Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Meet A.T. Moffett, a dance artist, educator and the new executive director at the Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education.
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary—on the other side of the pandemic and with access and inclusion top of mind—Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education’s (DiAE) work bringing arts-based learning to K-12 students across the state is timelier than ever. A.T. Moffett, its new executive director, thinks about this every day while planning her routes through their dozens of learning spaces in all three counties.
“We’re very school-, teacher- and student-facing in the classes, being integrated into the school day rather than using an after-school model or weekends,” Moffett says. Recognizing that not everyone grew up with access or appreciation for the arts, bridging that gap is job one for Moffett and her team.
She is careful to begin with the disclaimer that she’s still learning about the organization’s systems and seasons and is grateful to the folks who’ve made it such a success. And although she’s a Delaware native, part of that learning involves literally driving to every district across the state. “You know, that’s the plan!” she says. “All of our programming really is housed in the schools, and there’s no better way to really ‘get it’ than to go and visit. I had my first visit to an early childhood program two weeks ago. And I mean, it was so sweet, the kids were overjoyed.…It was really exciting.”
Another upcoming program that has captured Moffett’s imagination is a partnership with a local charter school in Wilmington, with the music teacher for K-8. “We’re working on a three-part music workshop centered on a performance of Jabari Dreams of Freedom,” Moffett shares. “It’s a story of African American history, civil rights, fine arts and live performance that’s specifically for young students. They’ll see that and then they’ll have a series of music and theater workshops.”
DiAE is different, Moffett explains, in that its “really about the process of instilling habits of mind and focus in the students. How do we help the students learn to think like artists, to see things as an artist might?”
Speaking of thinking like an artist, Moffett’s predecessor Nanci Hersh served five years as E.D. before stepping down to “devote full-time efforts to her visual art.” Moffett, too, has enjoyed a long and successful career as a dancer and choreographer in addition to her experience in education and public policy. It’s clear there’s an understanding within the organization of the value of an artist’s perspective in leadership roles. “That was one of the things that attracted me to the job,” Moffett says. “Leaders past and future, our staff—they are all arts people. It’s a built-in part of the culture.” She’s spent the last decade as a dance professor, “seeing education and arts together,” she explains. “This idea of working across disciplines is something that I’ve always been interested in.”
“All of our programming really is housed in the schools, and there’s no better way to really ‘get it’ than to go and visit”
DiAE’s impressive roster of teaching artists spans visual art, poetry, performance, dance, music, theater and interdisciplinary projects. The needs are diverse across all classes and counties, so how do they decide which artists to pair with which classes? “Whatever the teachers want, we have a wonderful selection of all these different options,” Moffett says. “So maybe you’re interested in Frida Kahlo’s printmaking, or the jazz ensemble. Or maybe a Chinese puppeteer for the K-5 group. I’m so curious how many teachers will select this one because it does seem so unique and touches on everything—visual art, storytelling and performance/movement. Our artistic director, who’s wonderful—her name is Ashley Davis—curates a list of these culminating experiences (we call them focused art activities). Every child will have three workshops that feed into whatever it is they’re seeing. So for a spoken-word poetry performance, they might have two poetry workshops and one music workshop where they talk about rhythm. I think it is really lovely.”
Delaware Wolf Trap is their early learning program and is all performing arts-based. It is a professional-development program where teachers choose either a literacy or math focus, and then they also select movement, dance, theater or music.
“The thing I’m loving about DiAE is that it’s a meeting of the minds,” Moffett says. “We have this team of incredible artists. It’s really kind of remarkable. And the teachers hold so much knowledge—classroom management, early childhood development. The idea, too, of reaching out beyond what you might call liberal arts or humanities and into the STEM spaces, I think that has to happen so that art doesn’t get separated from everything else; it should be integrated.”
Coming out of the pandemic restrictions, teachers, administrators, parents and community members are looking for novel, creative ways to engage. “We come in and, you know, it’s a brief residency, but it’s quite impactful when you consider what is included,” Moffett says. “It allows children and teachers to be exposed to arts institutions. They go to The Grand Opera House or the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, or the Freeman Arts Pavilion in Sussex County. And they get to see something that just opens up their world.”
Moffett herself was a teaching artist when she lived in Minnesota, where she met kids who maybe didn’t shine in the traditional courses, but then the arts would come along and make all the difference.
“I mean, how affirming can that be? Like, even as an adult?” she points out. “I can see myself in this, and it can be game-changing for kids. The arts hold value, period. But the arts also have a way of helping us to rejuvenate, reflect and refresh so that we can then be open to other things as well. I think we can do both.”