Let’s make sure the teaching artist isn’t an endangered species

Volume 118, No. 5May, 2018

David Freeman

Local 802 member David Freeman with students at Arts to Grow, a nonprofit that provided after-school programming to under-served communities. Photo: Laura Foord

Throughout my career as a teaching artist, I’ve had the privilege of working with the most dedicated and inspiring teachers, administrators and staff, whose commitment is unmatched. When arts budgets are cut and resources reallocated, they fight to keep arts education in our schools, libraries, shelters and prisons. They are committed to the value the arts bring to our communities.

My 10-year tenure conducting hand drum workshops at the juvenile detention center at the Middlesex County Division of Youth Services began in 2001 and continues to serve as a reminder to myself that art education works. And I’ve come to realize the value of teaching artists lies in our ability to transform alternative spaces into safe, inclusive and creative learning environments.

Photo: Laura Foord

I wasn’t surprised to learn years later that funding for the music program at the detention center had been reallocated to other departments. I’m grateful to the administration and staff who, for a decade, believed in arts programing, made space for it and believed in our kids. But it wouldn’t be long before I joined Arts to Grow, a nonprofit organization providing after-school arts programming to under-served communities. Now I was back at work, serving in Cypress Hills (Brooklyn), Lincoln Square (Manhattan) and Paterson (New Jersey). Despite the tireless dedication of its staff, Arts to Grow was also forced to close its doors. Its absence remains a palpable loss.

When arts programs close, the impact is felt not only by the teaching artists but by the people they serve: incarcerated, disabled and under-served families, friends and neighbors. Those of us in the field are familiar with the sacrifices we make both personally and professionally on behalf of our communities. The need for arts education is real and the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

In 2015, I was a selected as a member of a cohort participating in the Experiential Education/Jewish Cultural Arts program at the George Washington University. I had the opportunity to work with  Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Music Festival and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, earning an M.A. in education and human development in the process. The experience helped me mature and opened me up to a more holistic view of the cultural arts and education field.

It’s hard to maintain a stable and sustainable career in arts education. I’ve decided to be an advocate for teaching artists in order to improve the field. In an effort to make a case for the need of experiential arts education and elevate the resources made available to our teaching artists, I’ll be on a panel this summer at a conference organized by CNY Arts. I’ll be there alongside Dale Davis of the Association of Teaching Artists, and I’ll be a representative of the Jubilation Foundation, where I was a fellow in 2013. The foundation nurtures individuals and organizations with an exceptional talent for “helping young people feel fully alive through rhythm,” as per its mission statement. The support I received as a Jubilation fellow in 2013 continues to serve as a vital resource in my life and in my career as an arts educator.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in arts education. Art sharing leads to thriving communities. I encourage other teaching artists to contact me; let’s network and make the world a more artistic place together, and let’s fight for the right of teaching artists to enjoy adequate resources so we can share our gifts as best as we can.

Drummer David Freeman has been a member of Local 802 since 2007. To submit a guest commentary or letter to the editor for possible publication, e-mail Allegro.