Funding, Social Responsibility, and the Teaching Artist / Linda Bruning

This month I had originally planned to conclude my series on Arts in Education: There’s an App for That but, after a recent funding round for arts in education programs, something else is burning to get out and onto paper.  If you are like me, much of the work you do is dependent on funding from sources such as schools, foundations, corporation or the government.  I don’t think any of us can make a living without assistance from an outside source, and therein lies the rub.

Because I am often asking someone for money, it seems someone is always editing my work and filtering it through the lens through which they view the world,  be it funders, teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, educators, consumers, or other artists, to name a few.  Most of the time I find this to be a very productive process.   It demands that I take a closer look at what I am doing and why I am doing it.  In viewing my work through another‘s lens I have grown as an artist, teacher and human being.

For example, being forced to view my artist teaching through a regular teacher’s lens eventually led me to get a M.Ed., which in turn led me to getting an M.S in Teaching with Technology.   All of these things have shaped my ever changing process of how I work as a teaching artist.  Recently, however, I have been confronted with the conservative lens of society viewing my work.  The political climate of some granting sources I have had contact with seems to be, “money is tight, conservatives are vocal, don’t chance it by funding something that might offend someone.  Now add into the mix that the something or someone continually changes and is dependent on the climate, so we can never be quite sure what the offending it might be.

Here is my dilemma – do I censor student artists’ voices simply because a segment of society finds works of art based on teenagers’ harsher realities objectionable?  Do I forego the funding (and, in the process, my salary) or do I cave and change my focus to safer topics, so that I receive funding?  Is there a place for socially responsible art creation, political art creation, healing art creation, and controversial art creation when working with young artists?  Finally, what is our responsibility, as teaching artists, to the voice of the next generation of art creators?   Do I need to pay attention to the conservative lenses viewing my work or do I stand firm?  Or maybe the question is simply, is it ever valid to look at artistic work in terms of “what is fundable”? 

Whether or not I ever find answers to these questions, I believe these young people have a voices that needs to be heard.  I believe in empowering these young people to create works of original theater using their life experiences and the lessons they have learned, often through harsh circumstances.  I have seen transformational things happen in the classroom, the school community, and the lives of these young people as they work through the process.

I could fill pages with stories of young people who got better grades, were reunited with parents, started coming to school regularly, formed strong relationships with mentors, stopped using drugs and alcohol, made wiser choices, etc. by creating original works of theater, based on “their voice” and what they needed to say as an artist – not by what I thought they needed to say.  And here lies the heart of the problem.

If you give young artists a voice, they will use it.  They will write poetry, create music, choreograph dances, take photographs, make films and act out scenes about teen pregnancy, peer pressure about sex, drugs, and alcohol, cheating, the changing moral fiber of society, gangs, parental authority and politics; but they will do the same about friendship, grace, redemption, heroism, love, patriotism, and whatever the higher power is they believe in.  I believe I have a responsibility to encourage and support the artistic voices of tomorrow.  It is why I became a teaching artist.  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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