Teaching Artists Issue Call to Action

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April 4, 2021—I firmly believe programs that provide youth with opportunities for creative development and expression are more critical than ever. These programs contribute to youth being able to successfully interact, work with and dialogue with others. This makes the arts, as education reformer John Dewey once described, the cornerstone of democracy and civic engagement. As I outline in my forthcoming book, Champions for the Arts, the key to the success of all of these programs is dedicated Teaching Artists.

Two teaching artists recently wrote a letter that caught my attention, and I want to share it with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections. The letter titled “My Dearest Arts Organization, Are You Listening?,” was written by Teaching Artists Miko Lee and Jennifer Ridgway. It was published in GuildNotes, the quarterly journal of the National Guild for Community Arts Education.

The letter is a “call to action;” an effort to propel arts organizations to address the concerns that Teaching Artists and their colleagues have about the lack of equitable treatment; the need for racial justice, and the importance of creating a vibrant arts ecosystem for the youth and/or communities they serve.

In their introduction to the letter, Ms. Lee, who is Interim Executive Director of the Teaching Artists Guild, and Ms. Ridgway wrote:

 Since the beginning of the pandemic, teaching artists have gathered in support of each other in closed calls, where they felt safe. In this environment, they shared: grief and painful experiences, worries and concerns, and dreams of returning to their artmaking in a just and equitable nation and world… This letter is an invitation to widen your perspective about the teaching artist experience…

The Teaching Artists noted that many of their colleagues are leaving the field due to “toxic relationships” with arts organizations—not being treated equitably; being excluded from decision-making processes impacting their work, and/or not feeling that their contributions to the organizations were valued. They posed the question: “What does it mean when teaching artists want out of the field, when they are at the heart of the work?”

The letter also included a step-by-step checklist intended to help generate dialogue and help arts organizations and Teaching Artists re-envision their relationship. Among the checklist action steps: adding Teaching Artists to the board of arts organizations; including Teaching Artists in program development and assessment, and paying them equitably for their expertise, time and energy.

The following organizations are planning to collaborate on a series in fall of 2021 to address specific ways to carry out the checklist recommendations: Teaching Artists Guild, Teaching Artists of the Mid-Atlantic, National Guild for Community Arts Education, Lincoln Center Education, NYC Arts in Education Roundtable, New 42, and Community Word Project.

I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to check out the letter. If you are an arts administrator, how has reading this letter impacted your views of your organization’s relationship with its Teaching Artists and what are your next steps? If you are a Teaching Artist, what are some of the ways you want your relationship with arts organizations to change and what action will you take? Please share your thoughts and comments below. Let’s dialogue!

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