A Career in Teaching Arts: A Conversation

The following is a casual interview I had with Michael Wiggins of Association for Teaching Artists (ATA), which originally appeared at the ATA blog: teachingartists.blogspot.com in the beginning of 2011. Plenty of these concepts will be revisited in more detail in forthcoming posts. You will notice when you read this that I laugh a lot – What can I say, life is funny.

 

Here we go!

It’s January 5th, 2011, and I’m continuing my irregularly scheduled interview with Teaching Artist Anthem Salgado, here in San Francisco.

Q: Anthem, the question of the day is “Can you make a living as a Teaching Artist?” Most people, according to Nick Rabkin’s Teaching Artist Research Project, are making $17,000 a year on average as a TA, which, of course, is not sustainable. But we’re still doing it! So, do you think people can actually make a living doing this work?

Anthem: (laughs) I would have to say you can make a living probably as a new or emerging Teaching Artist, because it would be satisfactory for you to be earning that much early in your career, but there’s no real upward mobility in the field, so, in that respect, you cannot make a living as a Teaching Artist in the long term. A lot of Teaching Artists I know are multiple freelancers. So Teaching Artist is just one among many titles that they carry throughout the course of the week just to be able to put together some decent money.

Q: We call ourselves professionals. Is that something we should just accept? How are we professional if there’s no way to make an actual living in the field? Are we then not professionals?

A: I guess most people define professional as getting paid. So, if you’re getting paid, you’re a professional. If you’re going to define professional by some sort of expertise…I guess in that respect you can be a professional. You can be specialized as a Teaching Artist. But if you compare it to other career choices where other individuals call themselves professional, probably it wouldn’t carry the same kind of weight. And I would go so far as to say that artists and Teaching Artists alike have this misnomer that we call career, because there isn’t a straight ahead career path for artists and Teaching Artists the same way there might be in other fields…in business or medicine or law. So, in that respect, there’s not really a full on career. We’re basically like eternal freelancers. I’d love to see that change, but, right now, that’s just the case.

Q: For people who are in education programs getting their MAs or MFAs , or just working as artists trying to cobble together this kind of career, what is your advice? Should they really be pursuing it?

A: I would say…if I was going to be blunt? I would say no. (laughs) But that’s not advice, that’s just an opinion. The advice I would really give is interview as many mentors and leaders in the field as possible to find out what you’re really getting into. Because so many people have an image of themselves within the work, but they don’t have an image of themselves within the field. So a lot of us are up for rude awakenings, because we haven’t mentally prepared ourselves for the actual reality of working in the field…because we haven’t asked those kind of career questions of our mentors.

Multiple Choice

Today on ATA Blog, we continue our ongoing dialogue with Teaching Artist Anthem Salgado.

Q: Ok, so what are the questions emerging Teaching Artists should be asking?

A: Is there upward mobility? What is the pay rate? Where is the biggest and brightest place I can go with this type of work? And you’ll find, if you just ask those really basic simple questions…you’ll find that the path doesn’t really go very far. And I wish I had asked those questions when I was in art school. Just real basic questions. Where can we go with this? And most people will tell you, if they’re honest, “Not that far.” I went to visual art school, and even people I knew who had shown in big museums and had toured internationally were still struggling on the dollar, and if I had asked them those real questions, I think they would’ve…well, there was no way they could have lied to me…to my face. And it would’ve maybe changed some of the way I looked at life.

Q: What’s the reason people aren’t asking these questions? How did we get into a situation like this, where we are paying a hundred thousand dollars for school and then being offered jobs that pay $17 per hour for three hours a week?

A: Well, number one, most educational institutions are run like businesses*, so they’re not really interested in your success in the long term. They’re just not. They just want to recruit. You’ll notice that at a lot of schools….that there’s not a lot of support post graduation. But they’ll still have the audacity to send you letters…to ask alumni to donate money. Which is hilarious. (laughs)

Q: I’m notoriously pessimistic, and you’re notoriously optimistic. I mean, you speak a lot about “abundance”, which is one reason I like talking with you. So, I wonder…within this context…within this conversation we’re having…which has a lot of negatives…you’ve still got a smile on your face, and I’m wondering how does that concept of abundance figure into this situation you’ve just described?

A: I feel like there’s only scarcity if you think that all the options available to you are only the ones that have already been presented to you. So I feel like, if you were to practice the same kind of creativity that you practice in the classroom, or if you were to take the same creativity that you practice within your own art, and apply that creativity to new ways of thinking about your own professional development, business models…then you’ll see that you have way more options. And the idea of having more options is automatically very inspiring, and it leads to optimism, because you realize you have choices. Things only get really bleak when you think you only have the choices that have already been presented to you. You’re already in a disempowered position if you’re only looking at the choices that someone has allowed you to have. So if someone says “Would you choose A, B or C?” And I decide to say “D, E and F”…(laughs) automatically I’m changing the game for myself. And that’s inspiring…scary, but inspiring. (laughs)

Face Yourself

Here is the latest installment of our, meaning my, ongoing dialogue with Bay Area Teaching Artist/Entrepreneur Anthem Salgado. Today, we face facts. Ouch.

Q: What I’m hearing is that there is no one path to success in this field. But are there some guiding principles?

Anthem: Yes, there are tons of guiding principles. And that’s why I’m such an avid reader. Because anyone who already knows what needs to be done has already written a book about it. So we just need to find the books that resonate with us and start reading ‘em! (laughs) It’s like we’re reinventing the wheel, but someone’s already figured it out. Let’s go to the people who’ve already figured it out. I read tons of books and they inform me in such huge ways.

Q: OK, so what are the guiding principles you’re working with right now?
A: Values, principles…my gosh! (Shakes head.) There are too many!

Q: Is there a set of guiding principles for an emerging TA?

A: OK, this is one I gave recently to somebody, and it works for individuals as well as organizations. I always tell people you need to optimize, and then innovate. And those are both buzz words…I know. (laughs) So, just to be clear. Innovate is all the creative thinking that I’m suggesting you do. Creative solutions around business, and professional development. But optimize means you need to know what is working. You really need to take a full inventory of what is working and what isn’t working. You need to make a NOT TO DO list. There are probably things we are working on that aren’t moving the ball forward. Those things we just need to stop immediately. And for the things that are working? We need to use these three criteria: “What are we extraordinarily passionate about?” would be number one. Number two would be “What can generate income?” And number three would be “What can we really excel in?

For instance, in my own work, when I did this analysis, I realized the most money I make per hour is from commercial acting, as opposed to theatrical acting. So, I thought, “Well, that’s something I need to prioritize,” because it just pays more! It’s still acting, so I’m passionate about it. It generates income. And I do have an opportunity to excel in it. Whereas theater acting, which I also love and am passionate about…well, the income per hour is not as much, although I still have an opportunity to excel at it. It’s just a semi-scientific way of beginning to prioritize which projects you should be working on at any one time. I also realize that I can stand to build a career, not have one immediately, but build one as a Teaching Artist, a professional development type of teacher, meeting all three criteria. (counts on his fingers) I’m passionate about it. I can excel in it. And I can make some money from it. For a long while, in the city, I was really well-known as a spoken-word artist. But let’s look at this. I’m passionate about it. But there’s no way to excel in it, because it’s pretty much a single tier type of endeavor. There’s no such thing as career spoken-word artist. So, I can’t excel in it and I can’t make money in it. I don’t know any spoken-word artist who is really making money in that field. So, I just had to face myself. It’s difficult, but I had to face myself and just drop it.

Q: These are hard choices you’re talking about. These are not choices where someone says “Well, I wanna be a spoken word artist and make money at it!” Does that mean the dream is dead?

(Hysterical laughter)

A: No, it doesn’t mean the dream is dead. The dream means putting yourself in the driver’s seat. And when people put themselves in the driver’s seat..this is what I encourage every artist to do. Think like a boss. When you’re a boss and you have to make executive decisions, you’re not going to fund or put energy or human resources into the project that’s not coming back to pay you. Right? So spoken word would be great if I had a full on career as a doctor or a lawyer or accountant and I could do spoken word on the side. That could just be my passion project. But if we’re talking about having a sustainable ecology, then you have to think like a boss. As an executive director, if you were your own company, which one of your personal artistic projects would you prioritize so that the company, which is you, can survive? It’s not about the dream being dead. It’s about having to make some real decisions. Thinking like a boss.

Q: Last tiny little question. What’s the future of the field of Teaching Artistry?

A: (laughs) Well, that’s a big question. I think the field will continue to work as it has been. We talked about $17 per hour being, for some places, a typical rate of pay. For someone that’s new to teaching art, that’s actually pretty awesome. So, you’ll always have emerging, new Teaching Artists entering the field, and you’ll always have the ones who are a bit more senior leaving the field. That’s life. There will be no shortage of Teaching Artists, ever, because the young ones will always be there to fill the place. Organizations themselves will be able to replicate their formulas and grow, but I don’t think the field itself is going to grow until the senior Teaching Artists are in more positions of influence to be able to create a graduating point for all the Teaching Artists who are leaving the field. If we can continue to stay in the field and develop our skills then we could really see something beautiful.

Q: Does that mean we should become administrators?

A: I don’t know if we become administrators. We just need more leaders. I’m not going to encourage a Teaching Artist…look, if their master skill is being in front of a class, I wouldn’t encourage them to get behind a desk. But, if they have the vision and they have the organizational skill, I would encourage them to partner with an organization…with administrators who understand the vision and know how to get the grant…know how to get the business part of it rolling, so that there is a graduating point. Right now, there’s nothing for a Teaching Artist who is really experienced to graduate to. That’s what I would love to see. We’ll always be at the mercy of someone else if we’re always asking, but not in a position of giving or creating. People ought to be asking us to participate. That’s sort of what Art of Hustle is about. Empowering ground-level artists to think bigger.

Thus ended this installment of our chat. Many thanks to Anthem Salgado for his time and thoughtful responses! Teaching Artists, if you would like to offer feedback, please click the comment button below, or send us an email.

* Post Script: Having read this post, I thought I’d add to my comment about schools being run like businesses. That seems unfair to both institutions. To be clear, I’m talking about mostly fine art programs that don’t teach the necessary skills for their artists to elevate in the field – organizational, collaborative, grant-writing, and financial literacy skills, for example. And when I said “run like businesses”, I meant run like bad businesses. Surely, any good business knows the economic and social value of follow-through, communications and customer satisfaction.
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