From ITAC to ITAAC: Celebrating Teaching Artist Administrators in Oslo

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

From ITAC to ITAAC: Celebrating Teaching Artist Administrators in Oslo

Adrián Nájera-Coto, trombonist, pedagogue, teaching artist


The author speaks with ITAC teaching artists. Photo: SEANSE Art Center.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In arts and education contexts, Dr. King’s quote seems pretty obvious. On the one hand, educational experiences provide us with knowledge and wisdom to transform our lives and inspire those around us. The arts, on the other hand, with their powerful aesthetic subtleties, gift us with the tools to appreciate and recognize inspiration, creativity, diversity, and otherness.

The teaching artist field finds itself at the intersection of both. Those who choose to go beyond simply teaching technique to artfully educating others (Booth, 2009) enjoy a golden opportunity: finding the perfect convergence between two fields that have propelled civilizational advancement throughout human history.

Merging artistic ideals with holistic, memorable learning environments is an art form in itself, and thus requires an inspiring approach to leadership, administration, and management. Administrators in our field need to develop empathetic strategies, bold initiatives, and creative goal mappings—not just to remain motivated and engaged with the work they do, but to ensure that sparkling spirit permeates the field. As such, the role of the Teaching Artist Administrator (TAA) has emerged as a much-needed role in a field that still struggles with organizational understanding and commitment—even after growing steadily for ten years. Are teaching artists fully prepared to bridge the different factors of the TAA equation?

Multiple conversations with fellow teaching artists on this subject led me to present these ideas at the International Teaching Artists Conference in Oslo in early September, 2022. In advance, a survey was designed and shared with a diverse group of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who had vast experience as performing/teaching artists. Notably, all of them had transitioned into administrative and leadership positions. Questions ranged from color psychology to soft-skill development through art instruction and practice, focusing on how these abilities have impacted organizational outcomes.

The data collection confirmed some assumptions while bringing forward new concepts. Many artists and teaching artists devote their educational development to artistic study, eschewing (or at least minimizing) the operational learning our field demands. But the ones “brave” enough to transition into administrative positions tend to deliver outstanding results. The reason for this, in my opinion, lies in the arts themselves. The vast set of soft skills developed through artistic instruction, performance, and teaching gives teaching artists strong differentiators in their managerial abilities. It’s just that many don’t yet know it.

At ITAC6, I presented the Five Teaching Artist Game-Changer Soft Skills, which demonstrate the lifelong competencies that teaching artists bring into administrative contexts.

Resilience. Artists are experts in recovering quickly from difficulties. Close your eyes and remember that joyful, successful performance that was nearly derailed by unforeseen circumstances just before you took the stage. Or think about the school that ended up lacking the required equipment for the teaching artistry session you had been planning for weeks. Those who lead organizations need to be resilient in these moments, transforming adversity into new, inspiring possibilities.

Accountability. Being responsible for our actions is a daily practice for artists and teaching artists. Regardless of how we are perceived by audiences, we are the ones who truly know how good (or bad) our preparation and delivery are. This truth leads us to dig deeper into our “why” to find the joy and satisfaction of our artistic process. Accountability standards can be applied collectively, too: organization leaders are responsible for the performances and experiences of the people they are leading. Leading by example, on the part of administrators as well as teaching artists, is vital to an arts organization’s success.

Motivation. ITAC6 was big on the idea that teaching artists have the capacity to trigger the artistry in others. We have a knack for motivating people to dream the impossible and feel inspired by the experience of making art. The right motivation can transform discipline into enjoyment—into purposeful commitment to what we do, feel, and believe. Wouldn’t that be ideal for leaders/administrators as well?

Love. Teaching artistry is an act of pure, honest, and selfless love, serving something beyond the aesthetic experience of artmaking. Leadership, being a service position, is also a manifestation of love. Dedicating yourself completely to a purpose greater than personal or professional recognition is a choice made by teaching artists every day. In fact, it is a sort of superpower. Strange, then, that it isn’t more celebrated in administrative spaces.

Adrián Nájera-Coto.

Growth/learning mindset. Teaching artists are known to have trouble saying no, but as far as leadership/ administration positions are concerned, this quality translates into one of our biggest assets. Artists have the tremendous ability to challenge their learning experiences; every new work we tackle turns into a learning journey that challenges us in numerous ways. Technique, conceptualization, interpretation, physical limitations, technology, audience development and engagement, profitable proposals… the minds of teaching artists never stop.  This should be true, too, of the minds of leaders and administrators.

If you are a regular Ensemble reader, these skills might appear obvious to you. But you might be surprised at how little these topics are discussed during leadership sessions and administration planning within organizations that champion “social progress.” We often talk about systemic change—it starts with bringing artistry and empathy into the rooms where decisions are made. And for many of us who find ourselves bridging the gap between an arts practice and its administrative implications, it might be the best possible way of answering our most persistent and urgent questions: What are we doing to inspire the artistry and belief within our students, our colleagues and our communities? What are we doing to help shape a better world through the arts?


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