The Artist as Instigator: Role, Responsibility & Impact of Artists in the Global Community

By Leah Hollingsworth

It was a reunion and a mixer, a place to reconnect and to meet for the first time. It was a roomful of artists and administrators, theater producers and concert presenters, dancers and photographers. They had traveled from California and China, from Tanzania and South Korea, from Ohio and Oslo, from Brooklyn and the Bronx. Two hundred fifty people representing 35 countries and a wide span of ages and demographics and artistic professions were all gathered in New York City this month at the Fourth International Teaching Artists Conference (ITAC) to discuss the topic of “The Artist as Instigator: The Role, Responsibility, and Impact of Artists in Global Communities.” And if the individuals presenting at and attending the conference are any indication, the teaching artists of the 21st century are making a powerful, transformative impact around the globe—and at a time when all communities need the arts more than ever.


The energy and vitality of the conference was astounding, and fortunately for those interested, the keynote and plenary panels have been preserved online for viewing. Eric Booth gave a typically inspirational speech at the outset of the conference, reminding those present of the purpose and history of the conference—as well as setting a vision for its future. “Let us agree not to have the business of a label keep us separate any longer,” he encouraged, “so that we can push past difference to let our work continue.” He compared the roomful of likeminded people to an aspen forest—filled with individual trees and unique leaves, but all sharing the same underground network of roots. The future of ITAC is that it will become a year-round entity, with grants available and collaborative projects spanning artistic genres and countries. (You can read more about the ITAC Collaborative here.)


Unsurprisingly, the role of the artist in achieving and advocating for social justice was a common thread among the work and ideas presented at ITAC4. The belief that artists can represent the voice of the people, can express the opinions of the unheard, can share the stories of the disenfranchised resounded with all present. How can we use art to bring people together during times of distress and disunity? How can we, as artists, use our work to heal, to repair, to soothe? How can we, as artists, use our performances to shape, to challenge, to guide the thinking, to articulate a concern, to shake a fist at an injustice? “On a scale of zero to Harriet Tubman, how courageous is your work?” challenged Marc Bamuthi Joseph (a 2017 TED Global Fellow, an inaugural recipient of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, and an honoree of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship, among other distinctions) during his keynote presentation. “How can we disarm each other through beauty?” asked visual artist Yazmany Arboleda, a Colombian-American artist based in New York City.

These questions capture only a fraction of the energy in the room. We are at a crucial time for art and artists around the world. Can artists affect change in cities? In communities? How can we help each other, share our work, broaden our perspective? Whose voice needs to be heard? How can art help? What can you do with your art?