Rhian Hutchings, Partnership Manager at ArtWorks Cymru, shares key provocations and practices from the Fourth International Teaching Artist Conference (ITAC4) held recently in New York City.

ITAC4 brought together teaching artists/participatory artists and arts organisations from across the world to spend three joyful days in New York City hosted by Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and Dream Yard. The conference theme was ‘artist as instigator’ – the role, responsibility and impact of artists in global communities.

It’s extremely hard to sum up the experience of this conference in one blog post. There were so many presentations, keynotes, experiences and amazing people to meet across the event. Everything was worth attending and everyone had something to say that I wanted to hear.

The three keynote speakers sat at the heart of the conference, rooting it to the theme. On day one, Aaron Huey, National Geographic photographer, told us about the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling project which started life as just another assignment and then grew into a personal relationship with a community. Aaron found a way to hand over control to community members and enable them to tell their own stories at the heart of the National Geographic website. This inspired him further to create a way for artists to speak out via graphic design/posters about their responses to the USA elections, and his non-profit amplifier.org is growing.

On day two, we heard from Marc Bamuthi Joseph –  poet, playwright, dancer, activist and currently Chief of Program and Pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. His words were powerful and arresting. He asked us to name and claim our teachers and our students. He asked us what sustains life in our community. He asked us if we could choreograph social justice and design freedom. He asked us what Black joy looks like. His gave examples of his work across youth justice, community empowerment and the arts.

On day three, we experienced the joy of listening to Liz Lerman talk about making the vertical horizontal – describing how we are educated in hierarchies and how these lead to lazy ideas of excellence. She spoke about her experience of making work in a care home and in a theatre for a tour: these demanded the same from her practice but also demanded an exploration of what excellence meant in each context. She urged us to be critical, to have standards, to understand how we create value and to be ethical about this. I was struck by her irrepressible curiosity and powerful questioning nature which had a gentle power to it.

The keynotes and performances put forward a strong impression of the focus on social justice that exists in the States at the moment. Many conference presenters referenced the Trump administration and the sense of inequality they felt. For the American delegates, the political side of ‘artist as instigator’ is a current and urgent debate.

I was one of the presenters at the conference, speaking as part of a panel discussion chaired by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and exploring the British context. My fellow ArtWorks Alliance panellists were Mary Schwarz, Sean Gregory (Barbican Guildhall) and Patrick Fox (Heart of Glass). We explored the different roles that artists are taking in the UK, why it’s important to work collectively to advocate participatory practice and what we could learn from international exchange. The issues we touched on resonated with the American context, although we are more restrained in our language and approach. I think this is something we need to address. It’s time to start speaking out.

You could accuse ITAC of just preaching to the converted, as everyone who attended certainly ‘got it’ and there were no policy makers or dissenters in the room. However, I felt this international gathering was a very important step for participatory arts. It was clear to see how widespread, diverse and valuable the practice is. I heard stories about artists working with trauma victims to help them heal, artists creating installations with families separated by the immigration system, artists inspiring young people to explore their past in a new way, artists connecting men in prisons to their family in the community, artists helping communities to shape themselves and speak out, and artists using music to change society.

Telling these stories to ourselves gave us strength and showed us how powerful we are, even when it seems what we do is a small drop in the ocean. So I’m bringing back the power of our international community to Wales as a gift. Let’s use that power to make changes.

Rhian Hutchings

Partnership Manager for ArtWorks Cymru @artworkscymru

Creative Director for Operasonic @operasonic

Chair of RESEO

The ITAC4 archived livestream is available on the ArtWorks Alliance Knowledge Bank Fourth International Teaching Artist Conference page.

See ITAC for more information.