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Art21 Educator Spotlight: Joseph Iacona

A teaching artist in Philadelphia, Joseph Iacona works with adjudicated youth, trauma-impacted teens, and young people navigating homelessness and the foster-care system. Utilizing Restorative Justice practices, he introduces teens to new ways of thinking through public projects and education opportunities that bring contemporary art to students who need it most.

Joseph has served for several years as the Lead Teaching Artist for Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Youth Restorative Justice Program. He is currently a Studio Educator and the Delphi Program Coordinator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he manages artist-in-residency and after-school programs with Philadelphia middle and high schools. As an educator, he’s required to bring a level of emotional understanding to all his work, which makes him the perfect Educator-in-Residence for our upcoming November/December issue on “Empathy.”

Why do you believe the thinking and practices of contemporary artists are important to incorporate in the classroom? What do students get out of it that they might not otherwise?

Contemporary art and artists explore a vast scope of important issues through experimentation, critical thinking, and creative processes. They provide powerful content and examples for engaging with the world and help frame the big questions that can impact a classroom. Teaching contemporary art can lead students to better understand how to use inquiry as an approach for engaging meaningfully with life and its issues.

Contemporary artists speak about our world in real time, and this allows learning to move beyond the walls of the classroom and into a world in which students can begin to see that they are an important part. Without this connection to today, that investment by many youth is lost, and the impact of the lesson is undermined by the worries of a teenager, especially in the case of trauma-impacted students. Through experiencing the work of contemporary artists, students can connect with and find merit in the causes and motivations of artists and be willing to let go of their preconceptions of What is Art?, Who makes Art?, What can Art be about?

“Teaching contemporary art can lead students to better understand how to use inquiry as an approach for engaging meaningfully with life and its issues”

Why were you initially drawn to the Art21 Educators program?

As an artist, I had been interested in Art21’s films for quite some time. Watching the process of each creator and witnessing their unique way of thinking clarified my understanding of my own practice.

Teaching in classrooms throughout Philadelphia for close to ten years and working with youth in-school, after-school, and artist-in-residence type programs, I was already in the practice of integrating art within a variety of subjects. When I learned about the Art21 Educators program I was immediately intrigued. The program seemed like a way for me to more deeply consider how to engage my students with contemporary approaches in the same way contemporary artists approach their own work.

Read the rest of Joseph’s interview on the Art21 Magazine, and keep an eye out for his education posts throughout the November/December issue, “Empathy.”