The History of Teaching Artistry

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:
Where we come from, are, and are heading

December 2010

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 fast-growing teenager—past puberty 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; I hope they provide useful distinctions to elucidate our 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 a first national research study coming to fruition. 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 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, no national certification processes (although local and regional processes are developing), no central location, no suggested sets of curricula, no designated advocates (although many advocate out of personal mission). This lack of key organizing elements 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.

A working definition: “A teaching artist is a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills, curiosities and habits of mind of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in, through, and about the arts.” 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 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 being an alloy.

It’s tempting to trace the roots of teaching artistry back to cave painters 32,000 years ago. Those artistic traditions lasted some 22,000 years with remarkable consistency in style and technique. While we cannot be sure of the meaning or purpose of their 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. I like to think of the ice 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 too, suggesting that visual arts and music were the more dominant arts as they have been in U.S. schooling.

Speeding ahead to the modern era, teaching artistry grows from the soil of two different artistic traditions: 1) the training of artists and 2) the democratic impulse to include everyone in the cultural commons. These two traditions map roughly as the specialist and the generalist or democratic tracks. Let’s pause for a quick worldview before returning to these two tracks.

At UNESCO’s first-ever worldwide arts education conference (Lisbon 2006), I discovered what an undistinguished place the U.S. holds in the world landscape. Indeed, UNESCO originally forgot to invite America to the conference (partly because we have been unreliable supporters 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 the most advanced in the world: 1) the breadth and quality of conservatory 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) teaching artists. The U.S. has the best teaching artists in the world, the most advanced understanding of teaching artist practices, and the broadest application of those capacities in an increasing number of settings.

Back to our two 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 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. 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.

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 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. Soon after the end of the nineteenth 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, with the inherent arguments struggling for traction, and the instrumental view now arguing for the 21st century learning 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 teach the arts (basic piano skills were a 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 we looked to as models, cultural leaders have assumed a pro-active commitment to go out and include all young people in arts experiences. 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.

These two tracks—conservatory/specialist and democratic inclusion/generalist both still exist, usually in a healthy mix of impulses 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.

Artists have always 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. 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 with public charm, not that it is full of many roles, many capacities that can be developed, and truly the domain of all but an obdurate few.

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; indeed, 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 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, and even perfunctory, but there was an emerging sense that artists were not automatically good teachers, and that there was something extra required to be effective with those who weren’t already inclined toward an artistic path.

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. 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, or convenience) than quality. There were some teaching artists who were slicker in marketing themselves than in delivering high-quality arts learning. In this late ‘70s mix, the term “teaching artist” arose, along with a handful of other popular labels like “visiting artist” and “artist-in-residence,” and “artist-educator.” These labels were an acknowledgement of 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 program 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 slashed open a void in young American’s experience of the arts; tapping their entrenched sense of social responsibility, cultural institutions rushed in to provide more experiences for students. Funders supported the 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—often disinterested in the life of the arts in the schools they visited, and 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” 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 to turn on the young, and that arts specialists are unable or unwilling to engage students ambitiously and creatively.) There were also nascent tensions between teaching artists and the arts institution administrations that employed them, to the degree that one faculty formed an official union, organized under the United Federation of Teachers.

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 with 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 occasional situations that seem to bear out this fear. However, 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.

Intensive training programs appeared 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, a particular kind of temp work.

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.

Voluntary national standards were established for dance, drama, music and the visual arts with little evident participation of teaching artists; and state standards emerged with 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 more deeply embed artistic traditions of quality into school arts practices to a largely connect-the-dots administrative task 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 many locations were invited to try new methods based on improved evaluation of existing programs that had revealed their weaknesses. 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 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 my 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 other subjects—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—everyone involved viscerally understands afresh the power of the arts, and students develop some new artistic capacities and ways of thinking. 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 one’s interests and processes as an artist continually energized and developed one’s 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. (In the final section of this essay, I introduce the three tracks I currently see within the profession of teaching artistry.)

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) 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; a peer reviewed professional journal appeared; regional professional development opportunities popped up to answer local interest and need. A little later, 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 has 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: Currently the mean age of teaching artists is 45 years old; over half have 10+ years of experience; stay with employers six years or more on average; earn a mean of $17,000/year from teaching artist work, just under half of their personal earnings; and are 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 work. Frustrations increase because national 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 Era. TARP found that dissatisfaction increases slowly with experience in teaching artist’s careers.

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 expression in schools. That is the laboratory within which most of the energy and practice of teaching artistry has been dedicated and grown. However, in the last decade, the No Child Left Behind era of 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 damaging cutbacks in many programs that were already struggling for support. The evolutionary 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 majority of teaching artist work 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 inner city settings. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities gives out annual awards for exemplary programs. Summer programs have been growing, especially in inner cities, 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.

The beginnings of even deeper models of work with young people have appeared in Artist Corps and MusicianCorps, which aspire to Peace Corps understandings for teaching artists working full time in inner cities, including in schools, to build community through music. 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. 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, and spiritual. 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 social service movement. 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 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.

As we complete this first 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 six strands in the arts learning ecosystem, and where teaching artists fit into each. The second describes the three tracks within teaching artistry itself that seem to be presenting themselves to practitioners. These models intend to illuminate natural distinctions in interrelated practice rather than encourage the development of new silos of separation.


I use the term “arts learning” ecosystem rather than the more common “arts education” because the field is larger than the school connotations of the word education. While most of teaching artist work does happen in schools, teaching artists increasingly work in a variety of settings—from arts institutions to nursing homes to hospitals to corporate board rooms. Arts education professionals, as well as those with only a vague sense of the field, tend to blur the distinctions among these six, viewing them as one giant undertaking, rather than interdependent and overlapping elements. These six do not function in discrete, exclusive ways, in reality or in good practice. However, there is a value in clarifying the distinctions, pointing out the differences in their goals, beliefs, locations and delivery systems, and the different roles that teaching artists take within each strand. The sequence in which the six are presented does not suggest any kind of prioritization, and so, are not numbered.

  • Arts appreciation
  • Skill building within an artform
  • Aesthetic development
    • Arts integration
  • Community arts
  • Extensions

Arts Appreciation
Main purpose: Teach about art.

This kind of traditional arts education relies heavily, almost entirely, on giving information as the path to greater appreciation. We associate this thread with academia (college survey courses, general music in primary and secondary schools), but it appears in lecture series, pre-concert events, in parents telling children about the arts. Its strength can lie in the profundity of the arts and in the knowledge of most presenters; its weaknesses are its reliance on telling (and showing) and the belief that information is a powerful way to open up the power of the arts.

Today, fewer and fewer Americans can take that kind of information presentation and turn it into powerful personal experiencing in listening to the music, in grasping the visceral language of the dance. This is the thread of connoisseurship and has the taint of elitism and higher education. It tends to ignore or assume the learner’s motivation. Its effectiveness is most often assessed by testing the retention and mastery of the information given. This thread produces effective results for those already in “the art club”—the small percentage of Americans (maybe six to eight percent of the population) who already feel they belong inside an artform, know how to speak and make meaning in its language based on experience and instruction in their background. This thread can also be effective with those who are excited by the lecture format, and those with academic aspirations in their listening. Many people in the arts have had life-transformative experiences of brilliant teachers who were masters of this thread, who may or may not be termed teaching artists.

Teaching artistry doesn’t have much of a place in this thread. Some individuals with teaching artist skills do participate in this strand, but there is limited play for their teaching artistry within its historical goals. Teaching artistry does not happily limit itself to the goal of teaching about art; a good TA giving a lecture instinctively expands the goal of the occasion to include elements of the other strands below. There are extraordinary examples of teaching artists leading college level courses that introduce the arts in innovative, highly engaging, distinctive ways that do not rely on information transmission as the key tool in developing arts appreciation.

Skill Building within an Artform

Main purpose: Teach you how.

This is the artist training strand, containing the many ways in which motivated people gain the skills, knowledge, lore, and savvy of an artform. All teachers dedicated to bringing young talent into the artform and developing that talent as far as it can go belong to this same strand—from a pre-school music teacher through the top masters at the top training programs and conservatories.

Some say this purpose is exactly what distinguishes teaching artists from other artists who teach—TAs do not train young artists for the professional track. It is said that the stern advanced ballet instructor at the School of American Ballet is not a TA. In truth, it’s not so simple—if she is exclusively focused on technique, perhaps she is not exactly a teaching artist; but if, as is likely, she teaches about musical elements, opens up connections between ballet and life…who are we to say she isn’t a teaching artist? And what does it matter anyway? Let’s err on the side of inclusion.

This thread is doing very well in music and visual arts, although some argue it is less vibrant in other artforms. It is fair to say that the technical training of musicians in conservatories and university programs is at the highest level ever; and many report a healthy vibrancy in the visual arts training—the number of students taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement exam in Studio Art increases every year. A weakness of this thread is that the students, the world, and the professional field are changing faster than the training programs. This creates a tension between the skills being prioritized and those needed to live a full, rewarding life in the arts. I believe this strand is in the slow process of redefining the essential skills of the 21st century artist. This strand will eventually include teaching artist capacity as an essential capacity in the artist’s kitbag, thus redefining the very nature of this strand. Since this is the most ancient of the arts learning strands, going back to epochs before the arts were distinguished from the essentials of community life, the emerging change in its lineage identity is historically unprecedented.

Many teaching artists also teach in private lesson settings and in schools of different art forms. They tend to be excellent arts teachers, highly effective at fulfilling the goals of this strand, as they use their expanded education skills to personalize, deepen and intensify their students’ learning journeys.

Aesthetic Development
Its purpose: Invite you in.

Although the word aesthetic sounds esoteric, this thread is the antidote to elitism. This is the learning that opens up the power of the arts to the widest number of people. The need for this thread has grown steadily as the culture changes. I believe that the gap between the sense of having a rightful, meaningful place in the arts and the average citizen’s sense of self has never been greater for any culture in human history.

Teaching artists are the masters of this strand of arts learning. If magic is defined as the experience of a result without an awareness of the process, then teaching artists are the shamans of the magic of the arts. They know and are able to open up the processes, and enable a wide variety of people to discover the power of meaningful, personally relevant arts experiences.

This strand of arts learning develops audience skills—the cognitive, emotional and spiritual tools to set aside caution and prejudices in order to enter artworks and make meaningful connections. This strand taps innate aesthetic competences, so that people can enter the arts without having to build up skills or formal knowledge in a discipline. This strand can involve the development of critical capacity too, and these analytic skills are quite different from audience skills. The skills of the critic include the use of prior knowledge to make judgments of quality, to place artworks in contexts and illuminate aspects of them; audience skills, by contrast, are about willing suspension of disbelief, wholehearted entry into the world of an artwork and discovery inside it. Of course the two work well together, naturally interweave, but we tend to train neither and live with sloppy examples of both. Our cultural disregard for both skill sets leads to disrespect for both roles—current audience behavior often makes it hard to attend fully, and we now conflate the artistic role of the critic with the commercial role of the reviewer who helps people make good decisions about where to invest their discretionary time and money.

As the importance of this thread expands with the necessity and difficulty of attracting new audiences to traditional arts offerings, the demand for teaching artists rises. I believe it will rise so high that teaching artistry will come to be seen as an essential tool of the 21st century artist, and as an essential capacity of arts organizations.

Our culture is coming to a new understanding of “aesthetic capacity” that takes it off the elitist periphery and brings it closer to everyday concerns. Cognitive psychologists and educators are discovering that the aesthetic component is fundamental to all learning and is a crucial element of great schooling, not just a special skill for those few on an arts path. I will often start a speech to non-arts audiences with a pop quiz: “How many have made an important business or personal decision recently based on your high school algebra or trigonometry? [Few hands are raised.] How many have made an important business or personal decision recently based on aesthetics?—and let me add that includes not only the appearance of things, but also a choice based on a gut feeling, applying a lesson from a previous experience, using intuition? [All hands go up.] Well, now that we have redefined aesthetics and established its importance to our lives, let’s talk about art.” Neuro-scientists even admit that the formative process that transforms endocepts (pre-thought) into identifiable entities we can call thoughts is informed by aesthetic considerations as much as any other—our innate aesthetic capacity even determines the very thoughts we can have.

And about that word aesthetic. Its etymological meaning has nothing to do with esoteric or intellectual processes; it means to perceive. The philosopher John Dewey once remarked that he was unable to define the word aesthetic, but that he did know its opposite was anesthetic. That is the aesthetic development teaching artists most value—waking people up from the somnolence propagated by our aggressively anesthetizing commercial culture, to see the beauty, meaning, humanity, courage and joy around us.

Arts Integration
Its purpose: Catalyze learning.

This is the biggest experiment in arts education in America, probably the world, today. It is a crucial experiment because so many programs are placing their chips on its essential gamble: by bringing arts learning together with learning other subject matter, both can go further as a result. In the early going of this experiment, results are mixed.

Teaching artists stand out front in this experiment. They are asked to collaborate with other educators in designing and often in leading such projects. The stakes are high—the arts are easily used as window dressing to pep up a boring curriculum. But the potential to expand the presence and power of the arts in young lives is real, and in my view, generally, where teaching artists are centrally involved (and given adequate resources) in an arts integration program, the arts component is well represented and the gamble pays off well. Many school districts that follow this model remark on how invigorating it is for classroom teachers to partner with artists in an arts integrated curriculum—the revitalizing impact spills over into the rest of their subject area instruction.

The key to the arts integrated curriculum is artistic engagement of the learning on the front end of the project, and then guiding that creative energy that is released, that personal investment and curiosity, into serious play in the subject area. Arts learning practitioners are discovering their way into this strand. Teaching artists are usually determined and often articulate champions for this arts engagement component, while other practitioners who are less steeped in the subtlety and ineffability of arts engagement can let its primacy get lost in the competing, louder, more readily assessed aspects of the arts integrated project.

Community Arts
Its purpose: Enrich community life.

This strand may manifest as a play dealing with a community issue, a mural on a public wall, a chorus—and there are hundreds of arts organizations, usually small and extraordinarily dedicated, that live for this work. There is a whole field of community arts with community artists who have refined this practice over decades. I recommend you read Arlene Goldbard’s seminal book New Creative Community (New Village Press, 2006) to learn more about this field if you are interested.

There is uncertainty in the arts learning field about the difference between teaching artists and community artists. The debate is mostly a waste-of-energy red herring—the same individuals participate in both kinds of work, and there is a huge overlap and intermixing of practices. The only useful distinction to draw is regarding ultimate goals: teaching artists aspire to have their learners engage in meaningful art making, and community artists seek to enhance the lives of communities through meaningful art making. If I were to generalize about the negative prejudices each carries of the other, for the sake of illuminating the historical distinction: community artists (CAs) assume teaching artists (TAs) want art for art’s sake and promote the agendas and beliefs of arts institutions; and conversely, TAs assume CA projects place artistic quality in secondary position and produce less than the best possible art. There is a grain of truth in those prejudices, but reality and a growing arts field do much better if we build on the far larger common ground—TAs create healthier communities wherever they are allowed to work at any length, and CAs produce excellent artworks with their participants even as they make life better for those participants. Community artists are the lead figures in this strand, and they are often the same people that practice teaching artistry. Although I have described the evolution of teaching artistry in this essay, I think community artistry is evolving as well, and the two are growing further into one another. In the three part track of the emerging field of teaching artistry I describe below, the most advanced track seems indistinguishable from community artistry—the boldest and most committed practitioners of these two fields are becoming one.

In 2004, I helped design and lead a rare joint conference of Americans for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the two largest arts advocacy groups in the country. This was an enormous gathering of the suits and other advocates of the arts. The conference theme was making communities more livable through the arts. Throughout the conference I had to keep reminding the participants that the goal was not to get communities to support the arts, nor to find ways to bring communities into the arts, but for the arts to serve the needs of communities. The arts people kept defaulting to more self-serving views of deeper relationships with communities, probably because survival thinking is so prevalent in arts organizations. By the end of the conference the shifted priority had settled in, and I was able to announce to the field this conclusions from my observation, “The era of art for art’s sake is now officially over. It was a fifty-year experiment, in a time of affluence, and it failed: it did not expand the impact of the arts, enhance the quality of art, or improve the lives of artists. We close that experiment like good learners and return to a time of art for many purposes, which had existed for the previous thirty thousand years—and this doesn’t mean that the art we produce from these purposes is necessarily of lower quality.”

Its purpose: Use the power.

The transformative power of artistic engagement is increasingly being tapped to accomplish other goals. The creative arts therapies are used to ease psychological distress and make people’s lives work better. The arts are finding a place in healthcare, as medical scientists discover more and more benefits: patients leave hospitals sooner, depression can be alleviated, pain is less debilitating, children heal faster, wellness requires creative expression, etc. Medical schools are using teaching artists to enhance the observational, empathetic and communication skills of doctors in training.

The arts are appearing in businesses to develop teamwork skills, boost creativity, and to build leadership. This is serious money—Second City, the improvisational theater company in Chicago, now makes well over a million dollars a year in its corporate work. In his bestseller A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink proclaims that the MFA is the new MBA.

The school reform movement advocating for the development of 21st Century Learning Skills is growing in size and impact, yet has largely left the arts behind. Teaching artists are taking a lead in illuminating ways in which good learning in the arts develops creative capacity. Few people doubt that it does, but teaching artists are helping to discriminate the skills within creative capacity and how arts learning develops them. The most common gig I am asked to do with businesses is teach “creativity but no art.” They want the business-certified goodies of creativity—competitive advantage, profitable innovations—their future depends on it, but they don’t want to gunk it up with all the gooey irrelevancy and emotionality of the arts. I can deliver it, staying under the “art” radar with the activities that tap art skills without naming them. How glorious it will be when we need not apologize for the word, when Americans think of art as powerful, relevant and fun.

Teaching artists stand at the entrepreneurial forefront of this strand. It is just beginning. People in the arts are discovering they have skills that the world wants to acquire, and effective teachers who know the arts (that’s right, TAs) are positioned to lead the advance.

The strength of this strand is its unlimited potential and effectiveness in achieving many kinds of results. The weakness is that few TAs have experience making the transition from achieving arts learning results to achieving the other results non-school clients want. There is not yet a body of practice, accepted conceptual groundwork, broadly applicable evaluation tools, or a communications mechanism for the pioneers of this field. But it will grow into a major new opportunity as we learn how to deliver this power, with teaching artists doing the laboratory work that moves the strand and its results-hungry culture forward.


The emerging profession of teaching artistry is developing into three tracks 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 named 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 ways in which they are fully connected.

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 more effectively (and hopefully more pleasurably), 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 their educational work, feeling it is apart from their main artistic aspirations.

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 youngster resonates deeply enough to invite rethinking of their own rehearsal work. Or the theme they are exploring in their art-making colors life so interestingly that they have to bring it into their work with young people.

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 identity and practice. These are artists who can move into non-arts settings and engage the artistry of any participant, drawing them into creative expression 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 arts an background who understand, value and actively participate in the languages and locations of the high arts. The arts club knows how to enter the world of a complex artwork and make relevant meaning, and to how to turn information about the arts into rewarding arts experiences. These teaching artists open the walls of the arts club, enabling everyone to actively participate and find the pleasure of relevant, meaningful artistic experiences. The teaching artists of this track 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 the last few 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 distinguish 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 the artist in them. 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 have found the common ground of art and 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. And yes, a majority of American artists may still 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 necessary 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 evolution will bring many rigid perspectives to “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 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, so that young artists and those who train artists can adjust their frameworks of expectation and join the evolutionary process. Those with teaching artist skills, even if used only with a “gig” mentality, are the ballast that will give weight and authority to the emerging redirection of the arts. They will help us learn how to maintain high quality as we expand to include those who are now uninvolved in “arts” offerings. They will reduce the fear of change to welcome new definitions of art, new ways of thinking about how art serves life, and will radiate the deeper pleasures of an expanded life in the arts. They will demonstrate vividly how the arts can thrive outside arts institutions and buildings, engaging the vast majority of the population that is unengaged, for a variety of different purposes, and 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.

Eric Booth

As an actor, he performed in many plays on Broadway, Off-Broadway and around the country. As a businessman, he started a small company, Alert Publishing, that in seven years became the largest of its kind in the U.S. analyzing research on trends in American lifestyles. As an author, he has had five books published, including The Everyday Work of Art and The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible. He has written three dozen magazine articles, was the Founding Editor of the Teaching Artist Journal. In arts learning, he has taught at Juilliard (13 years), Stanford University, NYU, Tanglewood and Lincoln Center Institute (for 25 years), and The Kennedy Center (12 years). He was the Faculty Chair of the Empire State Partnership program for three years (the largest arts-in-education project in America), and held one of six chairs on The College Board’s Arts Advisory Committee for seven years. He serves as a consultant for many organizations, cities and states and businesses around the country, including six of the ten largest orchestras in America, and five national service organizations. He is widely referred to as the father of the teaching artist profession. Formerly the Director of the Teacher Center of the Leonard Bernstein Center, he is a frequent keynote speaker on the arts to groups of all kinds. He delivered the closing keynote speech to UNESCO’s first ever worldwide arts education conference (Lisbon 2006)—the only American speaker; and gave the keynote speech to the first world conference on orchestras connections to communities (Glasgow 2007). He is the Senior Advisor to El Sistema USA, a national organization developing sites around the U.S.

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