Introducing the CAPE Artist/Researcher

 In Scott Sikkema, The CAPE Artist/Researcher Journal, The CAPE Blog

By Scott Sikkema, Education Director, CAPE

The CAPE learner (and leader) is an Artist/Researcher. As an Artist/Researcher, she/he conducts investigations through art and collaboration in order to gain new understandings of the world.


In early 2003, Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) held a two-day strategic planning meeting. Like a lot of strategic planning, most things put forward were largely operational in nature. One notion put forward had implications that went beyond the operational: “CAPE will become a research organization.”

What did that mean? At the time, I think there were two dominating meanings in the room behind this statement. For some, it meant that research would demonstrate that what we are doing is “good.” A student before CAPE is not doing well in grades or tests or behavior or all three, but after working in a CAPE arts integration partnership, that student would do well in any of these areas. Other people had thoughts that spoke to the frailty of the human ego—“if we do research, people will think we’re smart.”

As the Education Director it was up to me to figure out what research meant for the organization. I stumbled many times in this endeavor. I came to realize that showing what we do is “good”, or showing people that we’re smart, are not sustainable reasons for doing research. They weren’t sustainable reasons for me, nor were they sustainable reasons for our teachers, artists, or students. Sustainability could only be found through embedding research in daily practice, and so I tried to figure out how that could be realized.

Around the mid-2000s, I started to remember that I work at an arts organization, and I have a visual art background. It is easy to forget these things when we are in operational modes and bureaucratic worlds. I began to look anew at art, and the kinds of art, artists, and architecture that were important to me. For myself, a partial list included Fluxus, post-war Japanese art (Gutai, Mono-ha, etc.), modern Brazilian art, Group Zero, artists like Lee Ufan, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Helio Oiticica, John Baldessari, Lygia Clark, Georges Adeagbo, Ant Farm, Genpei Akasegawa, Arakawa and Gins, Alighiero Boetti, Atelier Bow-Wow, and more. Though seemingly disparate, such artists, art groups, and architects had certain connections. Research was central to them. The artwork is posed as an open question, openly investigated. Dialogue and collaboration are key to the questioning and the investigation. Artworks function like an open field to enter into; in entering and taking part in the work, we would more clearly perceive the context the work exists in and the construct of beliefs or values underlying that context. Such perception leads not to feelings of certainty, but instead to a critical understanding of uncertainty as a defining factor and propelling force of living and creating.

Among CAPE’s partnerships themselves, Chicago Public Schools art and design teacher Phil Cotton and CAPE artist Margy Stover also provided an exemplar to me of examining contexts and questioning constructs. Beginning with their first curriculum together in 2003, students explored the construct of “what is a classroom,” and designed and built their own concept of what a student’s chair should be in relation to an adult’s, and in relation to the context of their school setting. The work of Phil, Margy, and their students stood as the prime example for me of where I thought CAPE’s work should go.

As I thought about contemporary art practice, CAPE program staff, partners, external researchers, and I also began to engage increasingly in the more formal, technical, and layered aspects of human-subject research. I could see aesthetic dimensions to the research. We began gradually deepening portfolio practice in certain programs, and conducting conferences with students and teachers. I saw how an artifact of the past could live in the present, and thought more about how it could generate the future. Portfolios became a visible manifestation of how research, art, and pedagogy could meet. In the research analysis, I saw how qualitative data could be reframed in a meaningful and quantitative way. Multivariate analysis fascinated me, in its techniques of removal to understand impact and how it looked at co-relationships of varying outcomes to form a schematic representation of teaching and learning and art making. Dr. Larry Scripp’s work on portfolio conferences and multivariate analysis was key to my development here, as were the insights and innovations of our on-staff CAPE research managers, Laura Tan Paradis and Joseph Spilberg.

The deepening connection of research to making art and teaching and learning was furthered by the CAPE program and research staff. They, too, held similar interests as educators and artists*. Program Managers Mark Diaz and Hilesh Patel initiated bringing in artists who already worked in a research-based manner across multiple disciplines, and had an overtly conceptual, performative, installation, and social thrust to their work. The CAPE program and research staff complimented this by designing our professional development meetings to revolve around inquiry, trans-disciplinary art making, research, and critique. Program staff planned deliberately ambiguous, instructions-based performance and installation workshops with teachers and artists. Their documentation workshop looked at multiple perspectives and layers of memory, and what is and isn’t “true.” The staff partnered with external institutions like Experimental Sound Studio, Sullivan Galleries, and Gallery 400 to further these explorations.

In May, 2014, CAPE was again conducting a strategic planning discussion, involving staff, board, and guests. Much of the discussion was devoted to trying to ferret out operational goals, in conjunction with struggling to understand what kinds of goals would be unique to or appropriate to CAPE. As this was going on, it struck me that what the group needed was an understanding of becoming, i.e., what does a CAPE learner become. Understanding this as a foundational point of why anyone would engage with CAPE would build a commonality of language and purpose from which we could proceed as a group. I shared this notion with the group, and I committed to pursue it further.

After the May meeting, I conducted internal discussions with my staff, and led two CAPE all-staff workshops probing the notion of a CAPE learner profile, utilizing texts from current artistic research practice in European universities, looking at CAPE artifacts through differing frameworks, and leading staff on an exercise to physically draw out the process or system of learning via CAPE. Following these workshops, Hilesh Patel led a meeting with a group of CAPE teachers and artists on the topic. He created a large-scale map and diagram of how we had defined what a CAPE learner becomes up to that point, and a dialogical worksheet to capture different levels of thinking in the room. He also produced an initial draft, with an overarching statement and a list of qualifiers. The structure of this draft, plus the language that circulated at this meeting, provided me with the stimulus to then write the final draft of what a CAPE learner becomes:

A CAPE Learner is an Artist/Researcher.


· Reflective Questioner
· Critical Collaborator
· Role-Shifter
· Integrative Innovator
· Social Engager

The CAPE learner (and leader) is an Artist/Researcher. As an Artist/Researcher, she/he conducts investigations through art and collaboration in order to gain new understandings of the world.

Composed from among the following qualities, the CAPE Artist/Researcher is:

-a Reflective Questioner. The CAPE Artist/Researcher begins learning through a questioning process, revisits questions throughout the art and academic process, and, through reflection, generates new questions at the end of a project.

-a Critical Collaborator.  CAPE Artist/Researchers explore together their intersections, conflicts and contradictions, in order to expand their artistic dialogue and learning possibilities.

-a Role-Shifter. During their collaboration, students become artists, artists become teachers, teachers become students, as their roles shift to bring them new perspectives and abilities.

-an Integrative Innovator. As an Integrative Innovator, the CAPE Artist/Researcher works and thinks across multiple artistic and academic disciplines to develop new ideas and create original work.

-a Social Engager. As a Social Engager, the CAPE Artist/Researcher uses their art as a tool for public dialogue and interaction.

While it is natural to think first of the student, it is not only students who are Artist/Researchers via CAPE. Teacher, artists, and students are Artist/Researchers, all together. So, too, are CAPE program staff Artist/Researchers, as am I. We all are.

In a way, what I am talking about is a perception of identity. I am not trying to create yet another theorem around learning behaviors, nor yet another vaguely inoffensive and bland policy listing of “best practice”. What I am aiming for is a personal and collective defining. This defining establishes a continuum in our individual and collective practice as students, teachers, artists, and external partners. The Artist/Researcher moniker declares: “the continuum of making art is making research is making pedagogy is my practice, it is who I become and who I am.” The aesthetic and the pedagogy in this identity are at once social and political.

At a meeting in the summer of 2015, CAPE artist Chuck Jones, on being introduced to the Artist/Researcher, stated that it seemed obvious and redundant. Of course he does research—he’s an artist. To be an artist means to do research. It was an important discussion. For some, Artist/Researcher is not a shift in terms of what they themselves do. The shift comes in how they understand with whom they are collaborating: classroom teachers, students, CAPE staff, or artists. It is a shift in understanding what we want our students to become, and what we all want to become together.

Chuck’s comment also is important in calling out that I do not presume the definition of the Artist/Researcher to be some grandiose or unheard of invention. For external organization administrators, it is a way of re-conceiving relationships and collaborations with schools, in which you see you yourself as Artist/Researchers, investigating, creating, and becoming, alongside your partnering teachers, artists, and students. The term “teaching artist” will still be referred to at CAPE. But we are proclaiming them, and our teachers and students, to have a new title. Along with program staff, Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education is now a network of Artist/Researchers.

*Here I would like to acknowledge the brilliant CAPE program and research staff who took part in this development of the Artist/Researcher: Mark Diaz, Laura Tan Paradis, Hilesh Patel, Rashida Phillips, Jessica Mueller, Joseph Spilberg, Noelle Garcia, and Gary Kafer. I thank Gary as well for his adept editing of this article.

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  • Louanne Smolin

    Dear Scott….I so appreciate your blog entry. In my mind it is a wonderful piece of evidence of what a research organization is and what that means. You detail that CAPE opened up an inquiry through its strategic planning process, asking, “how should CAPE move forward?”. You have asked those involved with CAPE to provide their interpretations. Using those perspectives as well as your own role as education director, you developed a theory about what an artist/researcher is. As a researcher, I believe that inquiry, interpretation and generative theory development are all important aspects of research. That is what a research organization should be engaging in! Thanks for opening up the conversation, Scott! I look forward to hearing from others.

  • megan williamson

    I like the new title and the way it reframes what we do.
    I imagine it will open up discussions with teachers & administrators, as well as be a good reminder of what we can do – big picture stuff.

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