[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]
In the summer of 2004, born out of lack of support and networking available for teaching artists in the city, eight Chicago artists created the Chicago Teaching Artist Collective (CTAC). The group wanted an organizing body to address the specific concerns in the field of artist as teacher.
These concerns consist of lacking art supplies, routinely facing budget cuts, and constantly having to piece together employment opportunities. The motivation for the collective included addressing the lack of affordable healthcare for teaching artists and establishing a citywide, bottom-line rate of pay. The ambition was, and still is, big. They were interested in creating a strong, diverse, large group who would have a significant impact and serve as advocates for the field in the city.
The founding members of the CTAC also wanted to address the bigger issue for artists as educators: those who identify as teachers and artists are often relegated to the periphery of professional educational spaces. As one member argued, part of the work experience should be “to learn the language of teaching and learning and for those in the educational world to learn the language of the arts.” This symbiotic relationship is often overlooked, especially in understanding student achievement and in general funding priorities. These concerns are often the impetus for people to join this collective.
Organizing for this group takes on two distinct approaches in the forms of monthly meetings and a listserv. The CTAC listserv was launched shortly after the founding of the collective and 160 people joined within a year. Members of CTAC use the listserv to post job opportunities, announce gallery openings, and spread the word about interesting topics in the field. It serves as an open forum and networking tool.
The listserv is successful as a tool for disseminating information. Beyond that, it is difficult to gauge its deeper effectiveness. Most of the posts come from a small percentage of members and follow-up conversations often take place off-line. The engagement of most members often stays within the parameters of reading it as part of their regular email, albeit a substantial amount—in the three months I have been on the listserv, over 70 postings on a wide range of relevant topics were sent.
However, when I used the list for my research, the response was limited. From the two rounds of questions intended to collect information for this article, a total of five people responded. It seemed a strange juxtaposition and perhaps indicative of the current state of the collective as a whole—a lot of activity spreading the word but an absence of deeper dialogue and exchange. It is unclear if this is due to lack of engagement, people uninterested in filling out a survey or the listserv not being the place for this dialogue. The few members that did respond felt that they gain meaningful information and connection to people, ideas and events they would otherwise not have access to without the CTAC.
The monthly meetings have attempted to take on the more ambitious goals of the collective. Meetings were developed around the notion of skill-sharing/building, discussion on relevant topics, and figuring out ways to engage on a citywide level. The meetings are interestingly structured—anyone in the collective can organize a meeting, usually focused on a specific topic with guest speakers and an art-making component. The role of facilitator shifts and the topics reflect both individual strengths and broader concerns in the field. Over the past three years, meetings have been held on healthcare for teaching artists, international and ethnic arts, student thesis work in Chicago, and tax information. The location of the meeting also shifts from art spaces to coffee shops to people’s houses to university settings.
This open approach adds a complexity to the question of productivity for a collective of this nature. It can be argued that CTAC’s loose structure and ability for people to take on different roles allows for more input, feedback and engagement. The CTAC meetings are not entirely focused on getting everyone together to organize for something; the meetings serve as the organizing itself—to educate teaching artists and share resources.
There are, of course, drawbacks to this setup. Over the past year, the meetings have been inconsistent and are no longer monthly. While the listserv can function effectively as a point of reference and information outlet even if its levels of engagement fluctuate, the meetings only work if a diversity of people are actively engaged.
When members were asked if they felt the CTAC was fulfilling its potential, each person gave a hopeful “no.” People acknowledged that in order for it to be truly effective, CTAC needs a lot more input and effort from teaching artists around the city. Some talked about working towards bigger ambitions, like having their own office with an annual budget and helping teaching artists get better health benefits and wages.
The CTAC certainly has the potential to grow into an organized, powerful force in the city, but it has yet to engage Chicago in this way. The CTAC’s existence is in itself an important step but truly fulfilling its goals means undertaking a broader approach and strategy—reforming the healthcare system, public and private education systems, and labor laws, to name a few. Yet the obstacles CTAC faces are things that are symptomatic of grassroots work in general. It is a daunting barrier for the overworked, underpaid, underappreciated workers to organize around improving the rights and respect given to teaching artists—even if it is a task everyone can agree has immense relevance and is necessary to their life’s work.
The Chicago Teaching Artist Collective has potential to truly build the field of teacher-as-artist. It has made progress in some important ways, yet has so much further to go. Most members are still inspired by the presence of the collective and the work that’s being done to bring teaching artists together, even if that togetherness fluctuates from time to time. As one member aptly put it, “organizing artists is like herding cats, but I think we are on the way.”
To join the CTAC and get more information about the field, check out http://www.teachingartists.com/