Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why I Shouldn’t Work in Schools Anymore
September 9, 2016, 11:16 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written before about the changing landscape of Teaching Artistry. I’ve written about how arts education has changed in my years in the business. For the most part, I do most of my teaching outside of school environments these days but every so often, I’m brought back into the Arts in Education world. What the re-encounter highlights for me is how at odds my goals are with the goals of a lot of Arts Education.

At the heart of my goals for students sits a desire for them to make bold artistic choices and learn how to be good artists. This is not because I think they should become artists (I know what kind of a life that is) but because I think that thinking like an artist can lead to a liberation of self. Thinking like an artist can allow students to begin to question their assumptions and interrogate the givens. This is all well and good on paper for most schools but when the questioning begins and the classroom gets crazy or silly or loud, most people in schools start yelling and everyone gets into trouble. I value the trouble that art stirs up. Good art is disruptive and shakes up the status quo. This is rarely in line with the goals of a school – as most schools seek to enforce and create a status quo.

I have a revolutionary’s heart, I’ve discovered, and I like for students to get so involved in art making that they become willing to challenge the status quo. I like it when the art becomes theirs.

My favorite moment of my early teaching career was when I noticed a student missing from our 5th Grade Midsummer Night’s Dream class. I was told that he’d gotten in trouble in the cafeteria by quoting Shakespeare. I’m still delighted to think about a small 5th grade kid standing up at his cafeteria table and proclaiming loudly, with gestures, “Enough! Hold, or cut bow strings!”

I don’t remember much else about that residency but I cherish the way Shakespeare and I got this kid into trouble. I used to feel guilty about it – but not anymore. Art, when it’s good, can get you into trouble.

The more art becomes EDUCATION, the more it becomes a rubric and a set of skills to learn, the less likely it is to get you into trouble. And this is why working in education isn’t really my bag anymore. Bring me in to teach your students and I will encourage them to be bold, to take risks, to be silly, to be loud, to look for mischief, for the game, for the spirit. I trained in clown. I am inclined to make a mess. That’s probably why you don’t bring a clown into your classroom.

If you want order and quiet, I would suggest an educator instead of an artist. I fall firmly on the side of art and will always privilege the artistic choice over the orderly choice. Arts in Education these days seems to always privilege the orderly one. I want the work that young people create to be controversial, to be disruptive, to be volatile. In the past, I did a complicated balancing act of trying to keep things status quo for teachers and administrators and arts organizations’ education departments while still honoring my revolutionary impulse. But I think somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to compromise this way and can only express delight at the irreverence, at the art that might accidentally pry its way into a classroom and cause all kinds of trouble.

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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.

The Systemization of Art in Teaching Artistry
April 12, 2013, 10:48 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been a teaching artist since 1999. I’ve worked for a large percentage of the arts organizations in New York City. I’ve worked in every borough at every grade level. I’ve taught in around 300 schools. This is how I make my living: I go to schools, I teach workshops and residencies and various arts organizations pay me to do it. While my hourly rate can sound impressive, the laws of time, space and arts funding are such that it is impossible to teach all the time. Most of the hours I work as a teaching artist are unpaid, e.g. the hours of commute time to the school, the lesson planning, the scheduling, the paperwork, etc. Trying to put together a full time load of Teaching Artistry (which for me usually works out to working for three to four arts organizations at a time) is a serious task and not a lucrative one. The most money I have ever made in a year was $24,000 and that was only once in a very good year. I do not have health insurance and am regularly unemployed. The value of this career, for me, lies in the way this path gives me a bit of time and space to make my own work in the theatre. Its primary value is its flexibility. That is also its primary flaw.

I tell you this, not because I particularly need to reveal the practicalities of how I put together a living, but because I am concerned about the trend toward the standardization of Teaching Artistry. I have met, in the last few months, several students in Teaching Artist Certification programs, students who are presumably shelling out a lot of cash and time and maybe taking on student loans to become Teaching Artists. They are doing this, I assume, to get the sorts of jobs I have and have had for 14 years. I’m worried about them and the field. Is it responsible to send flocks of students out into the field where there isn’t work for them? In all my travels, I have never met a teaching artist who trained to be a teaching artist.

I met with a career counselor a few years ago and she asked me if there was a way to progress in my field, “Was there” she asked’ “a higher position to aspire to?” And the answer was no. I was, at that point, already sitting at the top. I was teaching for some of the most reputable arts organizations in the city, getting paid the top hourly rate. Maybe there are better, more secure, higher positions than mine that are secretly hiding somewhere but as far as I can see (and I think I see the field pretty clearly) there is no better position than the one I have. And I am barely scraping by with 14 years of experience, many glowing recommendations and a load of lesson plans under my belt. What on earth are these freshly certified teaching artists going to do? Has anyone teaching these people thought about this? Are they coming after my jobs? They might be. And they might get them.

This move toward standardizing is happening inside the field, too. When I began, a teaching artist was an Artist who went into a school and shared his or her Art. We learned on the job, wrote our lesson plans on scraps of paper and shared our triumphs and failures with our colleagues. We had the occasional “Professional Development” where we shared exercises and ideas or learned a new skill. It was uneven, sure, but each artist brought a piece of themselves to the process and created unique unquantifiable experiences for students (which is not all that different from the experience of art in my opinion.)

As time has gone by, our lesson plans have had to become, at first, written to be shared with administrators then shared in a particular format or structure, then, required to include standards and blueprints and long lists of other educational jargon. The most recent lesson plan I had to do was a 15 page document, for which I had to invent a great many educational buzzword sentences. None of which are of any use to me in the practice of actual teaching. I write these documents and rarely look at them again. These developments have led teaching ARTISTRY to something more like TEACHING artistry. Our professional development is now about how to make better lesson plans, how to talk about assessment, how to teach specialized populations. I can’t remember the last time I learned an actually useful exercise from a fellow teaching artist at one of these things.

I understand why it’s happening. I’ve filled out city funding applications for my own work; The paperwork is the sort of quantifiable evidence stuff that funders, bureaucrats and the Department of Education want, so that they can get more funding for the arts in schools. From an administrative point of view, all this stuff is a series of boxes to check off and the arts organizations just need to do it to make sure they keep getting those dollars.

The extra work for the teaching artists is no real burden to arts administrators, they just have the unenviable job of telling us about it. It is however, a real burden to an artist like me. I don’t get paid any more than I did when I started and the work looks more and more like the work of a classroom teacher. In fact, a classroom teacher recently sent me her unit plan and I was shocked to discover how much crossover there was in what she had to set down and what I had to set down. It’s turning into the same language. This may be why this move toward certifying Teaching Artists is happening. It’s perfectly logical that you train people in this educational jargon if they’re going to have to speak it.

But here’s the thing: a classroom teacher is paid a salary (not a BIG one, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another time,) receives benefits and generally has the support of a union, her/his fellow teachers and the weight of an entire system behind him/her, as well as job security. A teaching artist has no benefits, no salary, no guarantee of work, no job security and no one to turn to if s/he is treated poorly. One new program manager who takes a dislike to you can lose you your job or severely limit the classes you’re brought in to teach. If there is a downturn in Arts funding in the school’s budgets, you might not get work at all.

It is not a sensible job. You have to be able to roll with the unpredictable elements of schedules, of teachers, of schools, of classrooms, the sometimes epic commutes, the revolving door of arts managers, the fact that you’re essentially on your own out there, the months of unemployment, the delicate schedule juggling (especially tricky when balancing one arts organization’s demands with another.) This gig requires an EPIC amount of flexibility. It takes a kind of artistry to manage in a world of ever changing circumstances and it is not the sort of world that responds well to systemization.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do it myself and maybe, given the way that the field is changing, I’m becoming a bit of a dinosaur and my breed will soon be extinct. But before that happens, I want to make plea for someone, somewhere to just THINK about what’s happening here. I’ve always thought that one of my principal roles in the classroom as a Teaching Artist is to provide an OUTSIDE perspective. The best Teaching Artists get described as a breath of fresh air, a challenge to the day to day, a way to see the world differently, a welcome change of pace. I think our work is at its best when we are NOT like a classroom teacher, when we bring all of the anarchic energy of art to a room full of people used to a particular perspective.
If we continue to push toward more standardization, toward teaching artists being like teachers, but with art, we lose the very value of the position. And listen, if that’s where the field is going, okay. But if it’s going there, if teaching artists are going to become certified and systematized, I hope, at least, that these new TAs will get the benefits of being part of a system. They’ll need guarantees of work, benefits, a salary. If this stuff doesn’t happen with those changes, then the system has just created a clever way to outsource arts teachers.

I have given up security, salary and health insurance to have a career that allows me to be an artist. The certified teaching artists coming up behind us will likely not even have that. It’s a much different world than when I started back in the age of the dinosaurs and I’m worried that there’s an ice age coming and all the dinosaurs will go and it will be a very long time until anyone finds our bones.

How to Keep Veteran Teaching Artists in the Field
November 19, 2012, 9:31 pm
Filed under: business, education | Tags: ,

I’ve been a teaching artist for something like 15 years. It’s a funny job. And most people do it for about three years and then move on to something else. Many teaching artists I’ve come across over the years take a gig or two, every so often, while they do other things. But there are also those of us who cobble it all together, stitching together teaching from various arts organizations to put together something like a living.
So this one’s mostly for them: The Vets

I was at a workshop in which the facilitator told us about these studies about keeping veteran teaching artists in the field. This made me laugh. A lot. They’re studying how to keep teaching artists in the field? Why don’t they just ask us?

How to Keep Veteran Teaching Artists in the Field

1) Value us. Value our experience. Almost everywhere I go, administrators/education directors seem to value the energetic young person more than the seasoned, questioning vet. The newly hired do not question your judgment. They do not fight for their rights. They are obliging and energetic. As a vet, with opinions and standards and experience, I sense how much of a pain in the ass you think I am, how much you wish I’d stop questioning, how much you’d rather deal with the happy recent recruit to the field. I see how much more work you give her/him.
2) Give us a raise for sticking around. Let us know with dollars that our experience is valuable. And listen – I know you don’t have the money for this. I know you’re up against budget cuts and so on. But could you maybe bump it up in small increments? A dollar for every year we’re with you? If I’d gotten a dollar for every year I was a Teaching Artist, I would have had a $15 dollar an hour raise by the end and it would probably have been relatively painless administratively to get that through. There are so few of us vets.
3) Honor our suggestions. Honor our requests. Ask for our advice. Look for opportunities to include us in decision-making. Give us a measure of control about where you send us.
4) Guarantees of work would be tremendous. The unpredictability of the field becomes a lot more stressful as we get older. For veterans, something like a retainer might be really assuring.
5) Make us employees. Let us join in on your health insurance. Is there a 401k? Bring us in. Promote us.
6) Pay attention to our art. Find opportunities for us to bring our actual art into teaching.
7) Tell us you value our years in the field. It really does help when you say it. (And mean it.)
8) Pay us to teach the newbies some special skills
9) Remember where we live. The travel becomes more and more enervating as we grow older. If you have to send us an hour away from our homes, pay us a travel stipend.
10) Our schedules are extremely complicated and balancing them is one of the most stressful parts of the job. Almost no one understands the crazy Jenga puzzle of a working Teaching Artist’s schedule. It would be amazing if someone could hire us to teach Mondays and then whether or not they have a residency for us, they pay us for Mondays. Total pipe dream, that one – but wow, would it help!

Anatomy of a Quitting
September 7, 2011, 9:12 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

I wrote this the day I decided to quit a job this summer. Here’s what happened:

I am sitting in a room surrounded by artists. There are musicians and visual artists and dancers and theatre artists like me. We’re sitting here because it is July. It is summertime and we don’t get much teaching work in the summertime so when they offered us $79 an hour to sit in this room, we said okay. We are watching and listening to two paunchy middle-aged men in business shirts and pants that don’t quite seem to fit them. They are giving a Power Point presentation to us. They are reading what is on the screen from the photocopies of the same text on their papers. Beside them is a really fancy poster on an easel. It looks expensive. This project now has a fancy new logo and they’ve put it everywhere. These guys are reading us details about what’s going to happen this year with this very exciting arts education initiative and I’m realizing that at least one of them used to be an artist of some kind but he traded in his career in the arts for a salary and an office and fancy job title. He’s the Head of Arts, you see. He’s in charge. But as I’m watching him, I can see that he doesn’t give a damn about this stuff he’s saying. He has to say it; He’s received a $5 million grant to implement this plan but the kid in him who chose to go into art all those years ago is sitting sadly in a corner as he stands in front of a room full of artists, telling us how great it is to be there. I don’t believe anyone is happy to be here today. We’re in a dingy, poorly lit, uncomfortable classroom staring at the packet of rules and plans and itineraries in the folders they gave us. The air feels depressed and resigned.
Yet another middle aged man has stood up now (I happen to know he regularly makes $150,000 consultant fees in Arts & Education) and he’s telling us that we’ve all made an agreement to be honest, and to – – – I don’t know – a bunch of other words that are nice to say but don’t actually mean anything. He’s telling us to be honest in the work we’re about to undertake and now he’s asking us to think about our core values as artists. With my moment to think, I realize that I’m sitting here in this room, watching artists get turned into tools or sheep or some other listening entity with no will, power or authority of our own and honestly, since he’s asked me – nothing in this room has anything to do with my values.
I can see what he’s doing. He’s attempting to integrate my artist self into this bureaucratic expedition, maybe to harness it and put it to work in education. But it’s too late, my artist is out of the gate. He’s brought the rebellious, rule breaking artist into the room now (these are the core values I’ve just written down for his exercise) and because I’m suddenly seeing with her eyes, there is no way I can stay here, where everyone has tamed their artist selves to sit quietly in a room full of bullshit, or to craft bullshit into carefully constructed units of learning or measurement, to a place where there is no joy in creating, or in art. There is just obligation and systemization and they’re holding a room full of artists hostage here, because the world won’t pay us enough to live, not for our art, no. No, they’ll only pay us to tame it, chew it up and regurgitate it for the system, for this fancy new grant. They’re holding us for ransom here but I’m making my escape, even if I have to run through poverty to get it.

If I were in charge of Arts Education
August 22, 2011, 11:52 pm
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Not long ago, I was brought into several 8th grade classrooms to give a talk about my career as a theatre artist. When I polled the students in the room, pretty much no one was even vaguely interested in theatre and an average of one or two per class were interested in any other arts. Music, visual arts, dance? None of it.
Here I was, brought in by a grant to bring more arts into the schools, talking with students about my work when they have zero interest or context with which to receive that sharing. Additionally, they’d already listened to two theatre artists talking about their careers prior to my visit there. This seems to me to be a terrible mis-use of arts resources – as is much of arts education. What if, instead of paying me and two other artists to come in and talk to the students about theatre, they’d paid us to come in and perform some theatre?
As a teaching artist, I spend the bulk of my time teaching students with little to no experience with my art form. I am almost constantly in the role of ambassador and missionary for my art. It is the supposition of Arts Education that the best way to expose students to art is to have them make it themselves, whether they want to or not. This is not an entirely crazy idea. It does work, to a degree. But I can tell you right now that whatever work I can do to engage students in the art is nothing next to the art itself. Some of the work I do with classes is connected with a production that the students see. Inevitably, it is the production that enthralls, inspires or sparks up the students.

So if I ran Arts Education – students would see much more theatre. Rather than paying artists to come in and teach, arts in education organizations would pay artists to come in and perform. Rather than attempting to integrate theatre into a science unit, they’d commission artists to create work based on the science unit.
If we want a more artistically literate society, we can’t teach them about the work anymore. They have to see it. And lots of it. In the classrooms I work in, if the students have seen one play, they’ve seen more than the average. Yet, we expect them to dive right into acting or playwriting despite having never really seen what they are.
In my ideal Arts Education, we teaching artists could still teach, too. But rather than teaching English classes who would really rather not stand up in a circle thank you very much, we’d teach students who want to learn more about the form. We would only teach students who had an interest.
One of my most successful residencies ever was at a school where they brought me in for the school’s mini-course in theatre. The students wanted to learn more Shakespeare so I helped them stage a short Romeo and Juliet. These were not privileged students, by the way or even students who had much experience with acting. I’m not proposing that arts education should only happen in environments where the students are already accomplished actors or musicians or whatever. I’m proposing that the pre-requisite to learning about an art from an artist be an interest in the art.
This career talk I had to give seemed to be designed to encourage students to consider careers in the arts before they even knew what arts are. This strikes me as terribly irresponsible. A life in the arts isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone in this country – especially not underprivileged middle school kids struggling to survive. What the arts have to recommend are not sexy careers. It’s the art itself that is significant. I WOULD recommend a life with the arts, a life of engaging in, seeing, participating in, enjoying the arts – but until this country supports its artists, it would be much more sensible program to encourage students to be teachers or doctors or entrepreneurs and develop a love for the arts in them, so that when they grow up, they’ll go to the theatre or the ballet or the museum and perhaps commission the teaching artists of tomorrow to create work to share with their children in tomorrow’s schools.

The Open Secret of Non-Profit Arts Organizations

Here’s a fun activity: Choose your favorite arts organization. Maybe one you work for occasionally.  Go to the Foundation Center 990 finder (Foundation Center 990) and type it in. Download their form for the tax year of your choice. Check out Page 5, 6 or 7, Compensation and Key Employees. Then think about what the artists make.

I did this recently with a company I work for – a company where artists’ fees (already below average) were cut last year because of tough economic times. This is also a company (like many others) that has ceased paying artists for their yearly orientation because they “can’t afford to” anymore. In reading their 990 –  I found out that they paid a consultant $120, 000 in 2007 and that the Executive Director made $154,000 a year plus benefits, with a yearly increase of about $4000 to $5000.

Excuse me? What? You’re asking your artists to work unpaid; You decrease their substandard hourly rate;  You provide no guarantee of employment and no access to health insurance and your executive director makes $154,000 a year plus benefits?!?

I really can’t believe the gall. Here’s another fun activity. Do it backwards. This is actually how I was introduced to this delightful little secret. My boyfriend looked at this company’s 990 and then asked me if I recognized some names. (I didn’t know most of them. They were the top earners at the place I work, why would I?) Finally, he found a name I  knew. He said, “You know this guy?”


“You have some idea of what he does?”

“A vague one. I see him at meetings and stuff. He gets CC’d on my emails.”

“How much would you think would be fair to pay this guy?”

I think for a while.  I guess, “I don’t know. Maybe – $45,000?”

“Triple that and you’d be a lot closer.”

It’s a fun game. Aside from the fact that it made me cry. I mean, this Executive Director makes more money than an investment banker in a non-profit dedicated to putting arts in the schools. The “product” that this “factory” makes is Art and the makers of that Art, are us, the Artists. So far this year, I’ve made $5,494 at this organization. No benefits. And after working for these folks for years, I’ve never even met the other people in this agency making 6 figures.

Now, I’ve got no problem with people in the arts and non-profit worlds making a lot of money. We should support the people who do this sort of work, of course. But the ridiculousness of the gap between the artists (scraping to survive in the months when there is no work, everyone I know is looking into food stamps at this point) and the executives who are making big bucks on what we do needs to narrow. I really don’t know how this organization has the nerve to lower artists’ fees and ask for free labor when its Executive Director got another $4/5K raise last year. I really don’t know how they manage to look us in the eye. Oh, wait, they mostly don’t. I’ve only met one of the four top earners in the company.

I haven’t done this with my other employers yet. I’m not sure I can. Once the scales fall from your eyes, it’s hard to put them back. The next time I see that guy who makes over $154,000 a year, I’m only going to see a dude who makes $154,000. It’s going to make it harder for me to smile and nod, which is something that I am required to do in order to continue getting work each year.

What is to be done in this case? I have no authority or power at any arts institution I work for. Because I’m not hired anywhere, no one would have to fire me to get me out of their hair; They can just easily NOT give me any more work and that pesky artist who asks too many questions would be gone for good. So, I’ll be smiling and nodding at meetings as per usual. But, I’m writing this now to let the rest of you know what’s happening. Maybe knowledge can be power instead of making me cry. Let me know what you find.

Side note: Sometimes the 990 finder is a little picky about the name of the organization. I spent forever trying to find an organization and got foiled because it was all one word in the system. Also, lots of organizations file their taxes under a different name. Apparently, Mark Morris Dance Group is AKA “Discaled.”  If you can find the organization’s EIN number, you’ll have a much better shot at tracking them down.

This will help, too. It tells you how to read the 990.

990 Tutorial

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