Most of Western culture defines Art by its nouns—its buildings, its ballades and its ballets. The U.S., in particular, is the noun-centric hub of the known universe, so Art is made of things. However, teaching artists are masters of the verbs of art—the things artists do to make those artworks. They are the same verbs all people use when they make things they care about, in any medium, when their artistry kicks in. Sure, the things made in artistic media—the paintings and modern dances, the art “nouns”—can be valuable and important, often beautiful, even magnificent sometimes. But the power lies in the verbs.
This is from Eric Booth’s new book—Making Change: Teaching Artists and Their Role in Shaping a Better World. The book is many things: a guidebook to theory and practice, an exhortation, an argument, and a plea, all in service of the work to which he has dedicated himself for decades. I hope you’ll want to read it, and what’s more, share it with students, artists, teachers, community members, and policymakers who have some capacity to put Eric’s ideas into practice.
Teaching artists aren’t art teachers, but individuals who offer experiences of art in educational and community settings, helping people of all ages to discover and walk their own paths to creative expression. As Eric writes, “You can find teaching artists, or whatever they are called locally, in every country. They usually work without fanfare and are always underpaid for the amount of good they produce. They work in community centers, in schools, and in art places like museums and performance halls; you’ll find some in hospitals, businesses, government agencies, and prisons. You can probably find them in every city and town, if you take the time to look.”
This short, accessible, and affordable book is full of useful advice and ways of looking at the work of teaching artists. Someone who wants to explore the practice with an eye to getting involved will find a wealth of resources: a capsule history of the field; summaries of values and purposes; descriptions of techniques and fundamentals; a vision of future development; and connections to key resources such as the International Teaching Artist Collaborative and its periodic conferences, in which Eric has played a key role.
You’ll find dozens of examples of teaching artistry in both familiar and surprising settings. I was delighted to read about work in Waterbury, Vermont that created a community lantern parade; the “Dancing Trees” project in Belgrade, Serbia; the Dream Orchestra in Gothenburg, Sweden, offering music lessons and performing opportunities to children who arrived there alone, as refugees; the “Unmasking Climate Injustices” project in Lambunao, in the Philippines’ Iloilo Province; and many more!
In fact, with his interweaving of stories, ideas, and observations, I think Eric has surmounted a problem that is endemic to all community-based and participatory arts practices: conveying the work’s value and power to those who haven’t experienced in themselves. This is major. We are always up against the mindset that says arts work is trivial, a frill in comparison to whatever funders, officials, and bureaucrats believe is essential. Most people who do the work know there’s an antidote to that attitude, which is to enter in, experiencing the depth and impact of the best work firsthand. Short of herding politicians onto buses to neighborhood centers they’re unlikely to have visited previously, there hasn’t been an alternative. This book might well be one.
I’m not going to distract you with my few quibbles, such as lumping “social practice”—nomenclature used to erase community arts while borrowing from its approaches to seek approval and support from museums and other high-art institutions—with truly community-based work. None of them cancels the many reasons to read Making Change: Teaching Artists and Their Role in Shaping a Better World, which you should do right now.
Amy Winehouse, “Teach Me Tonight.”
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