Teaching Artists: Applying the Breadth of their Skills
By Nancy Ng
Segregating artistic, administrative and development departments are the typical structure of 99% of US non-profit arts organizations. My colleagues who work in such institutions experience chasms between departments and waste time bickering and competing for an even share of resources. Aside from the intention of human resource efficiency, I have never understood the acceptance of this structure.
Upon leaving graduate school I was fortunate to co-lead a small organization, Asian American Dance Performances, where there was no division between the artistic and administrative staff. I happily danced and choreographed while writing my first grants and figuring out excel spreadsheets. I always loved math and spatial relationships, which were the modalities I used to learn dance. After completing a graduate program where my portfolio included a written thesis, performance thesis, and written and oral comprehensive examinations, I was able to talk and write about dance with ease. I could make a case for my artistic work and the work of my fellow artists.
In my dual role as Director of Community Engagement and Teaching Artist at Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California I use the skills I honed on a daily basis – talking, writing and teaching dance. Since 1998 I have worked as a salaried employee at Luna where inherent in our mission and values there is no division between our artistic and administrative staff. This has always been a core value at Luna. We place the art of dance at the center of our work, we believe administrators should not be paid more than artists, and we believe artists bring integrity, flexibility and risk-taking to all phases of program design and implementation. Working with this model of organizational development has its challenges and successes, but after 16 years it is clear that the benefits outweigh the problems we have encountered, and solving these problems has made Luna a stronger more viable organization. As a nimble and tight team we are accountable to each other in all areas – artistic, administrative and financial; this accountability has kept our mission and vision intact and made our programs stronger.
At the National Dance Education Organization conference last week in Chicago I presented with the Luna artistic-administrative team on the theme, “Walking Our Talk: how layered collaborations lead to quality, integrity and possibility”. The panel of Luna teaching artists described our partnerships with each other and with our community collaborators eloquently and succinctly. They answered questions from the session participants with complete ownership of our organization’s mission and core values. I was able to attend another presentation by Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago and it was refreshing to see that just this past year they are also providing full-time employment for teaching artists by offering them administrative roles within the organization. Despite operating on a tight budget, our staff organized themselves as a team to apply for professional development funds to attend this conference. These teaching artist/administrators wrote grants, articulating their professional learning goals. I was also able to approach our board of directors for airplane fare because they see the value and importance of leadership development within our teaching artist staff.
The field of teaching artistry is growing by leaps and bounds. Eric Booth in the recent Guild Notes says, “ . . . this arts education asset (teaching artistry) is maturing into an identifiable field. An expertise that is relied upon broadly in public schools, in arts integration and in many community settings (e.g. healthcare, senior services, businesses, etc.) and that contributes to many innovations in arts learning, deserves recognition commensurate with its contribution.”[i] As teaching artists we can invent and power our own engine. Teaching artist leaders are running arts organizations, developing new business models while teaching and creating art. Luna has recognized this since inception. My colleague Patricia Reedy, founded Luna 23 years ago as a teaching artist, and although it has sometimes been a struggle, I am proud that we offer our teaching artist-administrators full-time employment, health benefits, paid time-off, professional development opportunities and a retirement plan.
Treating dance teaching artists as professional educators results in organic collaborations, efficiency and accountability. We are able to give teaching artists a healthy and sane structure for employment. Luna’s teaching artists work .75 to 1.0 fte. A full-time employee at Luna teaches an equivalent of 10-12 classes per week with the remainder of her time assisting, coordinating or managing a program or resource area. Cherie Hill, our communications manager is also a lead teaching artist at a school site, and she also teaches in MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) and Studio Lab programs. Cherie performs and choreographs (her recent choreography was presented at the Black Choreographer’s Festival). She is a parent of two children, serves on the board of directors for the Sacred Dance Guild and is a research assistant for Rennie Harris. Cherie also mentors other teaching artists as a year-long coach through our Professional Learning program. When I asked her what her thoughts were on integrating her art, teaching practice, career and family she responded, “Performing both teaching and administrative work has opened my eyes to the reality of non-profits and strengthened my understanding of Luna’s mission. When I teach in the classroom I feel confident about the curriculum and when I attend meetings or speak to press I have first-hand knowledge about the organization. Having one full-time job in the field I love enables me to take care of my family and take time off to be involved in other artistic areas.”
I started my teaching artist career 22 years ago. The creativity, fortitude, visioning and relationship skills that I used running a dance company, presenting the work of fellow choreographers and mounting full productions with a composer and lighting designer are the same skills I use in my teaching practice and in my administrative role as Director of Community Engagement at Luna. I had to chuckle the other day when my 10 year old daughter was whining about the expository essay she needed to write. She was fretting about her thesis statement and how she would present the “reasoning” to support her statement. She knows that I write a lot of grants at work, and declared, “I never want a job like yours.” I wanted to explain the complexities of what I do – how choreographing a dance is like writing an expository essay, how my artistic practice supports program development and grant-writing, how managing 10 dancers for an evening length production supports my relationship building and teaching skills, how putting together different ideas in a dance helped me juggle budgeting. The teacher in me knew she was not developmentally ready to process all of this so I just gave myself the pleasure of a laugh inside.
I am excited that arts education organizations are beginning to explore what it means to employ teaching artists as professionals. I hope they are doing so for conscientious reasons – gainful employment, building capacity and leadership for the field of arts education and honoring the integrity of art.
[i] Booth, Eric. “New Times for TAs: A Growth Spurt for Teaching Artistry.” Guild Notes Issue 3 (2014) : 1, 7. Print.