This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon and I'm the CEO and Founder of the Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Eric Booth, who has been on the faculty of Juilliard, Tanglewood, and Lincoln Center Institute. He has given workshops at over 30 universities and 60 cultural institutions, and has designed and led over 20 research projects and seven online courses and workshops, including the new course "Teaching Artistry for Social Impact," offered free on Kadenze. Thank you, Eric, for joining us today.
Eric Booth: Hi Kristine, good to talk with you.
KD: I know I talked a bit about your background already, but could you tell us a little bit more about yourself in one sentence?
EB: Sure. I'm the oldest living teaching artist. I was a Broadway actor, kind of having the dream career of working on Broadway all the time and playing some big roles around the country. But I didn't love the life, and so on the side I heard about this thing that was just starting called "Teaching Artist," and I tried it out and liked the lifestyle and creative feel of it so much more that I pursued that track for the next 45 years. So, I don't even know if I've had what's called a career. I've just had a series of projects that are increasingly fascinating and investigative in this field called teaching artistry. And because I was growing up at the same time that it was, I've been able to make a contribution to the growth of the field.
KD: That's amazing. And you know, one of the things that I really enjoyed hearing about is how you wanted a change, right? The idea of being an actor and not loving the life, so what led you to this path of sharing your experiences with others?
EB: You know, I may not have had the same set of feelings as a lot of your listeners, but for me, what drew me to wanting to be an artist was the power of artmaking. It felt fulfilling, like the whole of me was going into the making of these art things in theater. And then running a career in New York as an actor with soap operas and commercials and plays that ran eight times a week for a really long time, I didn't have that same feeling. I didn't like to schmooze or create relationships to advance my career. But the minute I started in teaching artistry, and realized that the number one job of a teaching artist is to activate the artistry of others, I felt like the full realization of what was satisfying to me in terms of making stuff I cared about. In fact, I don't use the word "art" so much anymore because it has associations with elitism and fancy buildings and big ticket prices. I prefer to use the words "make stuff you care about," and I love to be the catalyst and guide for supporting people to make stuff they care about in artistic media and in other areas of life as well.
KD: This is great. You've touched on a lot of important points here. You mentioned the idea of making something we care about, and when we think about the current situation in the United States with budget cuts for arts programs, theater programs, or even music programs, how do you think we could make people care, or how can we communicate that in a way that engages students?
EB: Well, it was that impulse that led to the appearance of teaching artists in the Reagan administration, when arts education looked like it was going to disappear from schools. Arts organizations sent artists into schools to keep kids from having no arts experiences. We weren't great at it at first, there was a little bit of arrogance, and a little bit of the attitude of 'the artist is here now, lucky kids.' But over the years, we really learned how to be good partners and how to manage art-making in a school setting to support the goals of schools and teachers and expand the potentials for kids. Advocacy for art is a tough thing. I still think America has the arts education it wants, which is next to nothing, and is far from what schools do. I'm interested in investing in the creativity of all curriculum, engaging kids after school and on weekends in projects they love, and not just relying on the traditional delivery systems of arts education, which are so hard to advance in this country. It's different in other countries, some better and some worse than others. I think, in the context of the Modern Artist Project, the future is in a way awakening the breadth of what art means in a school and a young person's life, not just tracking into disciplines.
KD: In today's world, where we have access to so much technology and information through the internet, it's important for education to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of students. This means not only offering a classical or traditional education, but also finding ways to integrate creativity and innovation into the curriculum. By creating partnerships and finding new ways to approach education, we can provide students with a well-rounded and meaningful learning experience that prepares them for the future. We can't be stuck in rigid, pedantic systems, but rather, we need to continue to grow and evolve in a meaningful way.
EB: There is a big distinction between the concepts of art and the actions or processes of creating art. While traditional art disciplines are focused on producing specific art forms such as performances or paintings, teaching artists are more interested in the processes and human capacities involved in creating art. These "verbs of art" can be applied to non-art fields such as history or science, by using creative engagement to enhance learning and problem-solving. The focus should be on developing the skills and processes of art rather than just producing a lot of finished art pieces.
KD: The distinction between art as a concept and art as a process is an important one, and teaching artistry plays a crucial role in helping students understand this difference. In my experience as a participant in the GLP (Global Leaders’ Program) last year, I learned a lot about using art to connect with audiences, even those without a background in art. For example, I worked on a project exploring how to use music to tell a joke and make it relatable to a wide audience.When it comes to building relationships with different communities, there can be various obstacles to overcome. It's important to be aware of these challenges and find ways to overcome them in order to establish meaningful connections with diverse groups of people.
EB: The skills of teaching artistry involve the ability to recognize and nurture the creative potential in people who may not consider themselves artists. Teaching artists are able to create an environment in which this innate artistry can emerge, and when it does, it can be a powerful force for guiding communities to find new solutions to challenges they face. This can be seen in a variety of contexts, such as responding to the climate crisis, addressing wellness issues in small towns, or tackling food deserts in Dallas. Teaching artists are skilled at identifying the strengths and assets within a community and using creative exploration to channel them towards practical, real-world solutions. This work is incredibly rewarding and exciting for teaching artists.
KD: It's amazing to think that teaching artistry can be used to connect with communities and inspire creative self-expression, even in areas that may seem unrelated at first glance. In my teaching experience, I have found it important to know the stories of the communities or individuals I am working with. This can help to inspire creativity, which may be held back by fear or embarrassment. The key is to focus on the process rather than the end result, and to create an environment that is supportive and non-judgmental. By fostering these types of conversations, we can help to inspire creativity and encourage people to embrace their innate artistry.
EB: In what you described, there's three little guidelines that teaching artists use that I'll mention, because you're just kind of, naturally touching on them. Teaching artists often follow three guidelines in their work. Firstly, they place a high priority on personal relevance, recognizing that when people's personal stories are invested in creative work, their motivation and involvement significantly increases. Secondly, they create safe and charged environments - spaces where people feel safe to take risks and try new things, but which are also energized and encourage bravery. Finally, they tap into people's innate competence, helping to unlock their natural skills and challenging them to use them in new and creative ways, rather than focusing on what they can't do. This helps to avoid the "I'm not good at this" mentality and allows people to pour their creative energy into finding solutions.
KD: I sometimes wonder where this kind of approach to teaching artistry was when I was a kid, because I know it would have really resonated with me and kept me invested in my creative pursuits. Even though I found my own path, which had its ups and downs, I think the focus on personal relevance and the process is so important. In your experience with teaching artistry and its development, how do you feel the culture has changed as a result? How has the growth of teaching artist resources impacted our culture, and how have you seen this play out?
EB: I see teaching artistry as being on the forefront of a major social trend: the relationship between Americans and the arts. Growing up, I was fortunate to be exposed to the arts and received classical acting training at a conservatory. However, only 6% of Americans identify as being part of the "arts club" - those who appreciate and engage with the arts regularly. Teaching artists are part of the artist community that knows how to activate the artistry within the other 94% of people, both within and outside of traditional artistic disciplines. They help to bring out the universal artistry that all people have and give them the same sense of satisfaction and effectiveness that artists experience when creating art.
KD: I think these principles of teaching artistry can be applied to many areas of life, not just the arts. If we take these ideas and apply them to things like cooking, karate, or other activities, I believe it can make life more enjoyable and meaningful.
EB: I agree with you, and when you asked about the trend in America that I'm noticing, I think it's a redefinition of art to include the act of creating things that matter to you, whether it's the quality of the food you make, the quality of the conversations you have, or the beauty of a Thanksgiving table setting. This is part of the trend towards valuing artistry in everyday life, not just in fancy buildings. Teaching artists are the workforce that knows how to bridge that gap and help people tap into their universal artistry.
KD: I believe that education should value the experience of learning and strive to ensure that students feel fulfilled. This means considering not only what they are learning, but also how they feel about it and how they can apply it in their lives and achieve their goals. In my businesses, we prioritize this and work hard to make sure our students feel supported. When it comes to teaching artistry in the digital age, I think it has made it more inclusive by allowing us to reach a wider audience. What are your thoughts on this?
EB: It's a good question. For many years, I felt that the teaching artist field wasn't fully utilizing digital opportunities. We used technology for communication and creating online portfolios and interactive games, but we weren't effectively using it to activate the artistry of other people. Kids spend more hours per day on video games than they do in a classroom, but the actions in those games don't activate artistry. They may be enjoyable and have artistic elements, but they don't involve the processes of creating an idea and shaping the world around it. The pandemic changed this by forcing us to think about how to activate artistry in an online setting. For the first time, I saw the field take this challenge seriously and not just use technology for convenience, but rethink the work itself. In the past two years, I've seen an explosion of innovative work from teaching artists to deliver teaching artistry in a digital setting. While it's still in an exploratory phase, the possibilities have grown much wider and the pandemic has unleashed a burst of innovative, entrepreneurial thinking that wasn't there before.
KD: I agree that the digital age has benefited teaching artistry by providing new opportunities to adapt and create resources. It's not just about providing information, but also giving tools to people interested in teaching artistry to engage with them and have conversations that encourage them to think about things in their own way. This ability to share knowledge and ideas in a flexible way is very powerful.
EB: And we're finding ways to do that really in the field, but there wasn't much clarity on how to do that when you have an online avatar, and you choose whether it's going to have a red dress or a blue dress. That's not what we're talking about, even though many people think that there's choice involved and that there's something creative about it. Teaching artists know the verbs of art on a much deeper level and are starting to find the tools, as you describe, for bringing together unusual groups of participants and having them make stuff together that is satisfying in almost the same way you can do alone in a live room.
KD: Yes. Before the pandemic, I feel like we had such negative ideas about online learning, thinking that it's just a cop out. But now, I feel like online learning is just another form of being able to connect with people. Of course it's not the same, but you're still having a conversation and you're still able to connect with people. We just have to do it in a way that people can understand and engage with. And I think this is something that we could do more for young professionals, too. For those who graduate and are great at their instrument or acting, and can recite Romeo and Juliet without fail, we can help them realize that there's also this and it's going to be really impactful and it will apply the things that they learned in university.
EB: I can give you an example from when I started the teaching artist program at Juilliard. These were grad students of music who were on the tunnel track to musical success through Juilliard. So we started this little program and there was a lot of condescension around Juilliard, like, 'Oh, isn't that nice that there are a few musicians who like kiddies? Their careers are going nowhere.' There was this whole thought that if you like education, you're in a loser career position. But after 10 years of this program, where they spent a year working in a classroom and then a year working in a school, visiting the same students in an underserved school repeatedly all year long, we did research and found that 10 years later, those who had learned teaching artist skills had significantly different career trajectories than those who didn't have teaching artist skills. They were making more money in their careers. Very few of them actually went into orchestras; they wanted creative control of their careers.
They had a whole lot more options because they could think entrepreneurially, they could work with young people, they could work in various communities. They had a lot more ways to build a career in which they had creative control, and it was turning into more money. So then the argument for how teaching artistry fits into the development of an artist in the 21st century began to have a very different feeling. It wasn't just that you could make some extra money by doing a side gig; it was, in fact, a habit of mind that would lead to entrepreneurial and creative success in a wider set of opportunities than you would have if you didn't have this expanded way of thinking about art in the world.
KD: I think you've touched on a lot of relevant points here regarding the mindset that people have when they are around 18 or 19. They think they will do X, Y, and Z, but they don't realize how important creative control is. For example, if you have an idea of how you want to sound or represent yourself as an artist, that is valuable. Sometimes, artistic situations require you to conform to a group, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the idea of creative agency is something that people sometimes forget. You don't have to be an orchestra musician or on a Netflix series to have value because you already have value by existing.
EB: In my work, I often work with young or emerging artists to help them create a personal mission statement. I am fascinated by how hard it is for them to put out what impact they want to bring into the world. The first efforts are usually derivative of things they've been told. Musicians may say their mission is to play the best music for all audiences, but that's not going to drive a career that leaves you grabbing for opportunities here and there and doing all your auditions, hoping to get a job.
After thinking about it and noticing where their personal passions lie, they can narrow their focus and say, "This is the music that turns me on the most and that I think has the right relationship to an audience and the kind of ensemble I want to be in." As they become clearer about their mission, their career potential opens up because they are talking to people about it all the time and attracting others who are interested in that idea, which is where opportunities arise. It's important to take the time to get clear about your mission and to give yourself the opportunity to have it change as your life and context change.
KD: And I think that with what you've mentioned about the context of life, you must give yourself flexibility. Sometimes when we set goals for ourselves, we think that if we don't achieve them, we have failed and we are terrible people. But that's not the case. We have to forgive ourselves and recognize that our lives may not develop the way we thought they would when we were 16.
EB: Right, well, depends on what you're pursuing. If you have unrealistic standards of success, you will struggle. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I heard Joseph Campbell say to follow your bliss. Even though it sounded hippie-ish, it has turned out to be a very practical life strategy. It has carried me for 40 or 50 years without ever having had a job because I have been drawn to work and it has come to me. I have been able to create organizations and projects by pursuing my passions. That is a powerful entrepreneurial strategy and it not only keeps you creatively fulfilled, it can also be financially successful, even if it takes time. Follow your bliss may sound like a nice, hippie guideline, but it can be quite practical.
KD: I think that's the thing. When we think about following our bliss, it's about our happiness. Sometimes we forget that we only have one life and we have to make the most of it by doing things that make us happy and avoiding things that don't. Sometimes we have to do those things in order to get to the next part of what we want. I'm happy with what I do, and I think it's one of the reasons why I was able to create TMAP. It's not only about helping and serving different communities, but it was also a catalyst for change in how we receive information. I learned how to start a business, and I'm still learning. I'm sure you're still learning too, with all the different projects you're involved in.
EB: There's a quote on my email these days that I think really hits the mark. It says, 'The best way to complain is to create.' I think that's exactly what you're doing with T map. In my view, the career path of a young artist is often a mess. Instead of just complaining about it, you're creating a new way forward for the 21st century artist. You're recreating the opportunities that should be available to them instead of just complaining about the current state of affairs.
KD: Exactly. It's funny because TMAP is actually a result of many frustrations I've had over the past 15 years as a young professional trying to write a biography about myself. It's tough because in some sense, we have to sell ourselves, but I'm not the type of person who says "Look at me, I'm great." But that's just part of the package when you want to do something. Society is growing and changing so much, and I have to constantly adapt and change, which keeps me on my toes and alive.
EB: I can share a similar story. I had a group of friends who were frustrated that the US government didn't support the arts the way we thought it should. So we created the US Department of Arts and Culture on our own. It became this vibrant public art project that did all kinds of great things in the world that an art department of the government should do. Our favorite moment was when conservative politicians came out and railed against the waste of money on the US Department of Arts and Culture, not realizing it was just us 20 volunteers who had named it and started producing materials like our own State of the Union message and resources for artists working in communities. The ability to make the future the way you want it to be is within you and your listeners. In fact, I think that's the identity of a modern artist.
KD: This has been a great conversation and exchange of ideas. Thank you so much, Eric, for joining us today and sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things you continue to do for the community. Thank you.
EB: My pleasure and thank you for inviting me.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.