Gothenburg, Sweden, a port city on the North Sea, has become a major endpoint in the journeys of refugees from a host of countries in turmoil—Afghanistan, Syria, Albania, Somalia, and many more. Some of these refugees are children and teenagers who arrived alone, without their families, after terrifying journeys of uncertainty and danger. Seven years ago, teaching artists at a community music for social change program began giving these young people instruments and group lessons (and, often, food and shelter); today, they are accomplished members of The Dream Orchestra,2 a performing and touring ensemble that participates fully in Gothenburg life. The orchestra became their family, and the music became their lifeline.
It’s just one story among thousands in which engaging in the arts provided solutions to some of the world’s most intractable challenges. This book introduces the workforce of artists, called teaching artists, who do this work. With joy.
There is an entire profession dedicated to activating people’s artistry. These professionals know how to awaken artistry. They know how to develop it. They know how to guide it toward positive results, results that matter. In this book, we call them teaching artists.
Teaching artists do this through music, often and effectively bringing participants, including new audiences, more deeply into orchestral or Western classical music. Teaching artists also work, of course, in all artforms. At orchestras across the U.S., musicians connect with their communities through music in a variety of offstage programs—a form of teaching artistry in action aimed to accomplish goals of special interest to orchestras. Growing numbers of orchestras, conservatories, and individual musicians are engaging with multiple communities in ongoing, up-close-and-personal programs that respond to perceived needs. Though those programs may or may not utilize the training and expertise required of professional teaching artists, they share the same aspirations and use many of the same precepts and goals.
What’s the purpose of teaching artistry?
When activating people’s innate artistry, teaching artists can guide that energy toward many goals. My analysis of employment in the field finds seven major goals teaching artists are hired to deliver.
1. To develop important personal or social capacities
Creative youth development programs around the world build leadership skills and increase life options for young people in stressful situations and historically underserved communities. Creative aging, which engages older people in creative projects, has proven to have dramatically positive, life-extending (and cost-saving) impact. You have probably heard of El Sistema, the Venezuelan program that provides free orchestral-music education for young people, and hundreds of other programs that use music for social change around the world; young musicians from challenging backgrounds thrive in this thread, finding new options for their lives as a result of guidance by teaching artists.
2. To enhance the life of communities
There is a long history of using collective artmaking—murals, choruses, parades (hello, Mardi Gras) and more—to celebrate the community, to handle serious setbacks, and to address pressing issues.
3. To impact political and social movements
Activist artists have long been influential in moving the public toward greater commitment for positive social change.
4. To achieve goals important to non-arts institutions
Organizations and agencies are catching on to the fact that teaching artists can help them accomplish things they struggle with: more innovation in corporations, better health outcomes, better communication in government agencies, stronger public engagement in community development, safer streets, more peaceful prisons, better nutrition, less litter—on and on.
5. To deepen the development of artmaking skills
Artist training programs, conservatories, and university arts departments increasingly recognize that the skills of teaching artistry expand the understandings and careers of emerging artists, widening the range of exploration and creation—and those skills make them more employable too.
6. To boost the learning of non-arts subjects
Schools (and professional development programs) use arts-integrated projects to raise academic achievement and learner engagement, even in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math)—which become STEAM programs by adding the arts.
7. To enrich encounters with art works
Performing arts groups and museums rely on teaching artists to deepen the experiences of current audiences, to broaden their reach, and excite currently disengaged audiences and to develop future audiences.
This is where teaching artists come in. They can activate the artistry in pretty much anyone, opening up an entire range of possible benefits, both instrumental and intrinsic—from better health outcomes in the senior living center to a deeper experience of Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Art for Art’s Sake? Or More?
That range of goals shows the wide embrace that teaching artistry brings. There’s been a long debate in the U.S. and other Western cultures about the purpose of art: “art for art’s sake” versus “art for practical purposes.” One camp celebrates the power of art to enrich life in ways nothing else can or ever has: Walter Benjamin described this as “a theology of art.” These devoted “people of the arts” want to protect that force from getting diluted or polluted by practical application, creating safe havens and the unfortunate by-product of ever-higher prices. The other camp recognizes the distinctive, sometimes unique, potential of art to create positive change in the world—an equally estimable cause, since the world could do with some improvement. “Art for art’s sake” is about the intrinsic enrichment that experiencing or making art brings to our lives and cultures. “Art for positive change” is about the many benefits that the arts can be instrumental in producing.
For a long time, these two positions were opposed and entrenched, arguing their respective merits in the court of public perception and to prospective funders. Funders care about both, which is why you see both in the goals teaching artists are hired to deliver listed above, but they have cared about art for art’s sake a whole lot more. That perspective has had far more power, more money, and more status—no wonder we refer to the “high arts” and build glorious temples for them. Art in the practical and everyday world is omnipresent but doesn’t get a capital “A” or the temples or the hefty funding.
Is this really an either-or, high-low, Art-vs.-art conundrum? Not according to a 2005 research report from the Wallace Foundation. Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts recognized that, obviously, both kinds of impact are valuable; society wants and needs both. Humans have always wanted and needed both. The report clarified the relationship between the two kinds of impact, concluding that you can only get the instrumental benefits if you go through the gateway of the intrinsic. In other words, humans have to experience artistry personally, in some way, in order to open the door for all those other more practical (and more measurable) benefits the arts can bring. Nobody buys a symphony ticket to improve the economic viability of their downtown. But if enough people have rewarding artistic experiences in the concert hall, they come back with friends, have dinner at a local restaurant, and support the downtown economy. No student tries to capture the drama of a scene about Frederick Douglass meeting Abraham Lincoln in order to improve their midterm test score, but if they pour their heart into the significance of that encounter and try to capture its drama in a scene they write, their test scores in American History go up. There is no shortcut; you can’t just skip to the practical payoffs of the arts without activating (and enjoying) the messier and less-conveniently measurable business of personal artistry.
The advice of the great 20th-century physicist David Bohm has been a guideline for my life: any time you see seeming opposites, look for the greater truth that contains them both. For me and for other teaching artists, the deeper truth underneath the push-pull of art for art’s sake versus art for social impact is art for many sakes. Both intentions spring from the same source, and our positive future requires tapping that deeper source. Teaching artists are the workforce that can activate everyone’s birthright access to that deeper source, their artistry.