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How Working in Arts Education Blew Up My Hat Collection

Date: 13 December 2021

I love hats. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed wearing them, from fitted baseball caps to vintage snap-backs to dad hats. You name it, I wear it. But I never considered wearing them all at the same time. Not only would it look strange, but it would be hard keeping them on top of my head. That was, until I listened to Miko Lee, moderator for the “Connecting Schools & Communities to Build an Inclusive Arts Ecosystem” session at the Arts Education Partnership’s virtual gathering earlier this year.

Drawing from her experience as co-executive director at the Teaching Artists Guild, Miko pointed out that many of us working in the arts education space have worn, or currently wear, “many hats.” That could mean having the title of teaching artist or arts administrator or policy worker or fundraiser or community collaborator or grant writer, and then having to switch up or take on another role in order to find success. 

Miko’s statement was the first time I heard someone in the arts education space put into words what I’d been experiencing over the past year. As a first-year teaching artist for the education department at Sarasota, FL-based Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, I was used to relying on different skills to help give meaningful arts education experiences to local students. Need lesson plans written for in-class explorations and activities? No problem. Produce videos for my art organization’s virtual learning program? Let’s do it. Attend conferences to learn better ways to reach students by putting on my student cap? I’m all in.  

But that wasn’t enough. I had to toss more hats on top of my head. 

They came in the form of an opportunity: to develop a free outdoor community event featuring arts education and mindfulness activities for local students and their parents. Called “Mr. Stevey & Friends”, this monthly event was meant to bring arts education directly to the underserved community in Sarasota’s historically Black neighborhood of Newtown. So before I approached anyone, I had already piled on three new hats: project creator, program developer and outreach strategist. What I didn’t know right then was that those hats — and all the others I was already wearing — wouldn’t be enough to see this project though. 

Fortunately, I had lots of help. After putting on my project coordinator cap, I approached Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Kelli Maldonado with my idea. Kelli was very supportive. That support first came in the form of encouragement, followed by funding and resources. She was able to fund me and fellow teaching artists to perform, provide art kits for the children who attended, supply books to give away and help get the word out. 

Next, I put on my community engagement and collaboration caps and reached for my cell phone. Soon, I met with Valerie Buchand, CEO of Newtown Nation, a local nonprofit focused on uplifting the African-American community in Newtown through various outreach programs. One of their flagship programs was establishing The Newtown Farmer’s Market at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park, which provides affordable and nutritious food to the community. After sharing my idea, Valerie felt the farmer’s market would be the perfect venue for “Mr. Stevey & Friends”. Not only did it provide a family-friendly atmosphere, but it also allowed both children and parents to participate in the activities.  

From there, I began wearing even more hats. Popping one on while calling local teaching artists, performers and speakers to see if they’d be interested in participating. Then switching caps to coordinate the event schedule, wearing another to design event flyers and maps, putting on another to get the word out by typing press releases and posting on social media, and wearing yet another to set up activity booths and make sure the food would be available the day of the event. 

When the dust settled, I had worn so many hats, my neck was sore from the weight. But it was worth it. 

Over the course of the initial four-month run of “Mr. Stevey & Friends,” hundreds of local children experienced arts education activities and mindful games, and they enjoyed free food and raffle prizes. Now we are planning to expand the program in 2022 to not only run the entire year, but feature more teaching artists and arts education activities for local students. 

That means wearing more hats in my future. Which brings me back to AEP’s Virtual Gathering, and Miko’s excellent comment about the many hats we wear working in arts education. It’s true, you’ll need to use all of your skills, and pick up new ones, working in the arts education space. The sooner you know this the more successful you will be.  

And now that I am finished sporting my writer’s cap, I would like to share three takeaways to wearing all those hats and finding success in arts education:

  1. Teaching artists, art administrators, researchers and others in the arts education ecosystem should know they will need to rely on multiple skillsets to find success.
  2. Support from your arts institution, fellow teaching artists, community organizations and other collaborators is vital to success.
  3. The work never stops. And you can never wear too many hats. Or be asked to.

When I was asked to create a work of art exploring literacy, I wanted to create a dance but I had no dancers or a studio, so I chose to use my own body in the space I had, my yard. Fluent Nature is video of micro-choreography that explores what cannot be expressed with words, how nature has its own language, and how placing the human body in nature changes the story.

Title: What Is Me and What Is Not Me | Artist: Alex Chadwell | Medium: Music

My thinking on arts and literacy centers around the concept of literacies and artmaking as both sense-making and meaning-making processes that organically and inevitably overlap, intersect, and reciprocate. Compositionally, What is me and what is not me is a sound collage of sorts (there is no notation for the piece, and I'd be hard pressed to recreate it accurately) that abstractly and aurally represents the relationships between literacies and artmaking.

Title: A Curious Honeybee | Artist: Gideon Young | Medium: Film

Offering welcome through traditional and digital elements of literacy, A Curious Honeybee provides an experiential learning environment by activating visual, musical, natural, and emotional literacies.

Title: Tercera Llamada | Artist: Karilú Forshee | Medium: Audio

La Carpa Theatre is a project that I am currently directing in the Detroit Latinx community. The project aims to strengthen and uplift youth voices through devised theatre, in the style of the Mexican Carpas. This audio was created in the theatrical environment envisioned for our project. The ways in which literacies are re-defined are at the heart of La Carpa Theatre's mission.

Title: Literaseas | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite and ink on paper with digital edits

Title: A Riddle | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits

Title: False Binaries | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits