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excerpt from “A Brief, Broad History of the Teaching Artist” by  Professor G. James Daichendt

Introduction:  Teaching Artist as Innovator

In a sense teaching artists have existed as long as humans have been making art.  The earliest preserved cave art shows evidence of artists practicing their renderings, and exploring particular artistic and thematic problems across multiple drawings, and of adolescents working alongside children (Guthrie, 2007).  Art making, by its nature, is an activity that can only be learned by doing.  So even as artists have always taught techniques and concepts, they have also worked alongside students as fellow artists.  It is this same hybridity and spanning of teaching/learning and making that most characterizes teaching artist practice today. 

This essay is an attempt to put the recent emergence of the particular teaching artist identity, profession and movement in the U.S. into a broader historical context. I hope it will be both useful and thought provoking to teaching artists.  It is far from exhaustive; rather it is a brief and selective survey and an invitation and provocation to further study.

This essay does advance an argument: that the history of the teaching artist can be understood as a history of the attempt to unite the theory and practice of art making through a teaching approach that overlaps with art making and is, in itself, a kind of artistic and creative process.  In this sense the teaching artist, historical or modern, is not a special case or unique identity, but rather reflects the hybridity of art making itself, and the dual role of all artists as makers and communicators.

The American phenomenon of the teaching artist is an exciting development in art education that continues to innovate learning and teaching art in a variety of contexts. The current teaching artist movement represents many progressive philosophies and a fundamental change in traditional classroom art education. It also has an intellectual heritage that dates back to progressive schools like the Bauhaus which in turn had similarities to the workshop mentality that characterized art teaching during the medieval era.

Despite the recent emergence of a more visible teaching artist field in the U.S, the foundational elements of this work draw upon a long history of artists applying their professional and specialized knowledge. The teaching artist represents a unique combination of art practice and education that plays out both inside and outside traditional paradigms of education. Teaching artists have a distinct place in the history of art education based upon their professional identity and their primary role as practicing artists. From private studios and public school classrooms to large performing arts centers and museums teaching artists have had a considerable impact on American education over the last century and a growing impact in this one.

There are as many types of teaching artists as there are types of artists. Teaching artists also work beyond the context of schools: in libraries, youth centers, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. The potential reach of the teaching artist is limitless—an important scope to consider as the history and development of the teaching artist is closely connected to the roles of the artist in both formal and informal contexts.  These artists who are not restricted to a particular type of art making context use their experience, practices, processes, and interest in learning and apply it across a range educational, community, cultural and institutional spheres. The rise of the teaching artist has been and continues to be a fundamental aspect of art education and a key component in the development of some of the most successful teaching philosophies and methodologies to date. As teaching artists continue to break barriers, the many pedagogies they enact continue to represent some of the most innovative practices of artists in the public sphere.

Teaching artists work in music, drama, and the literary arts and an infinite number of specialties in the visual arts and other media—almost any kind of art making has its teaching artists.  I’ve emphasized the history of visual art because this is my area of expertise, but this means that there are gaps in this history particularly as regards the teaching of writing in the 20th Century. I hope that the general trends described are useful in giving the reader a sense of the larger developments across disciplines. It’s also the case that many teaching artists work outside traditional teaching contexts and their work has at times been a catalyst for social and political change. In this essay I have highlighted many individuals and movements in teaching artist work, but I have had to omit many more.

This essay also focuses mainly on Classical, European and American traditions in the arts and deals heavily with the visual arts.  This emphasis reflects the author’s particular expertise and the fact that, for better and worse, the theory, ideology and practice of the teaching of art in America, and therefore the history of the teaching artist field in America, has been shaped heavily by European traditions.  It is, however, by no means an indication that the vast range of traditions and practices outside this sphere are less important, less innovative or less relevant to teaching artist work.  American art and art practice has been profoundly shaped by indigenous cultures, as well as non-European immigrant and colonial ones.  What defines American art, music and culture as distinctly American is largely the result of the cultural contributions of African slaves and their descendants, American Indians, Spanish, Mexican and Mestizo cultures of the Southwest and the many European and non-European immigrations that have shaped this country’s history.   

It should also be understood that the contributions and innovations of marginalized peoples and cultures to American arts education were and are important to arts practice and arts education practice in general, and not only as features of a particular tradition.  For instance in the decades following their forcible removal from ancestral lands in Southern Appalachia to Arkansas in the 1830’s, the Cherokee Nation established one of the most advanced and comprehensive systems of public schooling on the continent.  This period also saw the rapid development and spread of an innovative written Cherokee language and its application to both the chronicling of traditional Cherokee oral traditions and new literature and journalism.  Such important developments should be studied and understood both for the light they shed on how Cherokee culture has shaped American culture, but also how Cherokee educational and literary innovations have contributed to our broader understanding and practice of education and literacy.

Similarly, the near-absence of women in the annals of art history and the history of arts education until the 20th century is not a reflection on a dearth of their contributions but rather reveals significant weaknesses and gaps in our institutions and intellectual traditions. A deeper examination of the material reasons for such gaps is essential if we are to develop a more rigorous and meaningful scholarship in the history of arts education, scholarship that can help to advance teaching artist practice that works to help create the conditions for social equality for women and the oppressed. Women’s relative marginalization in European and American art history overlaps with the marginalization of artistic activities that were typically associated with women’s work such as quilting and fiber arts and also associated with the artistic output of other oppressed populations—like the practice of African-American quilters in the United States or many American Indian artistic and craft traditions.

Despite the fact that there is currently a vibrant and exciting rediscovery of many of these enduring traditions and media in teaching artist practice, it is important to recognize the limitations of this short history in this sense, particularly in an era in which many non-European traditions and arts practices are playing an ever more important role in teaching artist work.  The intent here is not to provide a comprehensive history but rather to give the reader a sense of the depth and breadth of the concepts, people, and movements that have informed and influenced current teaching artist practice in the U.S.—the intellectual and artistic heritage of the American teaching artist. 

 Another goal of this essay is to contribute to the larger discussion of how teaching artists define themselves and their field. Erickson (1979) values art education histories as a means of understanding the origins of terms and setting a foundation for future research questions. There is of course no objective history and no one history of anything; rather any history is part of a much larger narrative that involves many voices (Hamblen, 1984). Histories of art education can serve as an initiation into the field of art education for a reader, and can create a sense of belonging and clarification of ideas (Erickson, 1979). The knowledge and understanding gained through the study of past work can feed our consciousness as we formulate new questions about current and future practice of teaching artistry (Erickson, 1979).