Starting a Movement: Building the Field of Teaching Artistry

Beth Feldman Brandt

Those who can, do…and teach the arts.

Bring Your Art. Bring Your Heart. Teach.

I am a teaching artist. That’s why there is so much crap in my car.

When the Conference for Community Arts Education’s preconference session “Teaching Artist Development” kicked off in Philadelphia in November 2015, the group was asked by facilitator Eric Booth to write a teaching artist bumper sticker. Seventy practitioners, the vast majority teaching artists themselves, came up with many that were funny, inspiring, and heartfelt, but these three illuminate in fifteen words or less a few essential elements of teaching artistry:

  • Teaching artists (TAs) are practicing artists who make their own art and choose to use their knowledge to engage communities in art making.
  • TAs do this work as an extension of their own passion for the arts that drives them to open this experience to all.
  • TAs are often nomadic, itinerant road warriors.

The arts education conversation in the GIA cohort has focused on national policy issues in K–12 arts education, a worthy cause to bring the arts equitably to all young people. But much like surveys that show the vast majority of Americans value the arts but a very small percentage value artists, the arts education funding conversation rarely focuses on teaching artists. Increasingly teaching artists are on the front lines of bringing the arts to communities in all settings, of all ages, and in all disciplines. The outcomes of this recent conference can give us new ways of thinking about how arts funders can support these arts education workers.

In a departure from conference business as usual, Booth (whose article in the fall 2015 issue of the Reader was a rallying cry for recognizing and supporting the field of teaching artistry) designed a working preconference with the goal of jump-starting practical projects that would be carried forward from the conference with concrete goals and action plans. A planning committee of “project instigators” devised and presented eight projects, and over the course of the day, teams of TAs and other community arts education workers talked and drew and videotaped and wrangled with these projects. The eight projects evolved, and these overworked cultural workers signed up to move the projects forward over the course of the coming year.

Sharing Innovations in Teaching Artistry

(Maureen Sweeney, project instigator)

After synthesizing qualities that determine innovation and delineating five project categories, the working group decided to begin with a social media campaign called Failing Forward, detailing lessons learned from innovative work by teaching artists. They launched a Facebook page on the spot, Teaching Artists Fail, which they will expand through social media to make innovative risk and consequent learning a visible conversation among teaching artists across the nation.

Teaching Artist Video Library

(Beth Feldman Brandt, project instigator)

To improve the quality of teaching artists’ practice with professional development delivered online in a user-friendly way (few will watch a lengthy professional development workshop video), this project will generate a library of one-minute videos of teaching artist tips and a glossary of definitions of key terms. The team has developed a simple format recommendation and protocol that allow anyone to submit a segment for consideration. They are on their way to gathering fifty videos before going public with a convenient web location, easy searchability, and submission process.

Funding the Teaching Artist Field: Past, Present, and Future

(Travis Laughlin, project instigator)

This project reports the uncertain history, current status, challenges, and potentials surrounding the funding streams that support teaching artistry. The project research team will interview grantmakers and other administrative professionals who support teaching artists to understand how they have historically funded and compensated artists who teach, as well as gather information from teaching artists. Analyzing this input, a culminating report will identify patterns and missed connections between funding and needs, and propose recommendations to positively shift the funding, compensation, benefits, and/or professional opportunities for teaching artists and those who train, employ, and depend on them.

Centering the Work: Social Justice and Teaching Artistry

(Tina LaPadula and Robyne Walker Murphy, project instigators)

During the preconference day, this working group explored the social justice components of effective teaching artistry and the pedagogy of social justice arts education in the belief that all teaching artist work is social justice work regardless of who the participants are. The working group will create a virtual platform to share best practices, curriculum/lesson plans, and professional development models. The purpose is to create one space where teaching artists can go to learn more about and begin implementing social justice pedagogy and practices in their teaching, professional development, and advocacy. They intend over time to build an active social justice network in community arts education through the National Guild for Community Arts Education.

The Teaching Artist Philosophy Project

(Jean Taylor, Jean Johnstone, and Nicole Ripley, project instigators)

This project believes that bringing the why of teaching artistry into the national conversation is good for the field and good for individual practitioners. The working group developed a framework for a Teaching Artists’ Philosophy for the field, as a “companion piece” to the Teaching Artist Manifesto, and is creating resources for teaching artists and organizations to articulate their individual philosophical practice. The working group will establish an “inspiration library” of thinkers and writings from the field to serve as a resource list on the philosophical underpinnings of the field and its work.

Teaching Artist Compensation: Opening the Secrets, Transparently

(Lindsey Buller Maliekel and Kai Fierle-Hedrick, project instigators)

To bring some light into the secret caves of teaching artist pay rates and expectations, this group will gather and build on preexisting research and create a more open dialogue with hiring organizations to benefit everyone. They will devise a pay calculator for teaching artists that accounts for cost-of-living differences across regions and benchmarks what pay rates should be for teaching artists. They will make best practice recommendations and promote more transparency about what pay rates include (i.e., planning and travel time, curriculum development, reflection, administrative responsibilities).

Creative Aging Survey Project

(Maura O’Malley, project instigator)

This working group is designing a survey that will gather (for the first time) information from teaching artists across the country to help inform future training, program development, and funding needs in the growing field of creative aging. The survey will investigate teaching artists’ interest levels in working with older adults, their knowledge and experience, and their training needs. Follow-up interviews will add input from diverse disciplines, regions, and levels of experience to the final analysis, which will culminate in a report that is shared widely as a companion to two previous reports, one for state arts councils and one for arts organizations.

Inspiration, Aspiration, and Innovation among Teaching Artists: Collaboratively Imagining the Future

(Courtney J. Boddie and Glenna Avila, project instigators)

This project focused on inspiration and innovation from artists and teaching artists creatively thinking about their changing, growing field. The working group generated a list of big ideas during several hours of writing, reflecting, and brainstorming. The ideas fell into many categories, such as government, personal career goals, systemic change/policies, mental and physical health, global arts communities, and more. The working group took first steps toward consensus on a few ideas of highest interest to focus on accomplishing this year. Once those ideas are selected, the group will divide into smaller groups that develop action plans to address the ambitious goals.

Recent history proves that projects that have been devised at the Conference on Community Arts Education have indeed moved forward long after the conference glow has faded. The Teaching Artist Manifesto (see was the result of the 2014 conference conversation and was distributed widely in broadside form at this year’s gathering. The fact that teaching artists will spend their own (noncompensated) time to invest in and advance their field is notable.

These eight projects will move forward at varying speed and perhaps with varying degrees of success, but the range of topics sheds light on how arts funders can begin to engage with teaching artists:

  1. As we review grant requests for arts education projects and organizations, be mindful of how the organization values its teaching artists, noting not only how much they are paid but how they are trained, developed, and supported.
  2. Invest in professional development opportunities for teaching artists to beef up their skills both as teachers and as entrepreneurs. (At the Bartol Foundation we present thirty free professional development programs for over five hundred teaching artists annually as another way we improve the scope and quality of arts education. See for more information.)
  3. Invest in sound research that documents the state of the teaching artist field to scaffold qualitative knowledge with data about the breadth and impact of teaching artistry.
  4. Make sure that teaching artists are at the table not only when developing arts education initiatives but also as we introduce other program areas (e.g., youth development, aging, social justice, community development) to how the arts can move their goals forward. This could also mean sponsoring independent teaching artists to attend conferences, where their voice needs to be heard.

GIA is planning to convene thought leaders in the spring of 2016 to investigate these and other ways that GIA can support funders to better understand and lend resources to teaching artistry, a long-standing profession that is only now claiming full recognition of its central role in arts education.