This week’s post will be the first devoted to a thread of history in the twentieth century: that of federal funding for teaching artists in schools. It’s a slim thread, to be sure, and in today’s political landscape it’s almost impossible to imagine, but there have been times of crisis when our government has actually turned to the arts and to arts educators to help us through. My dad, for instance, got his start in the Federal Theatre Project, during the Great Depression. I am currently reading Hallie Flanagan’s book Arena, which is about those years, and it is full of stories of children experiencing theatre arts in some of the most impoverished parts of our country.
But there was another period of funding for arts instruction in schools—one which is much more recent. Susan Cambique Tracey, of the Music Center’s Arts Education Division, recently gave a keynote address at the Actors’ Fund in which she relates some of her extraordinary experiences in the 70s, as one of the teachers in the dance component of a National Endowment for the Arts program designed to put teaching artists into high-need classrooms. The program lasted one brief decade but had a huge and lasting impact. (A link to a video of her address is below.)
Lyndon Johnson followed up on foundational work started during John Kennedy’s brief tenure when he established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. It was folded into his “War on Poverty” and linked to the civil rights movement. The NEA then created Arts Councils in every state, and this network remains robust and vibrant to this day. It has led to a national framework and then national standards for education in all arts disciplines.
For one decade, during the seventies, the NEA also funded a program called Artists in the Classroom, and Susan was one of 25 teaching artists sent out to teach dance. She worked in several states and in Puerto Rico, and describes that time as “like living in Camelot.” The program had three goals: 1. to teach dance as an art form, 2. to teach dance for self-expression, and 3. to use dance as a tool for learning. Susan found that she had a gift for the third goal—for making connections in to the instructional goals in the classroom. You can view here her remarkable story. She faced challenges and delights. Here, for instance, she tells of working in an agricultural community where the students’ two main concerns were the appropriate time for planting alfalfa and how to prepare the best fertilizer bag. She had to address these through dance, and she made it work! She’s an ARTIST! (If you’ve ever studied African dance, you may have some idea how it could be done.)
Happily, Susan made a meticulous record of her life-long career in dance education, so she is a treasure trove of information. She couldn’t be more generous with it, so you will be hearing more from her. “Nobody has been interested!,” she told me. I hope that is not true, since this entire site is dedicated to the history of the performing arts in education in this century and beyond. It’s a history to which arts education advocates desperately need access.
Susan’s story begins 8 1/2 minutes into the video, is less than 30 minutes long, and is well worth the listen.