The Time Has Come for a National Field of Teaching Artistry

Eric Booth

The time has come for the arts to pay overdue attention to teaching artistry.

Teaching artists. Perhaps the most undersupported, underrecognized crucial resource for the future of the arts in the United States. No one is against teaching artists, no one is out to keep them down, but few organizations have worked actively to support the interests of teaching artistry beyond their own particular organizational needs. Consequently, no national funders have arisen to support and build the field. For decades, I have seen requests for such support languish or be brushed aside because the application was not a comfy, conventional fit.

As a result, teaching artistry has never risen to the recognition its knowledge and skill set warrant. To its great credit, the field — comprised of teaching artists (TAs), as well as those who train and hire them — has managed to develop its effectiveness over the past thirty-five years anyway ( Teaching artistry has found modest support in bits and pieces and has grown through the investments of individual arts organizations and some local agencies and inspired individuals; its impact has been appreciated and relied upon locally for decades. However, these crucial software developers of our field’s future are hardly treated the way their equivalents in the high-tech industry and in other creative industries are treated. Teaching artistry is exactly what our field needs at this time to innovate effectively, deliver programs that expand audiences, and partner with non-arts organizations to produce breakthrough results. Teaching artistry is what we need to be able to deliver on the promise of “creativity” expertise the arts are so often asked to provide, and have been so awkward in delivering in ways that other sectors understand and desire.

Why has teaching artistry remained underdeveloped? One could propose many theories, and the truth is probably a mix of several. The field is poorly defined; even the definition of a teaching artist is uncertain, with my own offering being the only one I know that has been accepted widely: “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.” Those inside and outside the field still default to an unproductive need to delineate “who is” and “who isn’t” a TA — ironic for a field that is masterful at inclusion. After decades of this nonsense, I abjure the semantic squabbles and accept that there never will be (and never should be) a lucid line marking members of the club. Do we require a hard definition for who is a musician or a teacher? Certainly there are certification and degree processes to determine qualifications (and teaching artistry is moving that way too), but if your eye is on music and bringing up children, do you really want to exclude the community-based guitar teacher who has no degree and is uncertified?

Teaching artistry is fundamentally hybrid in nature; it falls between the cracks of the way arts fields are organized and the way funding is structured. Funding tends to be content focused, and teaching artistry tends not to produce content or programs but is process focused — it produces things that are hard to measure or hold up at the end. It has a professional journal and degree programs but no national organization, and few 501(c)(3) organizations dedicated to field building. There have been few convenient ways to fund building the field, even for those who may have recognized its importance.

Artists have appeared in US schools since there were US schools, but what we call “the field” and even “the profession” of teaching artistry began around 1980, first at Lincoln Center (where the term was coined). The field grew quickly during the Reagan-era cutbacks in arts education, as funders expanded support for arts organizations sending artists into schools, and the need grew for those artists to become more than just “magical.” Leonard Bernstein is probably the most prominent teaching artist in history; less visible are an estimated 25,000 (or more) active practitioners, very few of them in full-time positions. You may not realize just how many major arts institutions are led by teaching artists who grew their careers in administrative ways — the top dogs at Americans for the Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Lincoln Center Education, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute all began as teaching artists.

In response to demand, the kit bag of masterful teaching artist skills has steadily grown to include designing arts learning projects and curricula, designing and leading professional development initiatives, developing arts learning assessments, facilitating planning groups, pursuing advocacy and community engagement, fleshing out creative placemaking, and more. There is widespread recognition that experienced teaching artists have a vast range of valuable expertise, but there are relatively few systems in place that allow them to effectively share what they have learned. Teaching artistry is exemplary in the learning of many of its practitioners and rudimentary in its learning as a field.

In the past decade, TA work in schools (which is the largest share of TA work) has not grown and has even diminished; however, there has been a steady expansion of TA work in other areas: creative aging, justice systems, health care, business. TA expertise is growing fast and is being tapped for its value to many fields. And I have seen a recent upsurge in strengthening the field. Simply stated, “The time of the Teaching Artist has arrived” (

Several modest contributions have had outsized impact on this trend. The National Guild for Community Arts Education has sponsored a TA track at its three latest national conferences, and the work has spawned projects that have grown with grassroots working groups. A national asset map (listing training opportunities, hiring organizations, and individual TAs), among other tools, is being developed by the new Teaching Artist Guild (TAG), which is emerging as a national center. Aroha Philanthropies is showing visionary leadership by funding TAG and the National Guild’s Teaching Artist Track.

Lincoln Center Education has launched a national/international teaching artist training, including a first-ever training track for advanced TAs, with a rubric to clarify strong practice (although still without dedicated funding). There have been two International Teaching Artist Conferences (Oslo in 2012, Brisbane in 2014), which have recognized the world-leading contribution of the US field, and a third conference will be held in Glasgow in 2016 — no funder has arisen to bring a fourth conference to the United States. At least six countries have sent delegations to study teaching artistry in the United States and to bring it back to their home countries.

The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA), with Lifetime Arts, is developing teaching artists to work in that sector. The accomplishments of the NCCA are worth mentioning, especially the research of the late Dr. Gene Cohen. His research is the first in the arts to meet federal government research methodology requirements, allowing federal agencies to rely on the data as a basis for funding. His body of research has spawned a new collaborative cohort of federal agencies beginning to fund creative aging, bringing teaching artists to another frontier — a radically hopeful change for sustainability.

There are many ways the development of the field could be accelerated: regional networks; support for white papers and think tanks; retreats, apprenticeships, research; widespread early introduction of teaching artistry to nascent artists; support for arts organizations to experiment boldly in community engagement; study of the impact of teaching artists’ distinctive contributions to health care and inmate correctional education.

El Sistema (the intensive ensemble music education program from Venezuela, now with 117 programs in the United States and programs in sixty-two countries around the world) proudly proclaims its social goal to redirect the trajectory of young at-risk lives — and teaching artists are its leaders, figuring out how to change kids’ lives through musical ensemble learning.

The keynote speaker at the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (the largest gathering in performing arts history) was Jim Collins, the Stanford researcher and author of the best-selling “good to great” research detailing how good companies become great, and how nonprofits can succeed in times of turmoil. His key message was that arts organizations must (1) get “the right people on the bus,” and (2) “pull back to their core values and experiment boldly from there.” This second commandment does not mean to tinker with marketing and repertoire or to invest in electronic media to deliver the usual offerings. In the field of the arts, the preferred canon and the standard delivery of new and classic artworks do not comprise core values; indeed, they are exactly what must be reexamined and boldly experimented with. Collins meant that our field must pull back to the core reasons that the arts matter to all people, not just the art club, and must find new ways to activate relevance and engagement. Who can the field turn to and rely upon to lead this experimentation? Teaching artists, who have been doing this work, developing the essential skills we need, under the radar for decades. If this learning is well gathered and its expertise can be shared, TAs are ready to illuminate the way to a next generation of “greatness” in the arts.