Category Archives: Teaching Tools

Teaching #Ferguson: Connecting with Resources

In light of recent events concerning the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ongoing protests, conversations, debates, arguments, emotional outpourings, and moments for learning that are occurring for all of us, I simply wanted to post some links to resources that might help support teaching and learning during this time of crisis and healing.  Or perhaps to just start — or continue to build — a process of learning and peaceful conversation.  Most of these have been circulating since August, and I have found them extremely useful for my own personal learning as well as broader implications for museum teaching practice.  If any museums, libraries, teachers, or schools are utilizing other resources in terms of addressing these pressing issues with your communities, students, and audiences, please add them in the Comments section below or send them to me directly at murawski27@gmail.com so I can add them here.  This is considered as an organic, growing list of resources sourced by the ArtMuseumTeaching.com community and our readership.

My heart goes out to everyone in my hometown of St. Louis.  Please stay safe.

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Teaching #Ferguson: Current Events in the Classroom Resources.  A Collective Google Doc created & developed by host/facilitator @dankrutka & the participants in #sschat at 7pm EST on August 20, 2014

“Whether you find yourself teaching in a schoolhouse, in your living room with your children, at a community meeting filled with movement members, in a church basement with others who seek racial reconciliation, or in a detention center common room, [these] resources … provide a snapshot of what is being taught, what is being felt, and what is being created each day.” – Marcia Chatelain

“Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain for Dissent Magazine online, reflecting on the #FergusonSyllabus project after the Grand Jury decision pertaining to Ferguson, Missouri.

“How to talk to students about Ferguson,” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain, PBS.org

“How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson” by Marcia Chatelain, The Atlantic, August 2014

#FergusonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter, developed by Marcia Chatelain as a way for educators to share ideas on how to talk about Ferguson in their classrooms.

“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” by Janee Woods, Quartz

“Do’s and Dont’s for Teaching About Ferguson,” by Jenee Desmond-Harris, The Root

“Helping Students Make Sense Of A Young Black Man’s Death In Missouri,” by Juana Summers, NPR.org

Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy – by Marit Dewhurst, a new book from Harvard Education Press.

“Time and Space to Learn and Reflect,” by David Cohen, written for the blog of the Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), a teacher leadership network for the state of California.

Facing History and Ourselves, “Michael Brown” Resources.

“5 Ways to Teach About Michae Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” by Christopher Emdin, Huffingtonpost.com

Thanks to Katie Henry for sending these additional resources from the New York State Afterschool Network:

Thanks to Rachel Ropeik for sharing further resources and links from the Hive NYC Network.

Katherine Brooks wrote a short piece for HuffingtonPost on December 5th that surveyed how artists have been quick to echo the nation’s near constant calls for justice and clarity in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. As she writes, “The landscape of St. Louis might be marred by isolated acts of vandalism and law enforcement crackdowns, but art is still flourishing.”

St. Louis artist Damon Davis installs posters from his Push Forward Project on a boarded up business along West Florissant Street on November 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Image from Zimbio.com. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America
St. Louis artist Damon Davis installs posters from his Push Forward Project on a boarded up business along West Florissant Street on November 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Image from Zimbio.com. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America

Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum started the Twitter hashtag #museumsrespondtoFerguson, and also launched a Pinterest board “Museum Response to Ferguson” for people to pin useful resources.  Both are worth checking out.

“#BlackLivesMatter – Teachers and Students,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 10, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison and everyone who participated in these conversations.

“Ferguson – Share what you are learning and teaching,” (VIDEO EMBEDDED BELOW) a live conversation on December 7, 2014, from Teachers Teaching Teachers and EdTechTalk, a collaborative open educational technology community. Thanks to the amazing Paul Allison who hosted the conversation with Renee Watson, Christopher Rodgers, Chris Sloan, and Janae Williams to talk about police brutality, the murder of black men, racism, and what we are teaching after Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… and more.

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Ferguson Newsletter and thisisthemovement.org: Stay in the loop — articles, quotes, videos, resources, and ways to get involved are highlighted.  Curated by @deray and @netaaaaaaaaa.

“In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.” –David M. Perry, Dominican University

“#FergusonSyllabus: 10 Clips to Stimulate Classroom Discussion,” from Alisa Gross at the Acclaim Blog, that offers several suggestions for news footage and clips from documentaries to stimulate discussion about social justice, protest, and the roles of news media and perspective.

“Teaching #BlackLivesMatter: Countering the Pedagogies of Anti-Black Racism,” Friday, December 19, The Graduate Center, CUNY.  An event where we can think through how to address racialization and state power as scholar-teachers, working at the level of both immediately executable plans for teaching/research, and longer term strategies for making the academy accountable to racial violence.  The event will begin by breaking into smaller groups and contributing to a collaborative syllabus. Please feel free to add to it beforehand, or if you can’t be at the event, join the Google Doc around 10:00 am next Friday (12/19).

#MuseumsRespondToFerguson – Margaret Middleton of the Boston Children’s Museum began this hashtag now being used to track the way that museums are responding to issues related to Ferguson.  Middleton also created a Pinterest Board “Museum Response to Ferguson” with relevant links and resources.

  • TWITTER CHAT: Dec. 17, 2014, 2-3 PM (EST). Join this live Twitter chat on social justice, advocacy, and the museum field’s responses to the issues of racism, injustice, and police brutality. Follow and join the conversation using the tag#museumsrespondtoferguson.

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Portland protest march in support of Ferguson and justice, November 25, 2014.  Photo by Mike Murawski
Portland protest march in support of Ferguson and justice, November 25, 2014. Photo by Mike Murawski
Featured image from WashingtonPost.com.

Student Learning in Museums: What Do We Know?

Reposted from Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.

The Museum Questions exploration of school visits to museums has been sorely lacking the context of a literature review, as noted by Christine Castle of Museum Education Monitor. Happily, Dr. Lynda Kelly told me about a report she wrote in 2011, which is excerpted below. The report was commissioned by The Sovereign Hill Museums Association in Australia. Lynda is Head of Learning the Australian National Maritime Museum, and prior to this worked in digital and audience research at the Australian Museum, Sydney. She has written and consulted widely in this field in Australia and for museums internationally. The full report, with a full bibliography included, can be found here. Thanks to Lynda for allowing me to share this much-shortened version.  -Rebecca Herz

Student Learning in Museums

It has long been recognised that museums are educational institutions and that their school audiences are critical in both sustaining visitation and, through offering a positive and inspiring experience, can influence lifelong museum visiting habits (Falk and Dierking, 1997). This report outlines the evidence for student learning in museums under the frame of the contextual model of museum learning (Falk and Dierking, 1992, 2000), coupled with review of published studies primarily drawn from the work of DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) and Groundwater-Smith and Kelly (2003-2011). Given the parameters of this review, the focus is on the physical museum space, coupled with the role of the teacher and museum staff. For more information about the impacts of the online and mobile spaces on educational activities see the list of resources at the end of this report.

The Personal Context and Student Learning

Field trips offer deep cognitive learning beyond facts and concepts to include process skills and draw on other places of learning such as museums. Learning on a field trip is a valuable supplement and addition to classroom instruction and a way to prepare students for future learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Students are more likely to remember social and personally relevant aspects of field trips, yet also dislike and keep less favorable memories of these trips that seem overly structured and leave little room for their personal visit agenda (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Based on the elaborateness of children’s descriptions it was concluded that high personal involvement, links with the curriculum and multiple visits to the same institution embraced long-term learning impact (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Wolins et al, 1992).

Affective outcomes, such as increased motivation or interest, sparking curiosity or improved attitudes towards a topic, may be more reasonable given the short-term nature of field trips (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Visits to science centres can positively impact attitudes towards science for students who are already interested in and engaged with science (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).

Students felt that in order to be substantively engaged in cognitive learning they needed to: know how things worked; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artefacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; and be stimulated through all their senses (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

When looking at emotional learning, students expressed a desire to be emotionally connected, while at the same time not emotionally confronted. The students in this study indicated that they welcomed opportunities to be fully engaged with provocative questions, fascinating and puzzling exhibits and clear, well-structured and accessible information (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

In the majority of cases the aspect of the field trip that was recalled subsequently was the content and/or subject matter presented during the field trip (Falk and Dierking, 1997).

Even after years had elapsed, nearly 100% of the individuals interviewed could relate at least one thing they learned during an early-elementary-school field trip, and most could relate three or more things (Falk and Dierking, 1997). Students retained information about sharks from an exhibition in a marine park in Italy up to three months after a visit (Miglietta et al, 2008). Sixteen months after visiting a science centre in Israel students recalled facts and details of their visit such as exhibitions, activities and guides’ input (Bamberger and Tal, 2008).

The Social Context and Student Learning

Students are more likely to remember social aspects of their visit. The social interaction occurring on a field trip is an important part of the experience and supporting students’ in sharing their experiences enhances learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

Students like learning with their friends. While they recognised that a visit to the Museum was primarily designed by their teachers to assist in their learning, they also wanted it to be a satisfying social occasion when they could learn with and from their peers (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

Visits are highly social experiences for students. A study of sixth graders stated that they had more control over their own learning when interacting with their peers rather than adults who tended towards control (Birney, 1988).

A study of student talk found that school visits to museums assisted in building relationships between students through cooperative interactions and discourse (DeWitt and Hohenstein, 2010).

The Physical Context and Student Learning

Students wanted to feel safe and comfortable and to move around readily unimpeded by a number of prohibitive signs. They also wanted areas to be well-lit and inviting and find physical spaces scaled to their ages and needs (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

The novelty of the setting may distract from students’ conceptual learning if novelty is strong (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

The degree of structure of a field trip is the subject of much disagreement in the literature – how much should the experience be mediated and teacher/educator-led, and how much should be student-led, based on free-choice learning? DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) identified several issues around structured visits:

  • To maximise cognitive and affective outcomes field trips need to provide moderate amount of structure while still allowing for free exploration.
  • Well-designed worksheets can be effective in promoting discovery-based enquiry if exposing students to a wide range of relevant information.
  • Well-designed worksheets may tap into already available interpretive material thus extending the richness of information.
  • The use of pre and post visit activities can enhance the cognitive and affective learning outcomes.
  • In a museum setting structure experiences, such as guided tours, specific detailed tasks can increase cognitive learning but may dampen enthusiasm.
  • Structure, including worksheets, may limit the ability for students to explore and engage with the unique aspects of the museum setting.

Based on a rage of studies, McManus (1985) recommended that worksheets should be designed to encourage observation, allow time for observation, focus on objects not labels, be unambiguous about where to find information and encourage talk.

Photo by Universal Pops at Flickr.com.  Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.
Photo by Universal Pops at Flickr.com. Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.

THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER

Teachers value museums as sources of rich learning and social experiences (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009). Teachers’ agendas for the trip will influence their subsequent classroom practice (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Research reveals that teachers have complex and comprehensive reasons for field trips, valuing these as learning and educational opportunities and as chances for social and affective learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Teacher motivations for school trips include connecting with classroom curricula, providing a general learning experience, enhancing student motivation, exposure to new experiences, change in setting or routine and student enjoyment (Kisiel, 2005).

Students with teachers who were both enthusiastic about science and engaged in extensive follow-up activities expressed more positive attitudes towards science after their museum visit than students in other classes (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that field trips are enhanced when the teacher:

  • Becomes familiar with the setting before the trip.
  • Orients students to the setting and agenda and clarifies learning goals.
  • Plans pre-visit activities aligned with curriculum goals.
  • Plans and conducts post-visit activities to reinforce the trip and enables students to reflect on their experiences.

THE ROLE OF THE MUSEUM AND MUSEUM EDUCATORS

Limited research has been undertaken into the role of museum educators in school visits and researchers are only beginning to examine the role of the museum in the student visit (Griffin, 2004). However, of the literature consulted it is clear that collaboration between teachers and museum educators and other staff in program development brings positive results in terms of enhanced outcomes of student visits and in strengthening relationships.

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that teachers’ goals may not be the same as those of museum educators which, in turn, can cause confusion and impediments to learning. Teachers also may have multiple goals for the visit, whereas museums may be too focussed on the logistical aspects of the visit, such as wayfinding, parental consent, safety forms, transportation, financial transactions and orientation (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

When programs are developed in alignment with school curricular and teacher goals rather than the museum’s objectives, integration of the visit into classroom practice is more likely (Xanthoudaki, 1998).

Successful museum-school collaborations are often characterised by the museum reaching out to teachers and developing material in conjunction with them (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009).

Australian Museum staff who had participated in the 2009 Teachers’ College found this had a positive impact upon all participants, and that teachers had a great deal to offer in the way of advice. Staff felt that they had benefitted in terms of getting close to their audience; learning about how the Museum could better engage teachers and students; networking and connections made to enable further discussion and consultation to take place; and stimulating new ideas for programs (Kelly and Fitzgerald, 2011).

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Visit this page for a full copy of this report.

Featured image by Universal Pops at Flickr.com.  Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.

Telling to Live: Testimonio as Educational Praxis

Preface by Betsy Andersen, Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo

At the start of 2013, Museo Eduardo Carrillo began to explore the potential of curating original exhibitions online.  We determined that our focus would be on mid-career artists whose engagement in their art continued well past their college years.  We drew inspiration from The International Museum of Women and Museo de las Mujers de Costa Rico who have long been pairing art with thoughtful essays.

Lorraine García-Nakata, "The Alchemist," Pastel on Paper, 29”x 30,” 2005
Lorraine García-Nakata, “The Alchemist,” Pastel on Paper, 29”x 30,” 2005

One of our goals was to allow the artist to select a writer who they felt would expand the experience of their art through the written word.  It has been a thrilling collaborative process. As one of few online museums and as the only artist endowed foundation to represent a Mexican American artist, innovation is part of Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s DNA.

When I began a conversation with San Francisco-based artist Lorraine Garcia-Nakata and Cornell University Associate Professor Ella Diaz the exhibition took on a new dimension.  In this partnership, the Museo would not only host an online exhibition and essay, but also extend the experience to Professor Diaz’s undergraduate students.  Her students would examine the art through the “testimonio” framework which was the focus of the class.  It was an innovative and forward thinking idea. And we welcomed it wholeheartedly.

Because Eduardo Carrillo was an influential artist and Professor of Art at University of California Santa Cruz for 25 years until his death at age 60 in 1997,  Museo has felt that part of our mission is to encourage scholarship in the next generation by giving those students an opportunity to have their work published. Because the essays were so thoughtful and well written under Professor Diaz’s guidance, Museo did publish them online and they remain in Museo’s “On View” archives with the exhibition Navigating by Hand: The Art of Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.

Future exhibitions include the work of artist Jose Lozano with an essay by Professor Dianna Santillano and The Duron Family collection with Professor KarenMary Davalos. We are looking ahead to furthering this experiment that Professor Diaz instigated.

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Written by Ella Diaz, Cornell University

Lorraine García-Nakata: Navigating By Hand, an online exhibition of historically important Chicana artist Lorraine García-Nakata, was launched at the Museo Eduardo Carrillo in November 2013. This retrospective sampling of work, spanning several decades, was seeded by a separate exhibit I curated for the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, that included her work. Over conversation, Lorraine and I found easy nexus regarding artistic practice as social change, public pedagogy, and Chicana aestheticism, evolving from 1960/1970s civil rights philosophies informing both professional and personal choices––values often absent in art institutions that default to viewing art minus the broader human context.

Lorraine García-Nakata, "Friends, No Matter What," Charcoal/Pastel On Paper, 7' x 4' 2” , 2008
Lorraine García-Nakata, “Friends, No Matter What,” Charcoal/Pastel On Paper, 7′ x 4′ 2” , 2008

When Lorraine asked me to write a curatorial statement for her solo exhibit, I agreed. The web-based format offered room for in-depth survey of her work that would identify and interpret its complexity and related cultural grounding. Being an artist, writer, and a museum professional, Lorraine shared that curatorial statements about artists of color often play it safe, hovering obvious descriptions of art, a historical idea, or repeating culturally flat references. Having read my published article, “Seeing is Believing: Visualizing Autobiography, Performing Testimonio: New Directions in Latina/o and Chicana/o Visual Aesthetic” (published 2011 in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social), Lorraine appreciated my view of Latina/o and Chicana/o visual and performance artists who push autobiographical literary boundaries and testimonio by telling their stories as collective experience, bearing witness to sociopolitical and historical events in non-written forms.

Testimonio literature is integral to Latin American and Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/a literary canon, offering an individual’s story reflecting a whole community, urgent human circumstance, and significance/meaning of daily life. Having scheduled a 2013 fall course at Cornell University on testimonio, along with my conversations with Lorraine, I designed curriculum engaging literary testimonio and alternative visual and performing art forms that would test boundaries of this literary genre.

From I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984), a canonical testimonio, to Latina Feminist Group’s formative anthology, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), this course included testimonio as educational praxis, an important component of Chicano/a Studies pedagogy. Incorporating Lorraine’s body of work, the course linked to the Museo Eduardo Carrillo’s online exhibition launched in November 2013. After a semester of critical inquiry of the testimonio genre and visual analysis of 1960s and 1970s civil rights murals, students were adept in this literary form. With close review of Lorraine’s visual art and selected writings, students began writing (see Museo’s website archive) revealing how García-Nakata visualizes her story as a comprehensive experience, testifying to the power of everyday life. Students conveyed, in clear resonant voices, how Lorraine speaks to viewers through her life events, childhood innocence, hopes, vulnerability, desires in later years, and raising of children.

Student Photo: From left to right: Professor Ella Diaz, Sarah Proo, Ashley Elizondo, Carmen Martínez, Stephanie Martinez, Elizabeth Ferrie, Kerry Close, Eamari Bell, & Gabriela Leon. (Not pictured: Phoebe Houston)
Student Photo: From left to right: Professor Ella Diaz, Sarah Proo, Ashley Elizondo, Carmen Martínez, Stephanie Martinez, Elizabeth Ferrie, Kerry Close, Eamari Bell, & Gabriela Leon. (Not pictured: Phoebe Houston)

Working with an artist and a museum, I designed a dynamic, interdisciplinary pedagogy for students regarding genres of Latina/Chicana prose. Students considered ways we tell our stories beyond printed autobiography. Through interpretation of works by Lorraine Garcia-Nakata as narrative, they made insightful commentary that she digested and the public witnessed.

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Written by Lorraine García-Nakata, Artist        

Lorraine García-Nakata, "1950’s Self Portrait," Charcoal on Paper, 7’x 4’ 2”, 2008
Lorraine García-Nakata, “1950’s Self Portrait,” Charcoal on Paper, 7’x 4’ 2”, 2008

When young, I took myself through a disciplined process resulting in a clear understanding that my life required the creative process. From that point, it was never a question, rather a quest informing my life as an artist, parent, art/cultural specialist, and as a museum professional who introduced to the field progressive best practices linked to redefinitions of community, further evolution of curatorial and public programs, development of partnerships of mutual benefit and related reciprocity, and use of accurate terminology.

As Latino contemporary artistic work has become part of the broader aesthetic, I’ve expected research, interpretation, and related writing (from within and outside our culture) to delve the complexity of Latino cultures: Chicano(a), Uruguayan, Indigenous, Caribbean, Afro Cuban, Afro North American, other cultures of Latin America, and the growing population of mixed race contemporary youth that embrace all parts of their identity. I’ve also expected exhibitions to expand beyond, and not regularly default to, group or cultural holiday exhibits. When Cornell Professor Ella Diaz approached me about an exhibit focused on figurative art by women of color, I agreed to lend my work. As a next generation, first voice (from within the culture) scholar/curator, Ella was not afraid to critique periods of our contemporary Latino history (that later evolved), such as the gender-biased framework of early phases of the Chicano movement or initial perceptions/invisibility of our LGBT Latino population. Ella also possessed a capacity to witness, interpret, and scribe the nuance of my artistic work, which is not overt or linked to the “expected” Latino iconography or color palette.

When approached by the Museo Eduardo Carrillo regarding a solo online exhibition, I agreed only if Professor Diaz could write the curatorial statement. It also seemed important for the Museum Director, Betsy Andersen, and Ella to meet. An interpretive component was developed by Ella, which included a Cornell graduate seminar focused on my work. I was delighted that students would research my work in depth and produce individual writings. I was excited to read them. For an artist, museum exhibitions are important as well as research of one’s work by a key academic institution. Cornell student writings were published on the Museo’s website, adding another important educational/interpretive element. We all worked hard to mount this exhibit, and it was clearly of mutual benefit to the Museo, myself as artist, Professor Diaz as curator, and participating Cornell students. The online exhibition provided a multi-level experience for the viewing public and offered a forum for publishing research by our next generation scholars.

While I am active in the local/national community, my artistic work is not obvious or overt in its protest or politic, but it does testify. It also challenges assumptions about how we live, how we intend our action. Being an artist, writer, and musician can be solitary and hard work. It’s a responsibility. Yet, I have long since committed my life to this practice and it will continue to be how I navigate my life.

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Click the link below to read the essays written by nine undergraduate students at Cornell University who enrolled in Professor Ella Diaz’s fall 2013 course “Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio.”

Read Essays from Cornell University Students

Lorraine García-Nakata, "Facio Nova Omnia II: Colonia" and "Facio Nova Omnia II: Indigena" (Diptych), Pastel on Paper, each 7’x 3’ 9” 2005
Lorraine García-Nakata, “Facio Nova Omnia II: Colonia” and “Facio Nova Omnia II: Indigena” (Diptych), Pastel on Paper, each 7’x 3’ 9” 2005

All Artwork ©2013 Lorraine García-Nakata protected under U.S. and International Law. Other than for exhibition related uses, no part of this material can be altered, reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without prior written permission of the copyright owner and artist, Lorraine García-Nakata/Lorraine García. This includes all rights now in existence or which may hereafter come into existence, including but not limited to authorship, documentation, lectures, or any other creation or presentation by Lorraine García-Nakata/ Lorraine García in any artistic medium, print, audio, electronic, video, CD ROM, photographic, digital, film, and any future medium.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

andersenBETSY ANDERSEN: Founding Director of Museo Eduardo Carrillo, created to extend the artist’s work and compassionate legacy into the world.  Andersen received her Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Santa Cruz.  Since that time she has enjoyed being the host of a radio interview show devoted to the visual arts and has explored producing documentaries on regional artists.

emd233ELLA MARIA DIAZ: earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, teaching several courses at William and Mary and developing the College’s first Chicana Literature course in spring 2005. Her research pertains to the interdependence of Chicano/a and U.S. Latino/a literary and visual cultures. Her dissertation, “Flying Under the Radar with The Royal Chicano Air Force: The Ongoing Politics of Space and Ethnic Identity” explores these intersections and, for this project, she received The College of William and Mary’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2010. She was a Lecturer in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute between 2006—2012. Her current book project explores the historical consciousness of a Chicano/a arts collective that produced major and canonical works of poetry, art, and literature. Diaz has published through Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, U.C. Santa Barbara’s ImaginArte, and in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social.

Lorraine-garciaLORRAINE GARCÍA-NAKATA: Since 1973, Lorraine García-Nakata has been a “pilot” with the world-renowned Sacramento Chicano artist collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). One of six original primary muralists, Lorraine was the only female artist asked to join her fellow pilots José Montoya, Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orosco, Stan Padilla, and Juan Cervantes in painting the renowned and historic South Side Mural located in Sacramento, California. Ms. García-Nakata is a recognized visual artist and has exhibited extensively since 1970 on a local, regional, national and international level. Adept in a range of visual arts medium, she is noted for her large-scale works in drawing and painting. Lorraine is also recognized for her command of mixed media, printmaking, installation work, ceramics, and sculpture.

OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

VTS-bostonFor the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate.  The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors.  In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?”  These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.

So what is VTS?

For those of you unfamiliar with Visual Thinking Strategies, it is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago and used in museums and school classrooms across the country.  Here is how Philip Yenawine describes it in his latest book Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)

Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see what makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums.  Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method.  After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training.  I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers.  In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

PhilipNeroVTSWhile I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art.  I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum.  Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.

When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted).  I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.

So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching.  To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions.  Here is some of what they sent me:

  • We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5.  What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school? 
  • Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well.  That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener?  How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
  • Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?  
  • What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
  • What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III?  How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively?  What would that facilitation look like?  How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?  
  • How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist?  How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?

ADD YOUR QUESTIONS:

Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions.  If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).

Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas!  And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie

Long Live the Spirit of Play: Tracking a Theme through NAEA 2014

By Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Nothing signifies 'play' like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.
Nothing signifies ‘play’ like this installation by Martin Creed. Photo by Nicolas Mirguet.

What do maker spaces, bodily collisions with strangers, and sculptures made of Turkish delight have in common?  They were all part of sessions at the recent 2014 National Art Education Association Convention in San Diego.  To be more specific, they were all part of sessions that focused on a theme threading through the four days of sun and arts teaching: the spirit of play.

That’s how I’m referring to it, at least.  The same idea was talked about as “being OK with failure”, “going in without predetermined outcomes”, and “iterative approaches”, but it was all shades of the same thing, and it was popping up everywhere.  (Side note: The importance of play in our work lives has been a topic beyond the museum sphere for a while.  Here’s a nice, clear Psychology Today article from 2008 that talks about what play means for our brains.)  People are interested in testing new ideas without knowing how they’ll end up, and I love it.  Like my theme tracking after the last AAM Annual Meeting, I want to follow this one through the NAEA Convention, highlighting some (though by no means all) of the conversations, actions, and tweets that made it one of my top conference takeaways.

Talking about play started out at the Museum Education Division Preconference, which was hosted at Balboa Park, home to some inspirational collaborations between cultural institutions.  Collaboration was the theme of the Preconference, and the very first session of the day, a keynote panel of experienced museum collaboration facilitators, included advice like:

and

Conference attendees were excited about this theme, too, and talked/tweeted about it throughout the day.

Seema Rao of the Cleveland Museum of Art reminded us about taking chances.

David Bowles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art talked about what motivated him to take part in the Noguchi Museum’s Teacher Think Tank (a program that started with the open-ended goal of getting museum educators and K-12 teachers together to think about museums and schools working together).

On Saturday morning, a session called Museum Maker Spaces: Creating and Play for Adults (not to be confused with “adult play”) took up the playfulness banner.  I’m sorry to have missed that session, but thanks to colleagues like Emily Holtrop (from the Cincinnati Art Museum) and Cate Bayles (from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center), I heard about some of its key themes on Twitter.

No pressure for an end product?  What do we get out of play?  As the larger debate continues about how to make museums relevant, I’m glad these are some of the issues being posed.  I’m a firm believer that the museum can be a space for more than an in-depth, object-centered experience.  As a museum educator, yes, that’s at the heart of what I do in many ways, but is it the only thing I do?  No.  The only—or, dare I say best—thing visitors can experience when they come to a museum?  Heck, no!

Museums can be many things to many people.  For those of us dedicated to making museums meaningful, setting up experiments and pushing the boundaries of what makes a “good museum visit” is a great way to find out what some of those many things might be.

That was exactly the spirit of the Gallery Teaching Marathon, organized by this site’s Mike Murawski and hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Sunday of the NAEA Convention.  As any regular reader of ArtMuseumTeaching.com knows, Mike is a voice for pushing our museum education practice, and he invited us to do just that through in-gallery sessions throughout the day.  In his original email looking for educators interested in leading a session, here’s how he put it:

“I would encourage people to think of this as an opportunity to try something new, take risks, and know that you will be among supportive colleagues, peers, and educators.”

And for those who ventured into one or two or all of the Gallery Teaching Marathon sessions, risks and newness were there for them to find.  Without speaking for my talented fellow educators who offered a wide range of experiences in the galleries that day, I will say the session I facilitated was exciting and invigorating to lead, and I hope fun to take part in.

photoWe used Richard Serra’s site-specific work, Santa Fe Depot to inspire us to write found poems, to focus on the environment around the work (up to and including the tourists dancing on top of Serra’s forged steel blocks, the commuter trains arriving and departing immediately next to us, and the pile of “organic sculpture” a dog had left behind next to the artwork), and finally, to create our own interpretive movements based on the words we’d generated.

Throughout the day, the Marathon sessions were full of eager, interested attendees, gung-ho for all the weirdness that might come their way and then ready to reflect on it. For my part, I found it incredibly liberating to be trying something with no idea how it would go over.  I liked explaining to the experimental adventurers at my session that I’d never done this before and talking about which elements of what we did made them uncomfortable and why.  It felt like an exciting deviation from what I expect from my own teaching, which led directly to me thinking about how to make it less of a deviation.

How can I take that spirit of fun, unexpected experiences in the museum and layer it into my job?  How can I give the teachers I work with—especially now, when so many are stressed over standards and evaluation—the same kind of joyful, playful invigoration that I felt from all these NAEA sessions and colleagues?  How can I spread my own belief that sometimes the most fun you can have in a museum comes from doing something within its walls that you would never have expected to do?

That’s what I’ve come home thinking about, and I’d love to hear if this idea affected any of you, too.  Any anecdotes to share about how the spirit of play has impacted your museum work?  Any advice for spreading the enjoyably surprising?  Any other NAEA sessions you attended that connected to this idea?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

If you want to read more about some of the things I’ve mentioned, check the Twitter hashtags #naea14, #naeamused14 (for museum-related content), and #galleryteachingmarathon.  There’s also my complete Storify account of the Convention, which has plenty more tweeting about the spirit of play, and Olga Hubard’s recent reflection on the Gallery Teaching Marathon itself (touching upon some of these same ideas).

Gallery Teaching Marathon in San Diego

Gallery Teaching Marathon Flyer_2 (1)The ArtMuseumTeaching community has been growing now for more than 2 years, providing an online forum for educators and museum professionals to reflect on practice, teaching, learning, technology, public engagement, diversity, professional development, and a whole host of other issues and topics. During the past year, Google Hangouts have become a new medium to extend these text-based relationships into face-to-face, real-time conversations — bridging enormous distances to bring people together to reflect on the practice of teaching and learning in museums.

Most recently, I have become interested in new ways to bring museum educators together physically in museum contexts, enacting and inquiring into our teaching practices while further building community in an openly-networked fashion.  Our museums’ galleries are increasingly becoming open spaces in which communities of teachers & learners can connect, intersect, and come together to make learning visible and then reflect upon our practice in a shared, public space. Last week, ArtMuseumTeaching partnered with the American Folk Art Museum to host the first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down – an event that brought together more than 60 museum colleagues and friends from across New York City (and beyond) to actively engage in teaching experiences led by the fabulous trio of Jen Oleniczak, Rachel Ropeik, and PJ Policarpio.  Stay tuned for further post-throwdown reflections and reports from this amazing evening.

marathon-smallExtending this work to bring museum education peers together to reflect on our practice, ArtMuseumTeaching is partnering with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) during the National Art Education Association national conference at the end of this month to host its first Gallery Teaching Marathon.  This event will feature 9 art museum educators leading a series of teaching experiences in the galleries throughout the entire day, actively engaging participants in looking, writing, drawing, questioning, social media, and theatre as well as reflective discussions about teaching and learning in the museum context. Admission if FREE, and all are welcome!

Here are the details, followed by the current schedule of amazing experiences.  Please use this blog post as well as the ArtMuseumTeaching Google Community to stay up-to-date on any schedule changes or announcements.

MCASDmapWhen:  Sunday, March 30th, 11am-5pm – link to Google+ Event Page
Where:  Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown location (1100 Kettner Blvd)

Before planning your day on this Sunday, we encourage you to first check the NAEA conference schedule (which includes dozens of incredible sessions, events, and forums focused on museum education and all areas of art education).  Make note of the conference sessions happening this day, and then squeeze in some time to walk over to the MCASD-Downtown to join us.  The easy walk from the Convention Center to the MCASD-Downtown location is about 10-15 minutes through sunny downtown San Diego.

MARATHON SCHEDULE

11:00-11:40am
Layers of Meaning
Experience led by Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It’s been said that every work of art tells a different story. But, what if there was more than one story to tell? In this session, we’ll engage with a work of art and investigate it together, layer by layer, to uncover the many meanings within.  Directed looking and facilitated conversation, designed to uncover the context(s) of the work.  In this session, participants will engage in looking, talking, writing and drawing; consider the many contexts of the work, including time, gallery placement, and their own personal interests; search for the artists’ message or intention, building on what the group knows and discovers together; and determine how the artwork is relevant in today’s world, and on a personal level.

11:45am-12:25pm
#DramaticPossibilities
Experience led by Jen Oleniczak, TheEngagingEducator.com

Focusing on movement and theatre-based ways of exploring art, and continuing the conversation beyond the gallery by using social media.

12:30-1:25pm
Teaching with Thinking Routines
Experience by Heidi Hinish and Liz Diament, National Gallery of Art

Slow down, look carefully, and enjoy time spent in conversation around a work of art.  In this session, we will model a teaching strategy called a Thinking Routine to guide the discussion. Thinking Routines were developed by researchers at Harvard University’s Project Zero. The routines are short sets of open-ended questions that are designed to help learners engage with complex ideas and objects, to foster rich engagement, and to build understanding.

1:30-2:20pm
Collaborative Poetry, Meet Interpretive Dance
Experience by Rachel Ropeik, Brooklyn Museum

Let’s see what happens when we use a work of visual art to inspire us to two other creative art forms.  We’ll discuss an artwork together, then let it inspire us with both words and movement.  Adventurous experimenters welcome.  No poetry, dance, or even museum experience required.

2:25-3:15pm
VTS-ing VTS
Experience by Michelle Grohe and Jenn DePrizio, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Whether you love it, loathe it, or don’t yet know about it—VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) is a force within art museum education.  Join us for a open forum to explore the possibilities and limits of this pedagogy.  Ever wondered what VTS looks like with more experienced viewers?  This is your chance to participate in a VTS discussion with colleagues and reflect together on our professional practices.

3:20-4:10pm
What Does This Artwork Want?
Experience by Elliott Kai-Kee, J. Paul Getty Museum

Participants will start with the question, “What is this particular artwork asking me to do?” and as a group perform responses that arise. A brief discussion follows, of how “doing with” relates to “talking about” objects.

4:15-5:00pmCANCELLED (due to illness … we hope Chelsea feels better soon)
Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art
Experience by Chelsea Kelly, Milwaukee Art Museum

What are the connections between individual, art historical, and experiential/group interpretations of works of art? How might we use these experiences to create relevancy for our collections and humanize our institutions? Inspired by the work we do as educators to support, study, and take part in transformative experiences with art (in the spirit of Elkins’ Pictures and Tears, Armstrong & de Botton’s Art as Therapy, and Burnham & Kai-Kee’s Teaching in the Art Museum), join me in a group discussion that will begin with sharing our own personal transformative experiences with art, then branch out to explore the above questions. PLEASE BRING: A story about a transformative experience you have personally had with a work of art, and a picture of that artwork to share (on your tablet or printed out is fine).

ArtMuseumTeaching HAPPY HOUR

check out these amazing drinks at Craft & Commerce, location for this year's Happy Hour

Whether you can attend part of the Gallery Teaching Marathon or not, the ArtMuseumTeaching community invites you to an evening Happy Hour for further networking, community-building, and to learn more about how to get involved.  For this year’s Happy Hour, ArtMuseumTeaching is pairing up with Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC), a nonprofit organization for museum professionals whose work is focused on museum audiences. Here are the details for the Happy Hour:

When: Sunday, March 30th, 5:30-7:00pm – link to the Google+ Event page
Where: Craft & Commerce, 675 W Beech St – http://www.craft-commerce.com/

So if you plan to be in San Diego for the NAEA conference, we hope to see you at the Gallery Teaching Marathon and Happy Hour on Sunday.  Should be lots of fun as we meet new people, connect with old friends, and celebrate the work we do as educators!

Forget About the Price Tag: Engaging with a Masterpiece

Bidding during the auction for Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," New York. AP
Bidding during the auction for Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” New York. AP

This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’  How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this?  What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work?  How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?

Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait.  What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art writes:

“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.”

Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art.  For me, this type of exploration is best done with others.  So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance.  With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.

What Exactly Is a ‘Masterpiece’?

Visitors crowd around Picasso's "Desmoiselles D'Avignon" at Museum of Modern Art in New York,
Visitors crowd around Picasso’s “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” at Museum of Modern Art in New York,

Across the country, visitors consistently flock to museums to see noted masterworks (whether through traveling special exhibitions, celebrated groupings of masterpieces, as part of some museums’ collections).  Yet, an artwork’s prestige can create a situation (like the insomniac) in which the pressure to ‘get’ the famous work prevents us from having any type of valuable experience at all.  This situation is more common with modern and contemporary art, which might not always meet the traditional or popular criteria of a masterpiece.  So what do we mean when we say a painting is a masterwork or ‘masterpiece’?

This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic.  Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career.  In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering.  In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them.  We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.

However, people frequently look to experts or scholars to help us determine which artworks might be considered masterpieces, so I thought I’d bring in a few of their ideas.  Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a series of art scholars and experts about this very question posed by the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz entitled “Masterpieces?”.  Here are a few responses:

“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist

For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”

Aaron Doyle and Evan Tewinkel, preparators at the Portland Art Museum, install the Bacon triptych. Jamie Francis/The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com

Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)

Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own.  But how to do this?  How to begin to dig deeper?  I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy.  Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:

“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)

murawski-teaching-with-baconWhile I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon.  After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits.  I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.

“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”- Francis Bacon

“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” - Francis Bacon

Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing.  For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups.  And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.

The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity.  After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:

“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”

It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves.  But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.

Francis_Bacon-triptych

Bringing the Museum into the Art History Classroom

Written by Karen Shelby, Assistant Professor of Art  History at Baruch College, City University of New York, and co-founder of Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR).  This post was originally published online at Art History Teaching Resources, a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing art history survey teaching materials between teachers.

mona-lisaMost art history instructors include a museum visit or two in the semester schedule. But what if a museum or gallery visit is difficult to arrange dependent upon geographic location of the college or university, class size, or the time the class is offered?

Even though I have access to numerous museums because I teach in New York City, I found that some of these challenges prohibited my students in engaging with the museum in what I considered to be a meaningful way. I often teach jumbo art history survey classes and there’s just no way for one instructor to physically tour 100 students around a museum at once in any meaningful way. If not class size, then my city college students’ schedules – job 1, job 2, family, other classes – meant they couldn’t make the visits I scheduled. For these and many other reasons, I increasingly found that it was often no longer possible to engage the students with a teacher-led museum visit (though where I can, I always still do!).  Through several discussions with Michelle Millar Fisher at AHTR, we came up with the idea to film some of the museums in the city in order to help facilitate professor-led discussions in our classrooms before our students hit the museum.

Google Art Project lets us inside the Tate Britain (among many other art museums) from our computer or mobile device.
Google Art Project lets us inside the Tate Britain (among many other art museums) from our computer or mobile device.

There are certainly helpful projects out there already that pointed towards our idea. But, while Google Art Project and Google Maps Street View allow students to view the interior and exterior of museum spaces, they are stilted and do not study the exterior façade and environment in the necessary depth of an academic exercise. We want our students to consider the politics of the museum space – how, why, and where the artwork is located in the museum, and the museum architecture itself.

We ultimately got this project supported by two Baruch Learning and Technology Grants that supported the work of filmmaker and editor Thomas Shoemaker who filmed at least ten museums as well as two discussions among museum educators and art history instructors. We’re still working on uploading some of them to the AHTR site, and also redubbing them – one part of the learning process was realizing that having a score was distracting. We are currently reinstating the “wild sound” they were created with. We are in the process of editing and uploading the following films: The New Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Tenement Museum, and PS1 (we have some fabulous footage of Five Pointz from the 7 train before it was torn down). In addition, we recorded a conversation among Michelle, architectural historian and Big Onion Tour Guide Ted Barrow, and myself about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another between Laura Lombard, manager of University Programs and Partnerships, and Mike Obremski, a gallery guide, at the Rubin Museum of Art.

We hope that the availability of the short museum segments will enhance professor/student engagement for a variety of academic disciplines. But for art history, these films can provide a number of pedagogical objectives. I use these films as introductions to the self-guided museum visits that I must now assign to the 100+ students in my jumbo courses. We also view the films in class after the students have toured the museum and handed in their formal analysis assignments. The traditional formal analysis assignment now includes a section that asks them to critically evaluate the museum space. The goal is to make them aware of how the decisions made by museum personnel subconsciously affect each visitor.  My model is Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach’s “The Universal Survey Museum.”

Duncan and Wallach analyze the Louvre, considering the information imparted to the visitor through the deliberate placement of the works of art, the organization of the galleries, and the architectural frame of the Louvre. They provided me with some ideas to create a list of questions for the survey student to consider as he or she moves through the museum, including:

    • Where is the museum located?
    • What does it look like on the exterior and interior?
    • What art historical period does it reference?
    • Why do you think this style was chosen?
    • How is the museum organized in the interior?
    • What cultures are featured?
    • Which are difficult to find?
    • What do you think about this organization?

Both Michelle and I have had some great pre- and post-visit class discussions spring from watching these films with our students. In one of Michelle’s classes, after students visited the Met independently (watching the Met Museum film before and after and discussing as a class), the students were asked to analyze the film that showed the Studio Museum in Harlem (without knowing the name of the institution) as an extra credit question on their midterm. Students showed confidence and facility with describing and interpreting the similarities and differences between the two exteriors, interiors, and neighborhoods. For example, they didn’t know the flag outside the Studio Museum in Harlem was David Hammons’ African American Flag, but they could interpret the difference between its symbolism (alternative, wishing to make a new statement about the politics inherent to the American flag) and the symbolism on the facade of the Met (classical, traditional, patriarchal). It was fun to parse this further after the exams were handed back, and to be able to continue to discuss – in a multifaceted way – spaces of display long after the museum visit had happened.

We’re pleased to have these films available and we hope they become a valuable resource to the arts teaching community. The goal is to add to the collection with the help of the recent Kress Digital Resources grant awarded to AHTR, but also from contributions from our peers.

We’d love to hear what you think of this project. What would you need changed or adapted in order to use it in your classroom or teaching environment? Could you make similar videos of institutions and places in your locality that we could post and share on AHTR?  We’d love if others in the AHTR or ArtMuseumTeaching community would add to the collection expanding it beyond the currently New York City-centered focus. Help us create some additional assignments or discussion points to be added to the AHTR site. We want your feedback and participation!

Editor’s Note:  Here at ArtMuseumTeaching, I’m interested in the thoughts and feedback from museum educators about using museum videos and short films to prepare students for their own self-guided visits to our institutions.  What are other ways in which art history faculty might connect their students to art museums, collections, and learning spaces they provide?  Are there ways in which emerging technologies might allow museums to ‘enter’ the jumbo survey classroom in unique ways?  How might museums work toward connecting better with the needs of college and university faculty who might not be able to visit with their students?  Your thoughts, questions, and ideas are welcome!

**This post was originally published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR).

Reflecting on the Learning Power of Conversation in Museums

“Talking in museums is one of the things that makes them matter, and the way in which we talk in museums is one of the things that define for us what they are.”  - Adam Gopnik

conversationOver the past 20 years, research in the fields of museum studies and museum education have firmly established the importance of the social dimension of visitors’ museum experiences and the learning that happens in museums (see this great 2012 post from Regan Forrest’s Interactivate blog).  In addition, a wealth of research from more than 50 years of educational psychology speaks to the social and cooperative aspects of learning in more formal educational settings (see this extremely useful resource packet developed at Stanford on “Learning in a Social Context”).  So whether sitting in a classroom or walking through an art museum, we learn and make meaning through our interactions and conversations with the people around us.

Last week, I was invited to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to give a talk to their volunteer docents on the topic of “dialogic and conversational touring.”  I have always been a strong advocate for conversational pedagogy in museums, practicing this form of teaching myself on a regular basis as well as spending considerable time these past several years thinking about how to bring conversation into the core of docent education and tours.  Thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the docents at the Crocker, I used this as a way to crystallize some of my thinking about the learning power of conversation in museums.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Crocker’s docents and education staff (special thanks to Jill Pease and Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick), and I thought I would share some reflections here on the topic of conversation and museum teaching.

What Does ‘Conversation’ Mean to Me?

When I examine what ‘conversation’ means to me and my own practice of museum teaching, two unsuspecting people come to mind:  critic and curator Michael Brenson and contemporary Anishinabe-Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore.  Back in 1996 at the “Conversations at the Castle” series of discussions between artists, critics, and the public about contemporary art and audiences, Michael Brenson addressed the core democratic notions of conversation.  The following quote from Brenson has resonated with me for years and best represents what I value about the powerful kinds of conversations we can facilitate in museums:

“In the best conversations, no one is used; ownership is shared. Everyone leaves with a sense that the ideas exchanged belong to each person present. Everyone also leaves respecting those who were part of the exchange, whether or not there was agreement. For me, conversation does make connections, it helps make connection possible.”

Rebecca Belmore, "Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose" (1992)
Rebecca Belmore, “Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose” (1992)

Since beginning my museum career in a largely contemporary art museum, I have formed so much of my own teaching practice from ideas of pedagogy and human connection advanced by contemporary artists. While didactic wall texts, curatorial essays, and academic lectures often over-intellectualize and dull the interests that contemporary artists have in education and public engagement, I continue to find that so many artists are constantly thinking about the ways that their work can bring people together to think, talk, exchange ideas, make connections, and have meaningful conversations about issues relevant to our lives.

Rebecca Belmore is one artist whose work has powerfully ignited my own thinking about conversation, about whose voices get to be part of a conversation (or don’t), and about the role that power plays in the conversations we might have in institutions such as museums.  I first encountered her performance and installation work during one of my feminist and gender studies courses in graduate school, specifically her 1992 piece entitled Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for any Purpose (shown above).

In this work, Belmore arranges a circle of chairs taken from her own kitchen and the living spaces of women closest to her. Viewers are invited to sit down, put on a pair of headphones dangling over each chair back, and listen to the stories of Belmore’s female community talking about their lives as native women in Canada. What strikes me most about this work is how Belmore welcomes participants into a circle of community, a form of talking circle that embraces voices that would likely otherwise go unheard.

Sparked from inspirations such as these as well as years of in-gallery experiences, I’ve developed some overarching frameworks that have helped me think about creating an environment for conversation while teaching in an art museum.  First of all, I continue to find that the structures of engagement, or physical arrangement of people in the space of the gallery, has a strong correlation to the type of conversations that can occur.  In addition to simply how we arrange our groups, there are certain power relationships that we create as we position ourselves as educators and facilitators of meaningful conversations. I’m going to briefly dive into both of these areas, but far more pixels could certainly be spilled about each topic — and I hope maybe we can have some discussion in the Comments section below to pull out more ideas.

Structures of Engagement

In preparing to speak about “conversational touring” at the Crocker Art Museum last week, I spent considerable time thinking about the underlying structures that can establish a conducive environment for meaningful conversations (or that can prevent them from happening).  For me, the physical space we create with our group is always so important, sending an immediate message about the types of interactions we expect to have.  I used the photos below (pulled randomly from Flickr and Google) to illustrate a few examples of how we, as educators, can create better structures of engagement in the galleries.

Staff Tour of Sin and Salvation

Of these four gallery teaching experiences, which do you think might have the best conversations taking place?  Which of these photos looks most like tours that you have experienced, or even that you might lead yourself? (I, myself, have led plenty of tours that looked like the photos on the left)

The two images on the left show a much more traditional and common structure of engagement, with an educator or “tour leader” at the front near the artwork and then the group a bit farther away.  While this is a completely valid and effective way to lead a tour, it just does not lead to lots of conversation.  Any dialogue and exchange happening is between the tour leader and the participants, with very little participant-to-participant communication possible (the core of that social, cooperative dimension of learning).  When the docents at the Crocker were examining these photos with me, they also noticed how much the participants body language seemed to support their mediocre levels of engagement.

By contrast, the two photos on the right show a very different structure of engagement — something that actually looks a lot more like Rebecca Belmore’s circle of chairs.  The educator or tour leader becomes a part of the group, and the structure of the circle creates a more effective space of engagement where focused looking, questioning, and thinking can occur. It creates a better environment for conversation and discussion, as well as greater participation among the group (students and participants are not as detached from the experience — teachers and students all become learners in the gallery experience).  While this subtle difference can seem fairly obvious, I could not even begin to count how many docents or educators I have observed that struggle with making connections with visitors — much of which could be solved with a simple re-arrangement of their group.

Power Relationships

As we make decisions about the physical arrangement of our groups, it is also important to be aware of the power relationships (often unintended) that we set-up between ourselves and our group, and among the group itself.  In a good conversation, as Michael Brenson describes, “ownership is shared.”  We aim to create a safe environment for open exchange and dialogue in which everyone’s voices and ideas are respected.  This type of open conversation can be very difficult to achieve if we set-up a one-sided power dynamic with our group.

In the two photos on the left (below), we see fairly typical docent-led school tours.  By standing and towering over their group, however, the docent or educator has established a traditional teacher-student power relationship that will not lend itself as well to open exploration, creative wondering, and meaningful conversations among the students.  Feel free to try this out — have a conversation with someone in your office with one of you standing and the other person sitting on the floor.  Yep … awkward at best.

power-relationships-images

The two photographs on the right (above) show exchanges in which the educator and students are closer to the same level; no one is towering over the other.  These students likely feel more empowered to look, question, wonder, and discover along with their docent or educator, breaking down the traditional power relationships between ‘teacher’ and ‘student.’  In my own teaching experiences, this almost always rings true — as soon as we all sit on the floor and are at a level playing field, the conversation ignites and we are all more open to sharing our thoughts, insights, and questions.  With adult groups, arranging a semi-circle of gallery stools is an easy way to establish this conducive environment for meaningful conversation.

How do you create meaningful conversations in your museum?

It was so great to have the afternoon last week to work with the Crocker Art Museum docents on these (and other) issues regarding conversational touring.  We had lots of fun modeling the power dynamics of a tour through a quick theatre exercise on stage, and we worked on developing creative, participatory questions to spark meaningful conversations with works of art.  I even had a chance to talk briefly about the role of artwork selection on a conversational tour, as well as something I like to call “researching for stickiness,” or how we can research information about artworks in a way that helps open up pathways to spark dialogue and thinking.  Even with all of this, we were only able to scratch the surface in terms of “dialogic and conversational touring.”

I would love to hear some of your best strategies for igniting meaningful conversation in the galleries:

  • How important is conversation for tours and education experiences at your museum?
  • What is your favorite way to start a tour that will be focused on conversation?
  • How do you set-up that expectation from the beginning?
  • What types of teaching techniques do you find bring out the most interesting discussions (for students or adults)?
  • How do you ensure that the diverse voices of participants and students can be heard?

What’s the Value of an Art Museum Field Trip?

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

By Anne Kraybill, School and Community Programs Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Early in my career, I worked at an art museum that experienced what many art museums have experienced, a steady decline in school tours. Our tours did not cost anything to the schools, we had a grant for some transportation and the school district had funding as well. As an institution, we were puzzled. If the tours were barrier-free in terms of cost, what could be causing this? This was just around the time of the initial implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and we had anecdotal evidence that preparing for the NCLB test was deterring administrators from approving field trips during the months preceding the exam.  But even in the non-test prep months, attendance was down.

As I progressed throughout my career, I continued to face the challenge of convincing administrators that a trip to the art museum is a worthy endeavor. Even with funding for transportation, it has been a difficult case to make with little rigorous research available to back up our arguments. Through my teaching practice in the gallery, I can see the connections students are making: the critical thinking and inference, and the expansion of their interpretive framework that opens up their world. But could it be proven? We needed hard numbers:  How does a one-time field trip to an art museum actually impact a student, and is that impact enough to convince an administrator?

Fortunately, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art inherently believes in the power of the field trip and the multiple effects it has upon student learning. Thanks to the generosity of the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable foundation, the Museum established a $10 million endowment that provides every school with transportation, substitute teachers, and a lunch for students during their museum visit. This makes a field trip barrier free and as one might imagine, the demand was high. Everyone wanted to visit the Museum when we first opened. But as I had experienced previously, financial barriers are not the only challenge to ensuring school visitation. How could we ensure that five or ten years from now we still had the same interest and support from school administrators?

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

Located in the Ozarks, Crystal Bridges is the first large art museum in the region. Prior to the opening of our Museum, schools would have to drive to Tulsa or Little Rock to visit an art museum. The combination of never having an art museum in the area, plus a demand for field trips that exceeded our Museum’s initial capacity, lent itself to a natural experiment. We contacted the University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform to measure the impact a one-time field trip has upon students.

Researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel Bowen designed a random assignment study. Schools applied to visit the Museum in grade levels or pods. Groups were matched and then randomly assigned whether they would get the field trip right away, or if they would get the field trip later. Once the study began, the treatment group visited the Museum and the control group was surveyed. Following the field trip, the treatment group was surveyed (an average of three weeks after). The research was conducted from March through December 2012. There were almost 11,000 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools throughout the region in this study.

Tour Methodology

Crystal Bridges school tours are similar to those at many art museums. We use interactive dialog that allows the tour to be student driven. Students make observations or statements and Museum Educators respond through paraphrasing, questions, or layering additional contextual information for the student to a level of understanding that they might not get to on their own. For many students and their teachers this is their first time on an art museum field trip. We want to be sure they know this is not about the passive reception of information. We emphasize to the students that this tour is about their ideas, and we produced a video to help deliver this message:

Tours are led by Museum Educators that are on staff rather than a volunteer corp. As they are leading tours daily, the educators are continually refining and reflecting. In addition, peer review and mentoring is part of the training process.

The Findings

Photo by Stephen Ironside
Photo by Stephen Ironside

The researchers were interested in revealing several areas of possible impact. These included cognitive and non-cognitive skills from knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and desire to visit museums in the future.

  • Overall, students remember what they learn from works of art! Shocking I know, but students were able to answer very specific questions about contextual information, demonstrating that they retained that information not because they had to for a test, but because it was interesting information to keep.
  • In critical thinking, students also displayed more observations and inferences if they had been on a field trip.
  • Students indicated that they would be more open to diverse opinions, even if they were in opposition to their own thinking.
  • Students were better able to imagine a situation unlike their own in the form of historical empathy.
  • There was also a built-in behavioral measure indicated if the treatment or control group would be more likely to come back to the museum. The treatment group did independently return with their families at a higher rate than the control. In all of the areas there is an impact, but the most significant impact is found within student populations that are considered to attend low-socio economic and/or rural schools.

With recent research in non-cognitive abilities as a predictor of student success, these findings help to make a rigorous case to administrators, policy makers, philanthropists, and educators that there is significant value in a field trip.

To learn more about the findings and research methodology, read the article in Education Next.

To hear the research team discuss the findings, view the September 16th Media Conference.

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About Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL: School and Community Programs Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. With a team of educators, she developed and implemented all programming related to K-12 students, teachers, and pre-service teachers as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. She is currently developing a distance learning initiative for Crystal Bridges and pursuing her Ph.D. in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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ABOUT THESE 3 NEW YORK CITY EDUCATORS

rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.