Songs for the Struggling Artist

You can quit calling me a Teaching Artist
November 12, 2013, 10:16 pm
Filed under: education | Tags: , , ,

When I first started teaching, I was thrilled to learn that what I did had its own title. I was so proud to call myself a Teaching Artist. If you’d met me at a party in that period and asked me what I did, I would have happily declared “I’m a teaching artist!” And when you didn’t know what that was, I would cheerfully launch into my standard explanation of “That means I go into schools and teach workshops and residencies in art, which in my case is theatre.” I gave this speech to one friend back in Virginia who said, “Ah, yes. You’re doing God’s work.” And I swelled with pride. So noble. So righteous.

That was 15 years ago. In the intervening years, quite a bit has changed. The landscape for Arts Education in New York City has changed. Teaching Artists’ positions within Arts In Education have changed and so have I.

I didn’t know much when I started all those years ago. I learned it all on the job. Being a Teaching Artist taught me many things and there was a constant dialogue between my art and the classroom. Teaching taught me how I wanted to direct and directing taught me new ways to teach. For years, that was a very rich exchange.

I have been fighting the devaluation of my skills and experience in the field for a long time now, pleading for credit for the contributions of me and my peers. I recently realized that it was a losing battle. I realized that the title of a teaching artist has been so greatly diminished that it has come to be more like a kind of migrant worker of Arts Education. Like, “Let’s get some teaching artists in here to pick these strawberries.” Or “Oh, these teaching artists, they won’t come to anything unless you pay them.” (Actual quote overheard by arts administrator from actual other arts administrator.) More and more, we get treated like petulant children who won’t do what we’re told, who must be corralled and organized.

It used to be that we were Artists first – acknowledged and valued for our Artistic skill outside the realm of the classroom. We were hired as consultants, expected to handle whatever came our way with our own expertise, our own artistic practice, our own aesthetics. Now that we’re (working-at-will) employees, we’re brought in once a year to get reprimanded and instructed in paperwork and then sent on our way to represent the organization in a specially marketed light. And I don’t get paid enough for that nonsense.

So, I’m hanging up my teaching artist shoes. This does not mean I won’t teach anymore. I’ll be happy to teach a Master Class or a workshop and/or residency as your Guest Artist but I’d like to give up my title as a Teaching Artist. It has ceased to be meaningful to me so I’d rather be called something else, thank you very much. Call me a Curriculum Consultant, a Mentor, an Artist, a Teacher, an Actor, a Writer, a Director – any of these are all right with me. But you can get someone else to pick your strawberries. I’d rather not be called a Teaching Artist anymore.

7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Amazing article. I don’t even know where to begin. Fascinating story. Such a pity that the vocational aspect of it is being devalued and drowned in admin and paperwork. What you do is invaluable and I do wish that those who are in charge of the money bags would be a little less short sighted when it comes to it. A label mind is only that, so if you feel that the label no longer describes the skill set and talent you bring to the table then shelf it, of course. 🙂
Warm regards,

Comment by vicbriggs

Congratulations on your graduation. You light up the world wherever you are. You are an artist.

Comment by jcichon

Oh my god, how dare you insist on being paid for your invaluable time! If you were just a person who had to babysit the classroom, then you should be paid. But a teaching artist, you should be grateful they let you near people!

(I hope it goes without saying what my true intent here was.)

Comment by Meira

Your thoughts cut to the core: where does art fit into academic education?

I don’t think it does. Which doesn’t mean that arts should be banished from the schools.

The company 3M (masters of all things adhesive) gives workers time during every working day “to do nothing” – take a walk, exercise, kibbitz…Maybe schools could learn something from this.

The diminishment of physical exercise and the arts into activities that must be quantified, targeted, and clothed in edu-speak to be justified – all of this points to the devaluing of play, what Diane Ackerman calls ‘deep play’ and it’s central role in human development.

I live in Switzerland now – and the arts are very well supported here. They are a much more visible presence in the life of little Lausanne than in any of the American metropolises that I lived in. But there are no fine arts courses inside the four walls of your average school, and no arts classes taught for credit at universities. There are arts schools, drama, dance, circus schools – and degree programs that are outside the realm of academics. What such an arrangement would mean in an American context, I don’t know.

To paraphrase Jean Dubuffet, art doesn’t lie down in the bed that’s made for it. Good to see that you’re not taking anything lying down.

Comment by James Spencer

Just realized I never replied to this, Jim!
I thought about it for a good long while.

It’s hard for me to get my head around not having any arts in schools at all (having seen so much growth happen in classrooms through arts, it’s hard to imagine it left out completely) but heck, if it’s allowing students to engage in more actual art outside of school, that’s okay by me.

And if you hear of any opportunities to bring an American theatre company to Switzerland, you let me know and I will be on the next plane.

Comment by erainbowd

I take issue with comparing the plights of Teaching Artists with the plights of undocumented, migrant farm workers, to be honest. Maybe you should try some worker’s theater? When you think through it, the excess wealth that pays for universal education, arts in the schools, and myriad other care professions that did not exist 60 years ago is connected, in part, to the exploitation of agricultural and industrial laborers who live on the short end of the globalization stick…It’s one system that we live in, and we have to transform it together. There’s no title for that job at all.

Comment by Eve Tulbert-Diab

Woah, Wilbur! Put down the stick and stop beating the straw man. “Undocumented migrant farm worker” – those are your words, not hers. SFTSA is not crying, “I face the exact same hardships and exploitation as the most unfortunate undocumented workers!”

She uses the far more measured phrase “like a kind of migrant worker of Arts Education” to describe the position of teaching artists. And that turns out to be a very apt characterization.

In your overripe display of umbrage you’ve missed the point. If there’s one place artists (whether “teaching” or not) should be valued, it’s within arts organizations. That isn’t happening in the arts education landscape SFTSA describes, and that’s where our indignation should be directed.

Comment by greeninNYC

I'd love to hear from you. Gentleness and kindness encouraged and appreciated.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: