by Alex Chadwell
Beyond Teaching was written as a report out on the national convening focusing on teaching artistry, “Our Shared Future: Imagining a New Landscape for Teaching Artists” which occurred April 5-7, 2022 co-hosted by Arts Education Partnership and Teaching Artists Guild.
Participating in the convening, “Our Shared Future: Imagining a New Landscape for Teaching Artists,” with hundreds of artists was inspiring and exciting. I am encouraged not only by the abundance of activities occurring nationwide, but also by having witnessed such a determined and collective desire to enact change, to learn more, and to become better educators, artists, and humans.
I’ve been developing and implementing programming associated with teaching artistry over the past five years, but have been identifying less and less with the term “teaching artist” because I believe it is imprecise and opaque. Its meaning varies across arts disciplines, organizations, and geographic locations. Additionally, the word “teaching” is frequently understood through the narrow definition of teaching as transmission of knowledge by rote based and didactic means. “Teaching” puts a box around the extraordinary diversity of work that artists create in and out of the classroom.
Admittedly, it is true that the majority of written and spoken language is imprecise and opaque because of its socially negotiated character. The meaning and understanding of all words are relational, situational, and mutually constituted. Famed Brazilian theatre practitioner, Augusto Boal, wrote, “the word spoken is never the word heard” (Boal, 2022, p. 174). Humans’ overreliance on the spoken and written word and the subsequent misunderstanding it causes, prompted Boal’s creation of new kinds of theatre (Image, Invisible, and Forum Theatre) to utilize in a variety of settings to facilitate dialogue, build community, resolve conflict, seek truth, change public policy, and enact legislation.
Boal’s work, although sometimes employed by teaching artists, was not a major topic of the convening, though I did hear it referenced once by one of the speakers, Amalia Ortiz when she spoke of the work of the organization, SAY Sí. Rather, I mention Boal’s and my own discontent with written and spoken language for two main reasons. First, that the essentialness of artists in society is because of their incredible ability to create, share, and transform meaning, knowledge, and ways of being through a confluence of modalities. Second, that a change in terminology, although unlikely to have an immense impact, may aid in the movement towards sector-wide sustainability and equity.
Artists and the experiences that they facilitate in schools, after school programs, community centers, youth centers, summer schools and camps, senior citizen centers, hospitals, prisons, and in all the other places that artmaking and art-experiencing can occur have the potential to be powerful drivers of transformative education, social cohesion, civic engagement, and equitable, people-centered, and community-led community development.
In many schools where crucial educational and aesthetic experiences are absent, artists create spaces and facilitate experiences that reject lesson plans based on passive reception of knowledge, art-making centered on imitation and rote, and subject matter that is sterile and irrelevant. One of the remarkable abilities of the artist is that of expanding the classroom for students and teachers alike. The artist has strength in being an interloper. They arrive and they build relationships from scratch. Students see their peers and surroundings in new ways and through alternate and less frequently engaged modalities. Artists disrupt. They question and alter the status quo and they create space and facilitate experiences for students to question and challenge the status quo. They provide vital connections to students’ lives outside of school. They stretch and transfigure the ways in which knowledge is created and shared. They expand what can be known from, through, and with art. All of this creates what NEA Chair, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, who spoke at the opening of the convening, calls “a culture of possibility.”
Schools become places of joy, possibility, and vibrancy when they are abounding in art. But this work is not and should not be limited to classrooms. This is what concerns me when the term “teaching artist” is misunderstood. There is an expectation that teaching artists are only useful insofar as they teach and therefore, only appropriate or needed in spaces where traditional teaching occurs. I believe this constrained view of teaching artists’ roles contributes to the lack of sustainability and fair working conditions in the field. Dr. Rosario Jackson also spoke of a much broader view of how arts and culture function in society. Specifically, she offers a framework of three critical roles that arts and artists can play; reframing, retooling and repairing (Jackson, 2021). I propose that a broader understanding of the crucial and intrinsic roles that artists play in communities may lead to stronger social support programs for artists and culture bearers, hopefully in conjunction with stronger social support programs for all people regardless of their role in society.
Many of the sessions at the convening examined ways that federal, state, and local government agencies, arts organizations, non-profits, and corporations could better support artists’ livelihoods. Many were simple shifts that are long overdue: fair wages, benefit packages, stronger contracts, more artist agency in determining programming, transparency, etc. One of the more recent calls to action, My Dearest Arts Organization, Are you Listening?, provides a checklist for organizations for implementing these changes. It is evident that there are also systemic reforms that need to occur. Laura Zabel, Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, writes in a recently published article, How Artists Can Lead a Pandemic Recovery, “To fully realize and benefit from the contributions that artists can make to a more human, equitable and just future, we need to make life as an artist more sustainable and more equitable” (Zabel, 2022). Zabel references the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Arts’, of which she is a member, recently released report, Art is Work, which offers four principles and recommendations for building a system that supports and sustains artists and cultural workers: “Name and Include Artists in Federal Policy, Recognize How Creative Work Happens, Center Equity, and Think Locally, Share Nationally” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2021). I am confident that in this continued moment of transformation and opportunity, we will create the shared future that supports everyone. I know that the artists I convened with will be integral in building that new and better system, because that’s what we do best. We imagine and we create. And we do it with love and joy.
Whenever I go to an artist training, convening, or conference I know that my day will be full of art; drawing pictures with crayons, making sculptures with pipe cleaners, singing in community, devising theatre to dialogue and tell stories, and reading and writing poetry to center ourselves all while connecting deeply with others. Isn’t that how every day should be?
American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (2021). Art Is Work: Policies to Support Creative Workers. Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Boal, A. (2002). Games for actors and non-actors. Routledge.
Jackson, M. R. (2021). Addressing Inequity Through Public Health, Community Development, Arts, and Culture: Confluence of Fields and the Opportunity to Reframe, Retool, and Repair. Health Promotion Practice, 22(1_suppl), 141S-146S. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839921996369
Zabel, L. (2022, March 25). How Artists Can Lead a Pandemic Recovery. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-25/how-artists-can-lead-a-pandemic-recovery