Still Hoping to Change the World
Like many artists, I have reinvented myself a few times along the way: ceramist, performance artist, musician, teaching artist, vaudevillian. It’s not that any of those careers failed to thrive. It’s just that while following one’s passion, one thing leads to another. My Teaching Artist career has evolved quite naturally from (and alongside) the others. Sharing my art with kids was (and still is) a great way to deconstruct and better understand my own creative process – and the interactions I have with children engaging in my art form continue to inform what I do as an artist.
Alas, those interactions are occurring less and less frequently. For me, the halcyon days of arts-in-education were the 1990’s and the 2000’s. New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) launched its Empire State Partnerships (ESP) collaboration with the New York State Education Department in 1996. Suddenly artists who worked in schools were being recognized as education professionals. We were supported with ample program funding, professional development, and even a job title: Teaching Artist! Opportunities abounded for digging deeply into the field of arts integration: long term residencies, action research with teachers and museum educators, customized assessment tools, networks to share practices and findings with others in the field. We really felt empowered to change the world!
I look back to an article I wrote in 2008: “Wouldn’t it be great if we, as Teaching Artists, could contribute to a growing body of research that is striving to demonstrate quantitatively and qualitatively the values of learning in and through the arts? And wouldn’t it be great if, through this process, we could grow both as artists and educators – improving and refining our practice and our knowledge base along the way?” I still hope for those things, but the landscape has changed dramatically.
ESP folded when NYSCA decided that integrating arts into the core curriculum was no longer part of its mission. Over a period of a few years, the funding stream choked to a trickle. Some arts organizations dissolved. Others scrambled to re-group, cut programming, and shake the bushes to find other funding sources. Meanwhile, public schools (at least those in my area) were succumbing to greater and greater top-down management resulting in tighter purse strings and less and less autonomy. The result? While the demand for authentic, well-integrated arts experiences was still strong on the part of the students, teachers, and building administrators, most programming of this sort simply vanished.
So what is a Teaching Artist to do? I still enjoy the occasional opportunity to get into a classroom and share my art. I still have a set of skills that I have developed through years of reflective practice and professional development (thank you ESP). I still find interacting with students an enriching experience for the artist in me. But I sure miss that feeling of being able to change the world. Will the winds of educational politics shift to once again fill my sails? Who knows? Meantime, there’s a vaudeville group with my name on it!
Ward Hartenstein is a composer, performer, educator, and instrument inventor living and working in Rochester, New York. His instruments are handcrafted from clay and other materials, including recyclables and found objects. He performs at schools, museums, and festivals, and collaborates with other artists, dancers, and musicians. As a teaching artist for thirty-plus years, he uses original music and musical instruments to educate children in a variety of subject areas ranging from music to language arts to science - always with an emphasis on creativity.