Investing in Artists

This is the second in a four-part series illustrating the work happening at KID smArt in New Orleans, LA featuring both teaching artist and administrative voices. There’s a new post every Monday this month. Read the first post in this series here and don’t forget to put ALT/space in your feed reader so you won’t miss a thing! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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Through the years that I have worked with KID smART and, especially in the last eight years, I have come to understand one truth that guides my work—the best use of our resources is investing in artists. 

As a program director and manager, I have always believed that decisions should be made by the people who will be living with the repercussions.  Since we started investing in training our artists and building their skills and capacities, I feel like this is truer than ever.  Our organization works in a transitional and complex environment. So much is different from school to school and classroom to classroom. Organizationally, we are driven by our flexibility and responsiveness to our individual schools and teachers and it is impossible to do that from behind an administrator’s desk. Our artists are our lifeline to the teachers and kids we serve and they know best what they need to do their job well and to make the work relevant and powerful for our schools

In New Orleans we have a fractured public school system.  Since Hurricane Katrina, our public school system has transformed into an almost exclusively charter system. Currently, over three-fourths of the 90 public schools in the city are charters and 84% of our students are enrolled in charter schools[i].  We have also seen a great influx of new, young classroom teachers coming through alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and TeachNOLA.  These teachers have passion and drive but sometimes lack the experience, tools, and knowledge of student culture that could make them truly effective. In the years after Katrina we found that often KID smART teaching artists were the most experienced educators in a school.

We realized that we could help build the capacity of the classroom teachers with whom we worked. We started the Arts Experience in Schools (AXIS) program in partnership with local arts organizations to create an opportunity for classroom teachers to come together and learn arts integration strategy. We brought together teachers from around the city together with a consultant from out of state. These monthly sessions helped teach our teachers how to develop arts integration strategy in their own schools.

After the first year we realized that our own team of artists, who were already working in residency in the schools, had the potential to lead these workshops just as  powerfully and with the added bonus of having already established relationships with the schools and teachers.

We also realized that over the long run, paying for someone to train our artists in how to create and present workshops would not only build artist skill and earning potential, but cut that consultant budget by over 75%. We would have better trained, local artists leading workshops and being paid presenter fees and at the same time save the organization money by taking travel and hotels out of the budget.

That was a transitional moment for us organizationally. It was the moment when we took ownership of the kind of professional learning we wanted for our classroom teachers and it was our first concrete step toward realizing a goal of professionalizing the teaching artist field in New Orleans.  At the same time, other changes were happening.  Our teaching artists felt more empowered in classroom and began to really examine their practice more.  We began to focus our efforts on the developing relationships  with classroom teachers since now our teachers viewed their teaching artists as even more than classroom partners, but as experts in arts integration and a resource within the school.


We also utilize our teaching artists’ expertise when we expanded our programming team.  Rather than hiring from an arts administration program (my own background!) we decided to give full time programming positions from our teaching artist faculty.  We currently have three teaching artists who spend twenty hours per week during the school year leading residencies in schools and the remaining time working with us in our office.  Each of the artists has a different background and area of expertise within our administrative structure.

Heather Muntzer is a visual artist and has been the key in making our program documentation and publications shine. She has designed templates for our teaching artists to use for parent newsletters, bulletin boards in schools and has taught us all how to create beautiful and impactful work-in-process blogs to make our students’ learning visible.

Aminisha Ferdinand is a theater artist and native New Orleanian who has moved into full time arts integration coaching at three of our schools.  She has a strong interpersonal intelligence and is a guide for all of us in developing relationships with teachers. Because of her years as a teaching artist she also spends time coaching teaching artists who are struggling with co-teaching or need support making connections with students.

Sean Glazebrook is a theater artist who also founded and helps run a local theater company. Because of his experience with running logistics and dealing with all of the spinning plates of theater production, he focuses on some of our special projects and state wide work which require someone with the patience, focus and organization.

Without the initial realization that we should invest in our artists, our organization might look much different, and not be nearly as powerful or effective. We now feel like a truly artist driven organization and over the past few years the quality of our work has increased as we have engaged in real and deep conversation about how and why we do this work. 


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