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Teaching Artists as Essential Workers: Respect, Collaboration, and Heft

ISSUE 7 • September 2020

Teaching Artist image, a student captivated in their seat during a performance.
Image: Photo credit: Alexis Buatti Ramos, Courtesy of New

By Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

with contributions from
Courtney J. Boddie and Lindsey Buller Maliekel, New 42
Victoria Row-Traster, Miami Theater Center
Stanford Thompson, Play On Philly

This blog post belongs to WolfBrown’s series, Navigating the Crisis. This series is a collection of research papers, blogs and announcements that critically examine the arts sector’s response to COVID-19. In this piece, In this piece, Dennie Palmer Wolf imagines the possibilities for teaching artists in the context of COVID-19. She writes “This time, strange as it is, is not time out; it’s time to plunge deep in.”

Some things stick: I was out walking with a colleague who had a long career as a teaching artist when her phone rang. It was a student from years before with whom she had kept in close touch. He was frantically negotiating a deportation order in a city 2,000 miles away and knew his former horn teacher would answer and act. (When I fact-checked this memory, she wrote back to say that since leaving the orchestra program, she has dealt with family deportation/immigration issues at least a dozen times. In fact, she had texted with a former student about a DACA issue just that day, in the midst of caring for her own new baby.)

Yes, this is a high-pitched example. But for many young people, teaching artists (like their arts teachers) are the first people who certified their passion for writing, or their tentative steps to being a dancer.

Teaching artists are among the first responders in a crisis where access to realizing your creativity is too reliably predicted by income and address. 

A teaching artist may have escorted them out of the neighborhood, onto a bus, anddowntown to their first–ever play or lent them a world class trumpet to audition for a jazz summer camp (Wolf & Rodriguez Pineda, 2019). Teaching artists are walking embodiments of the possibility that many people—with many languages, histories, and ethnicities—can be artists. In classrooms, after-school programs, and parks, they invent “third spaces” between home and school where it’s possible to forge complex, intersectional identities (Guttiérrez, 2008). Teaching artists, along with their arts teacher colleagues, carry the work of theaters, museums, and writing projects into unpredictable, under-served classrooms, afterschool programs, or vacation and summer camps. In that sense they are the first responders in a crisis where access to realizing your creativity is too reliably predicted by income and address.

Yet, despite being essential workers in the arts, teaching artists have been hit hard by the COVID-19 shuttering of cultural institutions, regularly having their hours reduced or being furloughed indefinitely. In a now infamous email, the Museum of Modern Art told its museum educators“it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services” (Gutiérrez, K.D., 2008). These losses come at a particularly sensitive time. Predictions about post-pandemic school budgets all forecast deep spending cuts which are likely to affect funding for arts education partnerships of all kinds including long-term residencies, field trips, and assembly programs.  And, in the background, changing state employment laws may soon call upon cultural organizations (and others) to treat free-lance artists as employees, winning them new rights and benefits, but also making them 20 – 30% more expensive to hire, thus potentially shrinking the number of positions organizations can afford.The issues are long-standing and complex: teaching artists have always juggled thetrade-offs between artistic autonomy and flexibility of worker-at-will on the one hand and the protections and security of employee status on the other. But in spring of 2020 that balancing act has become a knife’s edge: this is the moment for work that is more respectful, collaborative, and hefty.

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Otis Redding, as belted out by Aretha Franklin, got it right: respect is where it all begins. Let’s contrast that infamous MOMA email with a letter sent by Stanford Thompson to his board and donors at Play On Philly (POP), an orchestral music program for youth in Philadelphia. 

The majority of our site staff and teachers depend on freelance teaching and performing opportunities to supplement their POP income. Almost all of their income outside POP has dried up as concerts are cancelled and programs like POP temporarily close. As (our treasurer) said in a recent exchange If we dont support our teachers financially during this disruption while continuing to pay our core admin staff, we will create ill-will and encourage them to move on… [Compensating them] is an investment in our future and they represent the core of what we do. This has a weekly cost of $20,000. While we have communicated this past Friday to paying them for the next three weeks, a second communication will now go out that it is our intent to pay them through the remainder of the school year whether or not the schools reopen. Providing this peace of mind will help us create the sense of community we’re trying to foster throughout the organization.

Despite having a strategic plan through which the organization built cash reserves, when schools were cancelled, the senior staff quickly realized the marathon they were beginning with the health crisis and the impending recession soon to follow. Thompson’s team worked with the board to reduce immediately any further spending in anticipation of further closings and cancellations.  They quickly shared news of the decisions they made in order to outrun the impending recession with funders, donors, and the entire staff: 

  • All teaching artists and program staff (none of whom are classified as “independent contractors”) would still be paid for all scheduled hours through the end of the school year.
  •  Senior staff would experience the first pay cuts of 20% on May 1, with Thompson taking a voluntary 30% reduction.
  • The remaining staff members would join in salary reduction eight weeks later at the end of June
    • Staff members with families would face a smaller reduction and those who are the sole earners in their household would take the smallest reduction.
    • Program delivery staff would experience a reduction of hours in the event that summer programs transitioned online or were cancelled. These employees would be eligible to apply for unemployment benefits through the CARES Act to replace lost income.
  • For employees currently enrolled in POP’s healthcare plan, each will have the full cost of their benefits covered for themselves and their families, even as pay reductions are enacted.

This level of transparency, even as the organization waits to learn about summer and fall possibilities, illustrates respect in action.

Transparency is respect in action – it means named parties stepping up to communicate clearly about what the situation is, what the consequences are, for whom, and over what period of time

It is an example of communicating clearly about the current situation, sharing what the consequences are for whom, and over what period of time. It is a model for the ways in which executive directors and boards have to step up, sign their names, and take questions from the essential workers they employ.

Such transparency is not just for announcements. As the models for arts and cultural organizations shift in a COVID-19 world, what if arts and cultural organizations invested even modest dollars to welcome teaching artists into fundamental decisions about the design and conduct of the work they do: 

  • Work collaboratively to re-image mission-aligned program offerings with stakeholders like funders and donors to take advantage of a moment when old models and rules are likely to be suspended
  • Write new curricula and create new art that can be used online and in person once social distancing is relaxed, using the opportunity to think through mutually respectful and remunerative ownership models
  • Design and conduct virtual internships with college and high school students, working out credit with local community colleges and districts and welcoming young people into the field

But, as they take up these opportunities, teaching artists have to be more than grateful. They have to seize the responsibilities of being co-designers of the new normal. In these new assignments, they have to raise questions and invent the path to a new normal: “What are the qualifications for doing this kind of work? What is a fair rate of pay? “Who owns and earns from the work in the long term” (di Liscia, V., 2020).

Photo Credit: Community Word Project

2. Collaboration

Teaching artists prize their free-agent status, but inventing a new normal will require much more joint action among teaching artists and across organizations. Some argue this is the solidarity of unionization such as that being undertaken by museum workers in Seattle.[5] But potentially, it is also flexing the muscle of collaboration that arts education organizations have been developing. For example, consider ArtistYear in Philadelphia (and other locations) or the Teaching Artist Project (TAP), hosted by Community Word Project in New York City, both of which provide apprenticeships for rising teaching artists, taught by senior TA’s, building deeper pools of young talent that benefit many organizations throughout their cities and regions.

During COVID-19, theaters for youth and families in Miami are learning to link arms in wholly new ways. They each realized that every theater adding its own content to the deluge of materials coming on line for teachers was a recipe for disaster. Jairo Ontiveros at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts reached out to VictoriaRow-Trasterat the Miami Theater Centerand Annie Hoffman at the South Miami Dade Cultural Center, and together they went to Patricio Suarez, the Director of the Performing Arts in the Division of Academics Office to work out a solution. Acting in concert, they designed and coordinated online resources that could flow directly to teachers as an integral part of the online school day supported by the district. As a result, teachers saw this new content as coming from trusted venues that schools had been visiting for years.

Taking collaboration a step further, Row-Traster developed both standard issue lessons and more relaxed ones that featured family members as participants, filmmakers, and audiences. They tested the two approaches with a sample of long-term subscriber families and got a rousing endorsement for the looser, more unbuttoned, format. Families wrote back that they loved seeing real live people struggle with a new dance step or a circus trick, making the performances seem do-able, enjoyable, and open to all family members.  Based on the pilot, all three Miami theater organizations are keeping teaching artists employed developing the flow of materials to the public schools. Given that Miami-Dade County is one of the large school districts where a majority of students have access to technology, this joint effort is ensuring that many students and families, not just those at schools who purchased field trips or residencies, have access to the work of the region’s foremost theaters for young audiences.

It’s crucial that new habits of collaboration not dial back once arts organizations and school districts can go back to earlier ways of doing business.

As with respect, it’s crucial that these new habits of collaboration not dial back once arts organizations and schooldistricts return to earlier ways of doing business. Imagine a scenario in which schools cannot resume classes until the spring of 2021. Are field trips, their bread and butter offerings, dead? What if the Miami theater consortium (or a group of dance venues in Chicago or museums in Phoenix) worked jointly on a project that totally re-imagined field trips.[6] Suppose that during the fall, each theater selected an upcoming production and charged its staff and teaching artists to design materials and experiences that would build up to actual performances in 2021. Suppose the three organizations, still working with the district, developed a common stream of materials linked to their specific productions: 

  • Learning about play readings and participating in small group versions,
  • Developing readers’ theater that could be broadcast, segment-by-segment, from students’ homes, using internet or public access TV,
  • Exploring what it takes to design sets, props, and costumes with those theater professionals
  • Going behind the scenes with directors and actors, designed to give insights into the choices a performance entails
  • Writing and editing a playbill for the show that draws on all that youth and families learned
  • Culminating in a spring trip to see the actual production for both students and their families

On the one hand, these kinds of collaborative ventures are structures for sharing, rather than hoarding, available work, stabilizing the field and keeping more lives whole. On the other hand, they could also be laboratories for energizing and expanding the creative lives of frontline workers – teachers and teaching artists alike. Finally, if we were lucky, such projects could build the arts more affordably and equitably into school systems serving all children and families.

3. Heft

“Heft?” – “Yes, heft.”  It is an Old Norse word for the feeling of weight, as in “a high-quality hammer should have good balance and heft.” Here it refers to being able to do weighty, in the sense of satisfying, work—something that can be out of reach for teaching artists. Many work for at least four to five different organizations and enter two or three times that many classrooms or other settings, most of which change from year to year. Being spread this thin can be a source of learning (and income) for a novice. But over the long haul, these working conditions wear talented people out and fuel churn in the field, robbing the field of village elders. So, as long as we are envisioning a different world of teaching artistry, let’s imagine one that nurtures heft—the opportunity to do in-depth, impactful work. 

Earning enough to keep body and soul together involves teaching artists in dashing from place to place and always being spread thin … So, as long as we are envisioning a different world of teaching artistry, let’s imagine one that nurtures heft – the opportunity to do in-depth, impactful work.

From 2013 – 2019, the Tana and Pierre Matisse Foundation supported the New Victory Theater’s SPARK program that brought theater residencies and performances to elementary and middle schools in under-resourced neighborhoods in New York City. The project involved a corps of experienced teaching artists in becoming artist-researchers. Across the several years the participating teaching artists (a core of fifteen) helped to design and staff the in-school residencies at the same time that they also helped WolfBrown build the project’s research tools and data collection strategies. As a result, the project featured new assessments rooted in the performing arts that multiplied the ways in which students’ could show what they understood. (For example, artists helped researchers maximize the quality of the data WolfBrown collected, teaching us how to use carefully scaffolded warm-ups and strategies to help students enter a “what if” improvisatory frame of thinking and responding.) As members of the research team, they regularly reviewed emerging findings and raised hard questions.

Sam Jay Gold and Lauren Sharpe, both long-term SPARK artist-researchers, underscore the two-way contributions of this hefty work. Gold outlines how artists’ skepticism about measurement contributed to the final integrity of the research:

When I first became a SPARK researcher, I was intrigued, but skeptical. As an artist and educator, I always want constructive feedback. But was it even possible to quantify and measure student growth within theater workshops when our work is so fundamentally rooted in personal expression, unplanned discoveries, and individual interpretation?

Throughout the SPARK project, our team of teaching artist researchers met to unpack facilitation methodologies, new challenges, and biases. We continued to question the practical possibilities of our project while striving to facilitate it as best as possible. The SPARK research project gave me a wholly new window into examining the impact of theater on young people. It revealed blind spots in our practice and deepened my approach to arts education.  — Sam Jay Gold

Sharpe used those same experiences to inform her practice with:

 “a deeper understanding about how you can open a door with your questions, but not force a young person through it. How you can listen to what they say and learn what they think, not what they say because of the way you asked or responded. It gave me a new lens for thinking about my own teaching practice almost immediately. When was I asking and when was I really telling? ”

The point: hefty work for teaching artists is not only income-stabilizing, it is an investment in the long-term quality of what they do, what their organizations put out in the world, and how we research and understand the kinds of human development that the performing arts can foster.

Yes, SPARK is a rare, well-funded, project at an organization with the resources to think boldly. But that doesn’t mean that the work has no implications for smaller organizations or more modest projects.  What one of us knows, we can all learn.


In a recent online class for conservatory students, many of whom will spend at least some time as teaching artists, one of them suggested I was being way too optimistic about what we could harvest from this COVID-19 period. So, let me be clear: Neither respect, collaboration, nor heft is a guaranteed outcome. Instead, they are each strategies that have to be applied to make a difference.

 Arts and cultural organizations, regardless of size, have to:

  • Create and support work with heft for senior/experienced teaching artists
  • Develop strategies to make this work possible (e.g., sharing senior teaching artists across like-minded organizations; rotating the position among experienced staff; creating a several-year fellowship for which people apply, etc.)
  • Make the argument with funders and donors that this investment in human capital is as vital as hiring a marketing director or a development officer.

On the other side of the equation, teaching artists also have to step up. They must:

  • Actively contribute to discussions about how such “hefty” work becomes sustainable
  • Take part in testing those plans
  • Develop the “chops” to take on such work  (writing, public speaking, research, development)

This time, strange as it is, is not time out; it’s time to plunge deep in.

This piece was also published on Creative Generation.