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Teaching Artists and the Future of the Arts

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When students study the arts, they develop their abilities to be creative, plan, explain their thoughts, work together effectively, build theories, make predictions, create analogies, solve complex problems and assess their own work. These are commonly understood as "21st-century skills." What's more, a growing body of research has also shown that arts education correlates strongly with basic competencies -- literacy and numeracy -- and a wide range of other positive outcomes for young people. The bottom line is that children who have more arts education do better in school and in life. Significantly, the correlation happens to be strongest for low-income youth, the students most often failed by our schools.

One would think that would make the arts a high priority for young people in schools and communities everywhere. But, the arts continue to be misunderstood as an unnecessary luxury, and arts programs and teaching positions are generally first on the chopping block when school budgets are tight.

Of course, schools are not the only places where the arts are taught. A recent survey of conservatory and arts program graduates found that nearly four of five have teaching skills and one in four is currently teaching. Many of these are "teaching artists," and their work is the backbone of programs in an amazing spectrum of institutions: nonprofit community arts schools and centers, parks, churches, social service agencies, youth organizations, senior centers, for-profit storefront studios and even jails. My research in a dozen communities from San Diego to Boston found that half teach in primary and secondary schools, a proportion that has surely grown dramatically over the last three decades. Some of the most sophisticated, innovative and successful efforts to improve low-income schools are focused on the arts, and teaching artists are key to all of them. Teaching artists' profile has also risen in theaters, orchestras, dance and opera companies, media centers and literary organizations, though most cultural organizations still make education a secondary priority.

Without any doubt, teaching artists deserve a substantial portion of the credit for the positive effects of the arts on young people's growth and development. Yet, they get very little validation or professional recognition for their vital work.

A bit of history:

Artists have always taught, but teaching artists are a fairly new development in cultural history. The first were hired to run the arts programs at Hull-House (1889), the pioneering early social service and reform "settlement" founded by Jane Addams in Chicago. They taught music, theater, ceramics, painting, drawing and dance. By 1914, there were over 400 settlements across the country, most modeled after Hull-House, and most with robust arts programs led by teaching artists. The settlements were gateways into the arts for some of America's greatest artists. Benny Goodman took clarinet at Hull-House. Langston Hughes wrote and produced his first plays at Cleveland's Karamu House. The influence of the settlements was enormous. One of Addams' great reform campaigns led to the creation of our juvenile justice system, which made rehabilitation a higher priority than punishment for young offenders. Louis Armstrong took cornet lessons while confined to the Home for Colored Waifs, a segregated juvenile detention facility with a band program directed by, that's right, a teaching artist.

Those great artists notwithstanding, the settlements' perspective on the arts began with an understanding that the impulse to create, express and connect is universal, that we all are culture-makers, and that art is highly social, moral and cognitive. The arts were a strategic part of their agenda to make our democracy more robust and inclusive, powerful tools for weaving the webs of social connection that build strong communities and for facing the challenges of social and emotional development while living in poverty. They were for preserving the connections of immigrants to their traditions, and for imagining worlds better and more hopeful than those they had left behind or in now.

Art for people's sake:

People in the arts often assume that applying the arts to social purposes diminishes the art; art should be for arts' sake. Teaching artists at the settlements, though, rediscovered that the arts are for people's sake. The need to communicate, connect and express ourselves is fundamental and biological. The bright line we are told divides art from entertainment, education, individual and community development is fairly new in human history, and it diminishes the complexity and the value of the arts for everyone. It is one of many reasons so many Americans consider the arts unnecessary.

Our nonprofit arts system began at just about the same time as the settlements. The Art Institute of Chicago (1882) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1881) are just a mile-and-a-half from Hull House. Supported generously by wealthy patrons who also controlled their boards and policies, the nonprofits were grounded in the principle of the arts for arts' sake, and they overwhelmed the perspectives and practices of teaching artists at the settlements. They defined the ways Americans -- including many artists, who internalized the oxymoronic notion that real artists don't teach -- have thought about the arts for the past century. But the spirit of the settlements persisted through the federal arts programs of the WPA in the Great Depression, and it reemerged in new forms as the movements for social change of the second half of the 20th century were assimilated by tens of thousands of artists who built new kinds of nonprofit arts organizations that linked the arts to social issues and struggled to reconnect the arts to everyday life once again.

Today, as it becomes clearer that the dominant approaches to school reform of the last 30 years -- standardized testing, charters and "choice" -- are fundamentally bankrupt, it is clear that teaching artists can be an enormous resource for making schools places where children learn better and get a better start in life. Likewise, as it becomes clearer that the quasi-sacred formal "high" arts experience appeals to a narrow, shrinking and aging slice of the American public, it is teaching artists who have the skills and understanding to create artistic experiences that have the resonance, relevance, and meaning needed to reform the arts as well. One hundred thirty-two years after the founding of Hull-House, teaching artists are reminding us once again, that the arts are for everyone, and that making culture is everyone's -- not just professional artists' -- birthright.

[A longer version of this piece is available at Verve, the blog of Marwen, an after-school and weekend arts education program in Chicago for underserved youth.