Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement

As a self-proclaimed enthusiast in audience engagement, I felt compelled to respond to Michael Kaiser’s Engaging Audiences article in the Huffington Post last month. Rather than debate point-by-point Kaiser’s position that audience engagement is possibly new window dressing for an old issue or that arts organizations are using this jargon to target selected audiences, I’d like to put forth my own perspective of audience engagement, supported by others in the field, and declare that teaching artists should be leading this charge. I believe if we can utilize the expertise of teaching artists in strategic decisions and core programming within arts organizations, we will make serious inroads to connecting more authentically with our communities and audiences.

Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in a recent report, Making Sense of Audience Engagement, define audience engagement as:

A guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.  Others refer to this vein of work as “enrichment program­ming” or “adult education.”

In their view, an audience engagement philosophy:

  • Encourages each audience member to be a co-creator of meaning
  • Respects the many pathways that people take through the art form
  • Appreciates that not everyone relates to art on an intellectual basis
  • Integrates ‘engagement thinking’ into artistic planning
  • Values audience feedback as a means of engagement

As Richard Evans notes in his response to Michael Kaiser’s blog, many who are truly entrenched and committed to audience engagement do not even use the term. They “describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.”

This notion is reflected in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, which is all about audience engagement, yet doesn’t regularly use the term (if at all):

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests.

So if audience engagement is about utilizing the work of art to facilitate authentic, personally-relevant connections with others and the work of art itself, it seems we have an army of individuals waiting in the wings to be asked to the party. Teaching artists, still frighteningly in the margins of our quest to reinvent arts institutions, are experts in audience engagement. They do the following things exceedingly well:

  • Teach cognitive skills needed to think artistically and creatively
  • Teach aesthetic education, or the ability to make sense of art, not skills-based art-making
  • Understand how to create questions and activities that are relevant to diverse ages and levels of arts education
  • Work across the community, from performing and presenting works for discerning adult audiences as well as in schools in rural and low-income neighborhoods
  • Understand that what they do is spiritual in nature, and help create a link to individuals’ higher selves.

This is a distinct discipline from learning one’s art form to produce finished works of art. A teaching artist is not just an artist or an art teacher; they study and are inherently interested in how others experience art. They are able to craft lesson plans, events, and performances that help facilitate deeper intrinsically-motivated experiences for all types of audiences.

Historically, teaching artists have been relegated to education departments across the nation. In Eric Booth’s The History of Teaching Artistry, the “first national marker of (a) teaching artist commitment was the 1970 launch of a modest Artists-in-Schools Program at the recently established National Endowment for the Arts.” Since then, educational departments and professional development for artists working in public schools have grown tremendously. There is now a generation or two of experienced, highly-professionalized teaching artists who are clawing their way into artistic conversations at large institutions and creating their own non-profits to work with adult audiences.

Programs such as Carnegie Hall’s songwriting program for homeless shelters, led by master teaching artist and composer Tom Cabaniss, are rich with experiences for participants that deepen their relationship with music and each other. (It’s not surprising that Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, began her career as a teaching artist.) Classical Jam, a young ensemble led by NY Philharmonic teaching artist Wendy Law, performs orchestral works with the audience as performer – in this video the connection between the school audience and performers during the performance is palpable.

The point here is not that teaching artist work exists – it certainly does and has been around for at least a couple of decades. The point is that teaching artists can offer the kind of thinking needed for core artistic decisions and even market strategy to help develop truly innovative programming. Designing the experience with a work of art is now as important as the work of art itself, and we need new kinds of talent making key decisions if arts organizations are to survive.

In August, the Seanse Art Center in Oslo, Norway will hold The World’s First International Teaching Artist Conference. With teaching artists from all over the world convening to discuss this still-emerging discipline, I am eager to see how they view teaching artists’ role in the equally adolescent field of audience engagement.

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