The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

You've been with the Performance Project for three years. Did it start with you?
Yeah. It was sort of lucky timing. University Settlement has a board member named Bill Blitzer who had been on the board for over 50 years and he really wanted his legacy to be bringing the arts back to University Settlement. And my supervisor, Amy Mereson, loved the idea of having a public performance series, but still wanted it to connect to the people that we serve and wanted it to connect to the quality of arts education going on in our programs. I think I was an attractive candidate to them because I'm a theater artist, but I've also really focused on education. I've a been a preschool teacher and we run preschool programs, I've run an arts after school program and we have a lot of after school programs, I've also ran a family literacy program so I'm very familiar with adult literacy, and so I think they were confident that I would know how to tie the artists back into our programs.

And it was great. I mean, look, I don't think I ever would have expected that offer to come along in my life. But as soon as I was offered it I immediately knew what I wanted to do—bring artists who were inspired by the idea of the settlement house. I thought, okay, here's an opportunity to get back to this original concept of people coming to settle here, because artists can come be residents here.

I've also been a teaching artist all over New York City, so I really understand that lifestyle and I understand how lost your own art-making can get when you are making your living as a teaching artist, schlepping from one place to another. I have to also put this in the context of my mother, Susan Fleminger, who ran Arts Education at Henry Street Settlement for my whole life and really was a pioneer in getting the teaching artist movement going. And this is something I spend a lot of time talking to her about—what are the limits of that model, where artists are often really just perceived as teachers. I wanted to give artists who teach the opportunity to present themselves as artists.

I don't know the actual numbers but I want to say that something like 80 percent of artists in New York City, ten years ago, were making a living as teaching artists. Now we're dealing with a whole industry [of teaching artists] that is on the verge of collapse, both due to the economy and because of what's going on in education today. It's just going in a whole other direction—this whole "No Child Left Behind," high stakes testing culture makes what was just a little bit of time even less time. About three years ago there was a line taken out of New York's Department of Education budget, a designation that principals needed to spend x amount on what was called "project arts." There was a huge drop-off in principals actually using that money to contract with arts organizations and bring artists into the school, just from that little move. There's been a lot of lobbying to re-designate it and I'm not sure where's that's at currently, but it hasn't happened. And so it means that principals can go and spend that money on whatever they need to spend it on and it doesn't have to go to the arts.