Be Careful What You Wish For: Reality and a National Artist Corps

From the Newsbreak section, edited by Laura Reeder

The buzz over an Obama Administration corps of artists to participate in the national public service community was loud and controversial during the first months of 2009. While most artists imagine federal support to be a font of opportunities for their careers, many others have had justifiable concern over the real benefits. Throughout the presidential campaign, there were small bubbles of excitement stirring when the Obama platform for the arts listed an “Artists Corps” as a high priority.

As Congress began to assign dollars to regular and recovery legislation for 2010, the Artists Corps took on many shapes in the hearts of artists. Some envisioned a WPA (Works Progress Administration)-style inclusion of artists in community rebuilding.  Arlene Goldbard, one of the designers of the model suggested that it be titled the CCC (Communities Creating Culture) in a thoughtful echoing of the other Roosevelt corps.

The primary goal from the Obama arts platform was to include the teaching of the arts to low-income and youth-at-risk populations in a model that is similar to or linked with AmeriCorps. This offers young people the opportunity to work for their first years out of college at subsistence wages in exchange for some tuition support and resume-building experience. The Music National Service Initiative is one of the current proposals for community service.

Existing, professional, teaching artists may be thrilled to see teaching artistry as a front-line topic. They may also appreciate the new energy that young artists will bring to the profession. Advocacy organizations might see some revenue for training and they will certainly benefit from the legislative and social advancement of the arts in education as a priority. They may also want to prepare for some of the challenges that have been circulated on the airwaves around this topic.

Professionals Cost More

The first challenge has the potential to damage generations of diplomacy between teaching artists and certified arts educators. Trained, experienced, certified, or otherwise credentialed arts educators might appear to be costly to a school that is deciding to designate budget dollars to an arts teaching position. It has taken over thirty years, much documentation, and a heap of trust-building to convince most arts educators that the career teaching artist has no design on the priority of sequential arts instruction in public education. But with the advent of a volunteer (cheap or free) corps of artists-who-teach, professionals appear to be a significant investment. They require ongoing employment, insurance, retirement, and more. Non-certified and inexpensive volunteers may be seen as a welcome solution to the school that may not have enough funding for a staff position. Teaching artists have long struggled to avoid “either/or” conflict with sequential arts educators, this can re-open a debate that we are only just beginning to close.

Consistency Is Not Guaranteed

With a two-year cycle for the volunteer work force, it is very difficult to maintain a consistent set of rubrics for qualitative evaluation of the teaching impact on student learning. The volunteer artist may have evaluation and mentoring as part of their experience, but, it is not of value to the school or organization when their term is completed. A lovely two-year experience with a teaching artist cannot prove to be as critical as a well-developed environment for learning with sustained education goals and partners. This may cause some confusion over mission. Increased quality of learning and increased quality of project have been confused for too many years in arts education.

Federal Employment Relies on Federal Legislation

As we have learned from No Child Left Behind, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from the US Department of Education grant programs, and from the National Endowment for the Arts, the fragile political relationships that guarantee funding for any of these innovations must be nurtured, and are never secure. While we are delighted that our leaders and the voting public see arts education as worthy of funding, the effort and cost often discourage participation. In fact, the number of unpaid hours that we devote to lobbying for federal allocations that sometimes amount to just a fraction of 1% of the total value of the US budget, might be better spent volunteering in a school or community organization.

Volunteer Means Volunteer

As existing public service models such as AmeriCorps operate, no dollars are designated as fees or income for the corps members. Their benefit is to be spent on housing, cost of living expenses, and they do have guarantees of health coverage. The quality and choice of health coverage is often determined by the site sponsor. The other benefits for tuition expenses are also helpful, but, they are not income, and they are currently set at something like $4725 for one year of completed service. Continuing to perpetuate artists as requiring no income (because they are having fun anyway) is another non-fact that teaching artists have wrestled with for generations.

Perhaps an artists corps is truly a breakthrough for the profession. Perhaps for artists, feeling the same pain as teachers, entering into the same place of national love-hate as education, is part of our progress. Perhaps it will give us the gritty, serious profile that we have desired for so long. But, until we are offered the opportunity to try it out, we may never know.

The Obama Artist Corps is described at:

The Music National Service Initiative home page is:

Arlene Goldbard’sThe New New Deal 2009: Public Service Jobs for Artists?can be found at:

“The New New Deal, Part 2 – A New WPA for Artists: How and Why”, can be found at:

[More in TAJ 7(3)]

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