was often informal, even perfunctory, but there was an emerging sense that artists were not automatically good teachers outside the narrow boundaries of their specific discipline training, and that there was something extra required to be effective with those who weren’t already inclined toward an artistic path. (We should note the contrary assumption within artistic disciplines. Those who have developed mastery are assumed to be good teachers, even when they are pedagogically mediocre or bad. Those teaching their art form to those who are committed to learning it generally teach pretty much as they were taught. This results in the widespread resistance to professional development about teaching techniques within conservatories and professional training programs. The fierce belief that traditions must be adhered to if quality is to be respected has a significant cost in sequestering the “high arts” from greater availability and connection to wider public interest. Teaching artistry is the solution to this challenge, but traditional training is still largely disinterested in including an expanded range of skills in their mainstream program. Only one conservatory in the U.S. (The Longy School of Music) currently has teaching artist capacity as a graduation requirement.)
Experimental programs in the ‘70s stepped up the use of artists and began to more widely recognize that more than personality magic was involved—they proposed that there were skills to be learned, and that artists could learn them. In line with this increase in experimentation was an increase in research on learning in the arts. The ‘70s also saw teaching artists beginning to move into the role of professional development of non-arts teachers; the idea was that training one teacher to make appropriate, effective use of arts learning could multiply the impact to 25 students in the classroom. This decade also saw pilot programs that included teaching artists in collaborative planning with educators, administrators, parents, and students trying to create richer school learning cultures. This impulse has popped up irregularly, irrepressibly, ever since, all around the country, with the arts offered as a school reform model in various ways, always with teaching artists in the mix of design and delivery.
During this time, there was a lingering cloud of “kiddie art” that hung over some of this development—condescending art, often of mediocre quality, that tainted the emergent sense of artistic legitimacy, and high-art standards, in the school endeavor. It was sometimes derisively referred to as “macaroni art” in reference to facile activities with pasta glued onto paper plates. There was a commercial aspect to the field of “artists in schools,” and the quality varied. A recurrent concern in the field that lingered (and some would claim still abides) is that many “consumers” of such offerings, the educators who book such events, are often themselves not artistically informed, and so can make choices based on other criteria (such as liveliness, curriculum-relatedness, price, convenience, or slick promotion) rather than quality. There were some teaching artists who were more adept in marketing themselves than in delivering high-quality arts learning.
In this late ‘70s mix, the term “teaching artist” arose, coined in the early ‘70s at Lincoln Center Institute (now Lincoln Center Education) in New York. A handful of other popular labels like “visiting artist” and “artist-in-residence,” and “artist-educator” arose and still are used. These labels acknowledged the necessity and value of artists who choose to develop educational skills as an intentional and connected part of their artistic careers. These terms distinguished an emerging role from the longtime jumble of arts in schooling offerings and practices.
This evolution of the role of teaching artists accelerated in the ‘80s. The reductions in school arts funding that began in the late ‘70s quickened in the Reagan Era, reversing a many-decades trend of steadily increasing arts education experiences for American youth. The cutbacks created a void in many young Americans’ experience of the arts. Cultural institutions rushed in with a sense of social responsibility and a sense of their own long-term interests in developing future audiences. Funders supported this impulse to fill the gap with increased ways for artists to work inside schools. A balance was shifting, and teaching artists were becoming significant players in this shift.
There was some tension in implementing these expanding and new programs, as non-school administrators and artists were often poor partners with in-school arts teachers. The “outsiders” were too often disinterested in the life of the arts in the schools they visited, sometimes even arrogantly disrespectful of the heroic and essential lifeline the “arts specialists” provided. These tensions have diminished over decades, with occasional re-eruptions whenever delicate balances are dislodged by circumstance or insensitive individuals. Some consistent underlying fears/angers that crack open under stress are: (for teachers) that teaching artists are a cheap way to replace “real” sequential arts learning programs and full-time teachers, and that teaching artists come in, stir things up that are not supportive of the ongoing work in the school, and then disappear. And (for teaching artists) that school programs are old-fashioned and dull, not good enough in quality or excitement to turn on the young, and that arts specialists are unable or unwilling to challenge students ambitiously and creatively.
At the same time, there were also nascent tensions between teaching artists and the arts institution administrations that employed them. Many artists felt they were treated disrespectfully as expendable labor, not as artists. They felt underpaid, argued about the extra hours they were required to put in for meetings and paperwork, and felt unheard about the very real perennial pressures of a freelancer’s life—rent, health care, job security, and work flexibility. In some larger institutions tensions rose to the point where teaching artist faculties formed official unions to deal with employment issues.
Whatever the tensions, the ‘80s was a rich time for exploration and experimentation in the field of teaching artistry, even as it was a stressful time for school arts programs. Indeed, there is some consistency to this pattern—diminishment of school arts program funding does lead to more experimentation in hiring teaching artists. Some opponents of the use of teaching artists in schools find a cause and effect relationship in this pattern, feeling the availability of less-expensive part-time teaching artists allows for the cutback of school programs. In my own observation and study of this claim, I have found only two or three situations that partly bear out this fear. In reality, I find many more situations in which teaching artists provide a stop gap place-holder for arts experiences that seek to, and not-infrequently are able to, reengage the school community in such a way that it chooses to reinvest in a full-time teacher and program. I find that stop-gap teaching artist programs provide an important function of keeping the presence of the arts alive when they are easily forgotten among stressed school priorities. I also find nearly all teaching artists to be active advocates for the hiring of full time arts teachers, even when talking themselves out of a job. A few programs have arisen to fast-track teaching artists to get public school certification so that they themselves can become the full-time teacher.
Intensive training programs in teaching artistry began to appear in this decade of the ’80s. As the professional development of teachers to partner with artists emerged, and the foundation understandings of the tools and skills of teaching artist increased, so arose the first sense that teaching artistry was more than just a kind of gig added on to an artist’s life, more than a particular kind of temp work. The idea of a “profession” of teaching artistry began.
In the ‘90s, the demands on teaching artists grew as programs explored deeper relationships with schools. It is fair to say that the ‘80s surfaced the power of teaching artistry, and the ‘90s sought to tap it, explore it, and deepen it in a variety of ways. There was an increase in the funding for experimental programs, models were developed and delved into various aspects of arts in education. Several organizations launched national programs to introduce particular models of arts learning to schools across the country, all using teaching artists, and some explicitly presenting themselves as school reform efforts. Teaching artists were asked to become partnership-builders. It’s interesting to note that teaching artist training rarely included skills of partnership-building which was required of them; and many teaching artists struggle in that role to this day.
National education policy mandated the establishment of voluntary national standards in all essential subjects—initially excluding the arts, but include dance, drama, music and the visual arts in a second wave of standards. These national standards were developed with little participation of teaching artists; and then state standards emerged with only slightly more participation by teaching artists. However, as explicit connections to state standards became a requirement for all in-school instruction, teaching artists were given the added responsibility of identifying the ways in which their work with students aligned with published standards. After some initial resistance, teaching artists complied and soon found the task was not intrusive. Over time, the task of “connecting to the standards” subsided from the original aspirations of many to use them to more deeply embed artistic traditions of quality into school arts practices to a largely connect-the-dots administrative exercise that teaching artists had to fulfill to be allowed to work in schools.
Teaching artists were increasingly asked to contribute to the assessment and evaluation of the work in their programs. This also met with some initial resistance, with teaching artists fearing that assessment meant “grading” creative work and that it would diminish the very core of their power with young people and the joy they found in the work. Over time, most teaching artists have adapted healthily to the assessment challenge, finding that documentation and assessment of a few selected aspects of the learning does not damage the quality of the learning, but indeed illuminates accomplishments for the learners, the educators involved, and for those who support the programs. Many teaching artists became adept and creative assessors, contributing new tools and practices to the field. Some became part of formal research programs that sought to clarify and verify aspects of arts learning practice and impact.
Teaching artists became more involved in designing and leading teacher professional development; and in settings where improved evaluation had revealed program weaknesses, teaching artists were sometimes invited to try new methods. They were drawn into advocacy for arts education programs. They took on more responsibility in curriculum design and even program design. They were asked to take on roles as facilitators of planning and partnership building. Entrepreneurially-inclined teaching artists launched independent programs, some of which grew to significant size and impact and still thrive.
Conservatories and university training programs introduced courses and even sequences of courses that could be called training programs to offer teaching artist training as a part of conservatory/university training. An increasing number of high profile arts organizations chose to deepen their investment in teaching artists, to go beyond “exposure” programs and brief residencies, to train artists for programs that aspired to significant impact with young people.
Teaching artists became further involved in arts-integrated programs that wove arts learning with other subject areas. The pedagogical connections between arts and other subject learning have long been exploited by good teachers—I recall working on a beautiful fifth grade rain cycle diorama, and doing role play in seventh grade history class, with nary a teaching artist in sight. Teaching artists sometimes participated in interdisciplinary teaching as early as the ‘70s. By the ‘90s, arts integration had grown into an important part of the whole arts education landscape. I refer to it as the great gamble: that by bringing arts learning into the instruction of other subjects (which still are assessed for that other subject’s accomplishments and not the art’s), both kinds of learning can be advanced in ways they couldn’t be when separate. The losing side of the gamble appears if the arts are allowed to serve as a handmaiden to pep up the a dull curriculum—they lose their identity and are valued only to the degree that they can produce results in the other content area. However, if arts-integration is effective, we win—both subject areas are advanced as a result of being brought together. Not only have students discovered relevance in the content areas, but everyone involved viscerally understands afresh the power of the arts, and students develop some new artistic capacities and ways of thinking within the discipline they studied. Teaching artists have been prominent inventers, practitioners, and advocates in this great gamble, among the fiercest protectors of the quality and equality of the arts component in the curricular mix.
During this time, a sense of teaching artistry as a profession began to emerge. While “the gig” mindset continued for many who chose to develop these skills (or at least cash in as they could using their natural instincts yet avoiding explicit training), others began to see teaching artistry as a part of a larger concept of an artist’s career. There was a nascent sense that one’s work as a teaching artist informed and enriched ones work as an artist, as ones interests and processes as an artist continually energized and developed ones work as a teaching artist. There was a felt-sense that the two aspects together formed a new and enriched whole life as an artist.
Toward the end of the ‘90s, tipping into the new century, the term teaching artist seemed to gain general acceptance, and was adopted (without fanfare, or at least accommodated) by programs that had used other terms. The first full-time contracts for teaching artists appeared; a national website with resources and an informative listserve appeared (the Association of Teaching Artists); a peer reviewed professional journal appeared; regional professional development opportunities popped up to answer local interest and need. A little later, a few degree/certification programs for teaching artists were established at universities, high profile Fellowships were launched, a national award program arose (and sadly disappeared), and a first textbook by a major publisher appeared.
A decade into the 21st century, the evolution continued at a fast pace. The Teaching Artist Research Project (TARP) from NORC at the University of Chicago (the first national study of teaching artists) asserts the following: As of 2011, the mean age of teaching artists was 45 years old; over half had 10+ years of experience; stayed with employers six years or more on average; earned a mean of $17,000/year from teaching artist work, just under half of their personal earnings; and were motivated predominantly by love of their artform and of teaching and the wish to contribute to their community. Fully 90% say their teaching artistry has had a positive impact on their artistry, and 84% would take more teaching artist work if it were available.
As the field has grown, expectations have increased, and inherent “professional” frustrations also increase. The predominant frustrations are (according to TARP): a persistent lack of visibility and respect for the role and skills of good teaching artists; low pay and lack of other kinds of respectful support like health insurance and job security; an employment ceiling—in most programs, there are few if any ways that greater skill can grow into greater responsibility and more challenging, more remunerative work. Frustrations increase because economic recessions impact teaching artist employment levels significantly; schools in general (with beloved exceptions) have become more difficult and less rewarding as teaching artist partners they have struggled in the No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds eras. TARP found that dissatisfaction increases slowly with experience in teaching artist’s careers. There is no reason to doubt that the TARP findings about teaching artist work have changed significantly since 2011.
There are some changes in the field. A deepened determination to address the racial disparities in the field—a large majority of teaching artists being white, and a large majority of those they serve in schools being young people of color. The work in schools is still the largest share of employment in the U.S., but that share is decreasing as other areas increase in employment. And the field is coming to understand itself more in global terms, as the International Teaching Artist Conferences (ITAC) and now the ITAC Collaborative build a global network of artists who work in communities and schools.
There is an unmistakable trend, perhaps even an evolutionary impulse, to expand the power of teaching artistry. This force and its decades of recent history since the growth spurt in the ‘80s have carved their deepest U.S. expression in schools. That is the laboratory within which most of the formative energy, and articulation of practice of teaching artistry in the U.S. has been dedicated and grown. However, in the last two decades, within the priorities of public schooling, many of those dedicated to arts learning and to teaching artistry have found school partnering to be a less effective way to deliver the power of the arts. In recent years, I have heard deep frustrations with these limitations, especially as financial crises forced cutbacks in many programs that were already struggling for support. The impulse to make use of the power of teaching artistry has hit a blockage in schools, at the same time that savvy people in other professions are recognizing the power of teaching artistry. The result has been an increasing proliferation of new ways that teaching artistry is explored and developed. The largest share of paid teaching artist work in the U.S. still takes place in schools, much of it good, and holding its own, but other areas have captured more of the innovative, exploratory energy. Excellent after-school arts learning programs have gained visibility and support, especially in economically disadvantaged areas. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities gave out annual awards for exemplary programs, until 2016 when it was disbanded under the new President Trump. Summer programs have been growing, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, even as arts camps for more affluent young people grow stronger. Programs that bring teaching artists into correctional facilities, hospitals, and other social service settings are increasing. The emergent field of “creative aging,” founded by a teaching artist, now has a center in Washington DC and hires teaching artists across the country—demand for teaching artists who work well with seniors outstrips supply. Teaching artists work increasingly with and within corporations, and even in planning commissions and municipal governments. Teaching artists have been central in the well-funded “creative placemaking” movement that revitalizes neighborhoods.
The beginnings of even deeper models of work with young people have appeared in ArtistYear and other service programs which aspire to Peace Corps understandings for teaching artists working full time in inner cities, including in schools, to build community through music. Similar programs take teaching artists to work in foreign countries. The explosion of the El Sistema movement in the U.S., inspired by the Venezuelan music learning system, challenges teaching artists to revise the way they were taught music to develop a new curriculum of holistic child development through intensive afterschool ensemble music instruction for young people in underserved and socially stressed communities. Teaching artists in this stream of work join the social service moment. They revert to the time before “art for art’s sake” when humans believed in “art for many sakes.” In this view, the purpose of art is not to provide a particular exquisite kind of aesthetic experience of deep value, but rather, the purposes of art are manifold. Engagement in art accomplishes many worthwhile ends, including aesthetic, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and practical. It heals, and teaches, and changes people’s actions, and changes the directions of people’s lives. Teaching artists join forces with community development and youth development colleagues, bringing a powerful new tool to the creative youth development field. There are some 130 such programs in the U.S. as of this writing. This thread hearkens back to the enthusiasm of the Settlement House movement, where some claim teaching artistry was born. We have begun to see this work funded in new and promising ways—juvenile justice money, gang violence reduction funds, poverty reduction programs invested in arts learning and teaching artists. An old-new territory inviting teaching artists to homestead.
As the buzzword of “creativity” in business and education becomes more prevalent, with the arts conspicuously absent from mainstream and policy discussions (although recently beginning to find a seat at the table, after the first courses have been served), there is an opportunity for the arts to make an authentic and dramatic contribution to an emerging educational trend that has wide interest. People in the arts have been weak in providing clear and compelling contributions to the discussion; indeed, arts people have been less able to articulate well what they bring to the movement than other fields like science and engineering have been. This situation presents a great opportunity for teaching artists to step forward and provide the language that can bring the arts into active play. Teaching artists are well positioned to do this since they lead the field in clarity and communications about artistic processes and their place in learning.
At the completion of the second decade of the new century, I see two models of the way teaching artistry is developing. I would like to introduce them both. The first is an analysis of the seven strands in the arts learning ecosystem, and where teaching artists fit into each. The second describes the three ways that practitioners can think about their work as a teaching artist. These models intend to illuminate natural distinctions in interrelated practice rather than encourage the development of new silos of separation.
Purpose Threads of the Teaching Artist Profession
[As used in the Lincoln Center Education Teaching Artist Development Labs]
Traditionally, the national field of artists who work in education and community setting (including practitioners and those who train and employ them) has been 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,” “citizen artists,” “social practice artists,” and an additional dozen sub-sets that are less common. These traditions underscore 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, with multiple employers across the misleading segmentation, and also working independently—there is far more cohesion and commonality than traditional thinking recognizes.
The following “purpose threads” propose a different framework for understanding the field: to organize it around the different purposes for which teaching artists are employed. The key question becomes: What is the primary purpose of the project? I have found that the wide range of teaching artist employment can be distilled to seven main purposes, plus one additional one that is a little different but is helpful to name. These purposes are never entirely discrete in practice, of course; they naturally overlap, and there are many elements that appear in the work of all threads.
Thinking about purpose threads prompts valuable questions for practitioners, program leaders and funders, particularly: “What is most important to aim for this work?” and “What should we assess about the impact of this work to determine its effectiveness?”
The Seven (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. To enhance the life of communities.
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.
Let’s briefly explore the world of each Purpose, and then acknowledge practices that apply across all seven.
Work of art. Purpose: To enhance the encounter with art works.
This is the goal of “outreach” and “community partnerships” in many arts organizations: to introduce, excite, and interest people in their art offerings. TAs accomplish this goal in many ways, in many settings, most commonly in preparation for people to engage with artworks in a museum or performance venue.
Art skills development. Purpose: To deepen the development of art-making skills.
The primary goal of a TA is to activate the artistry of others, and personal artistry is not always a high priority in artist training. Arts teachers who do prioritize it are aligned with teaching artistry, are teaching artists. TAs believe that investing in the development of personal artistry while developing technique produces better artists.
Arts integration. Purpose: To catalyze the learning of non-arts content.
Arts integration brings arts learning together with learning other material so that both will advance further and delve deeper than they would if taught separately. This can be a hard balancing act because one can dominate the other—either making the arts a handmaiden to pep up a boring curriculum or using a subject area connection to legitimize an arts project. Usually the TA leads this partnership, and must show discipline to ensure a healthy balance.
Community. Purpose: To enhance the life of communities.
This has been the domain of “community artists,” a deep, historic, and proud tradition, vibrant around the world, in which artists serve community needs. From Theater for Social Development across Africa, to 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.
Activism. Purpose: To impact a political or social movement.
Often connected to the community life thread, with a long history, sometimes including artworks labeled “propaganda,” this work often intends to be controversial or provocative. It includes Theater of the Oppressed, street theater, group singing, political artworks, graffiti, and public artworks to change minds, challenge ideas, and build solidarity. This thread appears widely.
Social/personal development. Purpose: To develop personal or social capacities.
In this fast-growing thread, teaching artists, or “social practice artists” often work with social service organization partners to achieve social goals. This is the thread of El Sistema around the world, of creative aging, of many prison and juvenile detention programs, and of creative youth development.
Partnering for non-art goals. Purpose: To achieve goals important to other institutions.
The range of experimentation in this thread is broad (thus its generic title), comprised of artists applying their skills, for example, with businesses to increase innovation, teamwork or to boost creativity; with doctors in training to sharpen diagnostic acuity and build patient empathy; with planning commissions to bring creative vitality to urban planning.
+ Digital. Purpose: To activate personal artistry in digital media.
This isn’t really a thread because it isn’t a purpose but a domain, but we include it because digital media absorbs so much attention, and so little of it serves the TA goal of enhancing personal artistry. We urge teaching artists who use electronic media to go beyond utilitarian usage to innovate in ways that bring their TA skills into that media.
ACROSS ALL PURPOSE THREADS
Some essential teaching artist practices apply across all Purpose Threads. Certainly, culturally responsive design and facilitation are omnipresent in all work of teaching artists, and require front-burner attention in all situations to overcome entrenched habits of unconscious bias. The following points come from documents used in the Lincoln Center Education Teaching Artist Development Labs.
- The Fundamentals of Teaching Artistry, with its six features, apply to all threads. http://ericbooth.net/the-fundamentals-of-teaching-artistry
- So do the following “Four Core Concepts” of Lincoln Center Education Teaching Artist Lesson Design: Art-Making, Questioning, Reflecting, Including Contextual Information.
Art-making: In every thread, TAs guide participants to make things they care about, to balance their attention toward process and product, and to seek artistic satisfaction in the quality of the final result and its offer to the world.
Questioning: Questioning is used throughout all teaching artist practice, for a multitude of specific purposes. It requires the skill of offering and discovering great questions and of guiding participants’ answering processes. Consistent and curious questioning establishes the teaching artist environment and builds habits for participants to develop and pursue answering their own questions.
Reflecting: As John Dewey proposed, “If we do not reflect on our experiences, we do not learn from them.” Teaching artists guide participants to “bend back” (the etymological meaning of reflect) their experiences toward themselves to grab essential elements that give them ownership and advance the particular purpose of the work.
Including Contextual Information: Artistic experiences do not live in a vacuum; they must connect to lived life to gain relevance and power. The TA finds organic ways to stimulate those connections and share relevant information at teachable moments. The contextual information that is shared situates the artistic experiences within the particular purpose thread.
- Many other tools of teaching artistry that I have detailed in other writing apply in all threads: e.g. engagement before information, entry point, high priority on personal relevance, warm-ups, culminating events, scaffolding, use of fun/play, enabling constraints, focus on choice making, tapping competence, pre- and post-self-assessment, and many more.
THREE WAYS OF VIEWING TEACHING ARTIST PRACTICE
The emerging profession of teaching artistry is developing into three kinds of expression, which I will call:
- A tool in the kitbag;
- An in-depth component to an artist’s life;
- A whole new world.
It may well be argued that these distinctions are actually just different locations upon a single continuum of teaching artist activity. For the sake of clarity in this essay, I will address them separately, without belaboring the connections, or restating the reality that they are permeable membranes that allow changes throughout ones career.
A tool in the artist’s kitbag: Most artists recognize they are going to teach at some point in their careers—research suggests that ninety-something percentage will. Many recognize that teaching artist skills will help them be more effective when they teach, that they will be able to benefit from that income stream, and that they can add education-related offerings to their creative work. Many, if not most, small (and not so small) arts ensembles find that their education work keeps them financially afloat; and those with innovative and highly effective educational offerings can consistently boost their bookings. However much teaching artists on this track enjoy and value their educational work, they often bring a “gig” mentality to it, feeling it stands apart from their main artistic aspirations. And if they didn’t “have to do it” for financial reasons, they would do less or none.
In-depth component artist’s life: Some artists invite teaching artistry into a more central place in their hearts, minds, spirits, and expectations. They blur the distinction between their art making and their teaching work because it blurs naturally in their personal experience. They find a healthy synergy between the two, and they have a taste for the pleasures and provocations of the mix. For example, an unexpected statement or creative idea from a participant resonates deeply enough to invite some rethinking of work they are doing in rehearsal. Or the theme they are exploring in their art-making colors their life so interestingly that they are eager to bring it into their work with young participants.
These artists/teaching artists are making a mark on the field, changing the definition of success, expanding traditional terms and limits, brushing aside old silos of artistic identity and practice. These are artists who can move into non-arts settings and engage the artistry of any participant to achieve many different kinds of goals. These are the artists with the understandings and skills to reignite the relevance and value of the arts for the ninetysomething percentage of Americans who are not in the “art club”—the fortunate group with an arts background who understand, value and actively participate in the languages and locations of the high arts. The arts club feels at home in arts buildings, knows how to enter the world of a complex artwork and make relevant meaning, even an artwork that is difficult; they know how to turn information about the arts (written material, lectures) into rewarding arts experiences. Non-arts club individuals (the vast majority of Americans) struggle to do those things, and thus avoid or feel disconnected from “the arts.” Teaching artists open the walls of the arts club, enabling everyone to actively participate and find the pleasure of relevant, meaningful artistic experiences. These teaching artists increasingly recognize that the artistic experiences they evince can happily, healthily, and authentically be applied outside artistic media, in any medium into which an individual chooses to pour her artistic self.
A whole new world: In recent years, the evolution of teaching artistry has begun to distinguish a new identity. Certainly, there have been individuals and small organizations dedicated in this way for a long time, but there has been an increase in activity and awareness that invites us to identify a new species. Some teaching artists have a vision and/or a fire in the gut so strong that they are creating a whole new level of investing their artist-selves. These pioneers have moved beyond the traditional understandings of what an artist does to inhabit a new space. As the physicist David Bohm said, “Any time you see seeming polarities, look for the greater truth that contains them both.” Given the traditional conceptual framework of art and education as separate but related endeavors, these artists have not only identified the greater truth that contains them both, but they yearn to live there. These are artists, like Gustavo Dudamel, who experiences the same artistic joy and satisfaction conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as working on a reduced version of it with an inner city children’s orchestra. These are artists like Liz Lerman whose definition of dancers includes everyone, and whose subjects and purposes for dance extend to community development, scientific understanding, and more. These are the artists who see the pre-performance contact, the lobby activities and program, the post-show encounters as equal opportunities for artistic engagement in the artist’s aspiration. These are the artists, like those in Community Music Works and Streb Ringside Sport Dance, who choose to reside in the community with which they engage. These artists do not strive to engage people in the relevance of their artwork—they don’t have to—because the authentic expression of their artist-selves emerges from its relevance among the people they live, learn and experiment with. Perhaps the pioneers of this track need a new label, since they live on the common ground of art and community learning; and they live, create, and bring others to that long-lost commons.
These three expressions of teaching artistry are all good. Certainly there are greater numbers of individuals in the first group than the second, and in the second than the third. A majority of American artists still do not even identify themselves as being part of any of the groups—they believe their job is to make art. Period. And to do some teaching on the side. Their own teachers probably believed that, and their teacher’s teachers probably believed that when they were learning in a very different era. I worry less about their resistance or their dismissal of the emerging changes in the careers of artists and the viability of teaching artistry than I used to. They have many valid perspectives, and cultural evolution will bring to many of the most rigid of them some “change or die” moments sooner or later. I am heartened by a growing belief in the arts that this evolutionary process is not only unavoidable but also positive—think apes rather than dinosaurs—we are not losing our soul, but expanding authentically into new realities as the arts have always done. I believe “whole new world” artists are our essential innovators, quietly changing our sense of the possible and developing a new feel for the delightful and the worthwhile. I believe that those who live with teaching artistry as an “in-depth component” of their careers are the examplars of success who will demonstrate what careers can become, other than the few who achieve celebrity, so that young artists and those who train artists can adjust their frameworks of expectation and join the evolutionary process.
In 2017, Animating Democracy published Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change. It quietly challenged the hegemony of traditional criteria of artistic quality, as taught in most universities and powerful arts institutions, and as the only legitimate way to determine quality in the arts. This expanded set of ways to identify excellence provides teaching artists and community artists with powerful new ways to illuminate and celebrate the excellence they see in their work, even when it doesn’t meet high-arts-preferred standards. These two documents introduce the use of this tool for teaching artists. http://www.animatingdemocracy.org/aesthetic-perspectives and http://www.animatingdemocracy.org/resource/teaching-artist-companion
Those with teaching artist skills, even if used only with a “gig” mentality, are the ballast that give weight and authority to the emerging redirection of the arts. They help us learn how to maintain high quality as we expand to include those who are now uninvolved in “arts” offerings. They reduce the fear of change to welcome new definitions of art, new ways of thinking about how art serves life, and radiate the deeper pleasures of an expanded life in the arts. They demonstrate vividly how the arts can thrive outside arts institutions and buildings, engaging the vast majority of the population that is unengaged, in order to inquire into a variety of different purposes, and to revitalize the life of arts institutions and communities in the process.
Personally, I feel extremely lucky. What a gift of fortune to have my work years coincide with a period of rapid evolution in the field I love. If we assume teaching artistry began when a cave dweller taught someone younger about drawing on walls, and guided the rest of the cave dwellers in ways to respond to the drawings, then how lucky are we to be living during the time of explosive expansion of this role. I have been able to witness a change process that accelerated while I happened to be watching and contributing. You may not have felt it until now, but you are equally lucky to be invited to witness, contribute to, and even lead in an emergent field that can change the world in ways it desperately needs and is slowly discovering it wants.
In 2015 Eric Booth was given the nation’s highest award in arts education, and was named one of the 25 most influential people in the arts in the U.S. In 2019, The National Guild for Community Arts Education gave him their Service Award. He is the only recipient of an honorary doctorate for his work as a teaching artist (New England Conservatory 2012.) He began as a Broadway actor, and became a businessman (his company became the largest of its kind in the U.S. in 7 years), and author of seven books, the most recent are Playing for Their Lives and Tending the Perennials. He has been on the faculty of Juilliard (12 years), Tanglewood (5 years), The Kennedy Center (20 years), and Lincoln Center Education (for 40 years, where now he is a leader of their Teaching Artist Development Labs). He serves as a consultant for many arts organizations (including seven of the ten largest U.S. orchestras), cities, states and businesses around the U.S. and around the world. He is one of the world’s authorities on the global El Sistema movement. A frequent keynote speaker, he keynoted UNESCO’s first world arts education conference, and he founded the International Teaching Artist Conferences and Collaborative. Website : ericbooth.net