"We, as teachers, must keep our questions open—the thronging questions about particular art forms and about art itself and about the place of art in human life." That's Maxine Greene in her 1980 lecture, "Notes on Aesthetic Education" (included in 2001's Variations on a Blue Guitar), articulating a theory in which art appreciation, education, and life itself are intimately intertwined. Greene, who passed away in 2014 at age 96, was a longtime Philosopher-in-Residence at Lincoln Center Education (LCE), the education division at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (formerly called Lincoln Center Institute). Greene inspired the artists at LCE to use their artistry to provide meaningful experiences in the arts to help students of all ages release their imaginations and see more possibilities in and through the arts, notes Jean Taylor, a teaching artist (TA) for Lincoln Center for over 25 years and the current Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instruction. 

It was through the practice of advancing Greene's philosophy that the term "teaching artist" was coined more than 40 years ago at Lincoln Center. "The field widely recognizes Lincoln Center as the founding home of teaching artistry," notes Eric Booth, the man largely credited with professionalizing TAs in education. "The way LCE thinks about, talks about, and trains teaching artists," Booth adds, "is about the most sophisticated and effective in the world."

Today, TAs number in the tens of thousands across the globe (there are 30,000 in the U.S., by some estimates). As their cultural profile grows, TAs increasingly rely on community resources and networks to share best practices. Last week, the International Teaching Artist Conference (ITAC) had its fourth biennial gathering in New York City from September 13–15. Lincoln Center Education was one of three co-hosts behind ITAC4, along with DreamYard and Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute.

"There is a shared vision and commitment to use the arts to 'imagine our world as if it could be otherwise.'"

What exactly is a teaching artist? In 2003, Booth talked to June Dunbar, cofounder and former president of Lincoln Center Institute, for an oral history in the inaugural edition of Teaching Artist Journal. "I guess I was the originator of the term," Dunbar told Booth. "I came up with the words as a reaction to the dreadful one used by my predecessor at what was then known as the Education Department at Lincoln Center. The words they used to describe the activities of artists in schools sounded to me like a description for a typewriter repairman…[or] plumber: Resource Professional."

Booth, a former Broadway actor who has been a TA for nearly 40 years and founded Juilliard's Arts-in-Education program, describes his job this way: "A teaching artist is an artist who expands her artistry to directly engage with participants in community and educational settings." In other words, a TA is a practicing artist who interacts with students or members of a community to educate, inform, and stimulate others' aesthetic awareness, all through an experiential immersion in the arts.

Booth says you will find TAs in schools (naturally), but also doing social-service work in shelters, clinics, or prisons. They're also highly valued at senior centers, where "creative aging," Booth reports, is the fastest growing sector of the work. "Around the world, they are quietly performing heroic work to help communities and connect arts organizations with young people," he marvels. "It is one of the great under-acknowledged success stories of the arts. Teaching artists are the answer to all accusations of artistic elitism."

The Fine (and Hard to Define) Art of Teaching Artists
Photo by Cristofer Reyes
Jean Taylor leads a session at the International Teaching Artist Conference (ITAC)

"Being a teaching artist is now a career choice—beautiful, challenging work that draws deeply on your artistic practice as you develop skills and strategies to activate the artistry of others," Taylor explains. "We're building a global community, and that's thrilling." Taylor, who has facilitated workshops in Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, and Mexico, also teaches theatrical clown for the New School for Drama and others. She has attended every ITAC conference since the beginning in 2012 in Oslo.

"In Oslo, we teaching artists came together to share our work and began to imagine the possibilities of an international field," Taylor explains. "In Brisbane in 2014, teaching artists co-created projects designed to help move the field forward. And in Edinburgh in 2016, we looked at our best practices and challenged ourselves to develop more 'radical,' innovative approaches to the arts and arts education."

Taylor reports that 37 countries were represented in ITAC4's 250 delegates this year, a testament to the far reach of the practice. "Within the past six years alone," she says, "the international teaching-artist community has grown into a dynamic, diverse, global force for the arts and arts education. There is a shared vision and commitment to use the arts to 'imagine our world as if it could be otherwise.'"

This year's ITAC explored the artist as instigator, discussing the roles, responsibilities, and impact on global communities. At the conference, participants engaged in workshops and panels about sustainability, political activism, decolonizing space, and innovative ways to engage diverse communities—all with the goal of making an artistic mindset part of everyday experience.

"The greatest hope for the work of TAs is that students develop a sense of agency, a deep understanding that the choices they make can have impact," Taylor says. "To accomplish this, we start with the art!"

So, teaching artistry starts with delving into works of art. But where does it go from there? What is the future of the field? "As cultural organizations across the world strive to measure the impact of their artistic mission, increase equitable access to the arts, and re-define the relevance of the arts in an ever-changing world," says Alex Sarian, Acting Executive Director of Lincoln Center Education, "teaching artists serve as the connective tissue between our institutions and the people we seek to serve. Because of this, Lincoln Center's commitment to teaching artists is unwavering. While we are used to hosting teaching artists for training programs every summer, we were particularly thrilled to welcome so many global delegates to New York City for ITAC to continue to strengthen this international community of practitioners."

David Cote is Content Coordinator at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.