In preparing for a speech to the first international teaching artist conference in Oslo at the end of August, I have been taking a thirty thousand view of our field. Looking at the patterns on the landscape, I was struck with an obvious trend I hadn’t seen before.
When I began in arts education in the late 70’s, there were two main streams of arts education outside schools—for lack of consensus terms, let’s call them high arts and community arts. The goal of the former was to bring people into impactful experiences of the four art forms (literary and media arts joined along the way). The goal of the latter was to improve communities and people’s lives through the arts. The two sides were pretty separate (even with overlap in practice and personnel), with some suspicion, even lingering prejudices: some community artists thought that teaching artists had swallowed the Kool-Aid of the arts institutions and were too subservient to their needs; some teaching artists felt community artists settled for second-rate art.
In the ‘90s, a third stream grew clear—art for the sake of learning. This intention to boost learning in schools and in communities (and elsewhere, like businesses) was a mission greater than that of the arts institutions that hired TAs, and in-tune with the needs of communities. There was overlap, but the three steams were identifiable.
Here is the trend I recognized recently: the three streams are coming together. The overlap is greater, the distinctions are blurring, and ay residual hostility and attitude is evaporating. I see it in practice. Carnegie Hall, a temple of the high arts, is deeply dedicated to community work in its Musical Connections program, employing teaching artists who are superb in both high art and community art practices. Many other arts organizations, in increasing numbers, are investing in their community-focused programs, getting serious about making an impact on improving communities.
Conversely, El Sistema, both in Venezuela, and now in 56 U.Ss cities and 57 countries around the world, was born as a hybrid—an unabashed community and youth development project that aspires to high art so effectively that they now produce some of the best orchestras in the world. And increasingly, art-for-sake-of-learning programs recognize that they are more effective when they engage more fully with communities and take advantage of the power of the high arts. This August, I was leading an orchestral innovation retreat in Vermont, and the highlight was an experiment of an amazing performance in a women’s prison by solo violinist Tracy Silverman, which was so skillfully shaped that it culminated with the inmates weeping at the beauty of Bach.
There is power in this merge. Can you feel it? I can. No more wasted internecine struggles that deplete energy. No more divisions that the world doesn’t give two hoots about. It makes us stronger, more diverse, more skilled change agents, for communities, schools, the future of arts institutions, and people’s lives. Art for the sake of what matters: learning, communities, art, democracy, joy.