Studio Practice: Still at the Core of Art Museum Teaching

It seems like most of the articles, books, and blogs I read on teaching in art museums focus primarily on the methods gallery educators employ to facilitate for visitors what John Dewey would say is “AN experience” with a work of art (See “Art as Experience”). But where do all the studio experiences that museum educators provide fit in? What about the various institutions that staff or contract Teaching Artists?  Should we be considering the art making experience in the museum as an integral part of having “AN experience” with a work of art?

A Pre-K class observes the Queens Museum’s collection of Tiffany Glass and created works of art exploring transparency, color mixing, and shape. After making art, students discussed contemporary artists’ work, concerned with similar studio explorations. (Works in the photo by Sharona Eliassaf and Jesse A. Greenberg; Photo by @pemadb)

We all have it in our museum repertoire, and have in some way, shape, or form created artworks with visitors in museums — from a small gallery sketch to a full blown painting workshop. The recent New York Times article “Museums Expand their Educational Offerings” highlights a few museums  that have added certain kinds of courses or workshops to their list. And, historically, museums have been spaces where art is not only looked at, but made. Many art museums began as places where art students studied the ‘originals’ or from casts of Greek and Roman sculpture. Take for example the The School at the Art Institute of Chicago, that has its roots in the 1866 founding of the Chicago Academy of Design, which local artists established in rented rooms in downtown Chicago apartments.  In 1878, the relocated and renamed Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, expanded its mission beyond education and exhibitions to include collecting, and in 1882 the academy was renamed the Art Institute of Chicago. In this case, and in many other cases of the older encyclopedic museums in our country, art making was a large draw for artists who were a regular visitor core for the institution.

A student admires the fruits of his labor

I guess I’ve just been wondering — is studio practice still a central part of the educational experience at an art museum?  And what is the value of adding an artistic, art-making element to these experiences?

I can only speak for myself as a former artist. I say “former”  because I wouldn’t consider myself a practicing artist — although getting myself dressed everyday is my favorite and most active form of art expression.  When I make works of art, either alongside looking at art or before or after an experience in the galleries, I think about those objects in a very different way. I think about how it is made, what materials the artist used, the difficulty creating the forms I see, its relationship to me, the world, my space, and the spaces of the gallery. I am clearly a visual learner, and by making and doing I am able to reflect on the process behind the object, the artist’s choices as well as his or her state of mind.

In the New York Times article (mentioned above), Wendy Woon, Deputy Director of Education at  MoMA, remarks:

“in the 21st century, museums are well-placed as we move from consumption to innovation to stimulate ideas and creativity… In many ways it harks back to the history of MoMA: a place where conversations with artists, architects, designers and the public take place and where art is made.”

Agreed. Museums have changed from places that collect stuff (utterly oversimplified, I know) to places where people go to learn about that stuff and now, back to in this place that exhibits work BECAUSE  of the experiences that are had by visitors — quiet contemplation, sharing and talking, making and doing.

Do you think art making is an important part of an art museum experience? Why or why not?  Keep the conversation going with me on twitter @lsmilow – use #artsed #museumed and #artmuseumteaching or comment here.


8 thoughts on “Studio Practice: Still at the Core of Art Museum Teaching”

  1. What effect do you think the expanding role of docents at many institutions across this country has on the level of studio art and art-making happening in the galleries? For a museum that depends primarily on volunteer educators (which is not everywhere, I realize), I wonder if there should be a heavy studio, art-making, and creative learning component to their training and continuing education. Would this change the type of artistic/creative experiences that visitors would have in the galleries — or, perhaps, would it even change the type of person museums would recruit to be a docent? Thoughts?

    1. It’s an important aspect of my practice and volunteers must provide evidence of having experience or at least the capacity to learn how to run practical programs for students. I also work with lots of artists to run programs.
      I love working with puppeteers! They have such a fantastic manner with children.

  2. Your posting is very interesting and thought provoking thank you. Art making is central to my role as a museum educator at ‘my’ museum. We offer teachers an option of adding a practical workshop to their facilitated gallery tour and it is very popular. When I first started working here some teachers requested only practical classes but there was no context for any of the artworks created. I believe that students’ visits to the art museum are so infrequent, it is really important to ensure that they make the most of the opportunity to have an immersive, connected experience with art, by a trained teacher rather than just ‘see’ the galleries with their own teacher.

    The practical workshops always complement the gallery experience by extending on the critical thinking that has started during conversations about artworks. It allows students to synthesise and create something new. Bloom’s (Revised +1) Taxonomy comes to mind, describing the steps learners move through to develop new understanding and knowledge.

    1. Listing; (my +1) learners first look and start listing to create order
    2. Remembering; recall and memory, relating to what they already know
    3. Understanding; describing what is seen or being done
    4. Applying; using what has been looked at in detail to inspire new thought
    5. Analysing; applying (even low level) connoisseurship
    6. Evaluating; Providing a rationale for decisions and choices
    7. Creating; making something new and inventive

    A museum experience that also allows for students to generate and create art can extend this experience for students into the ‘creating’ zone.

    I also believe that the best art-making practices can be messy and shouldn’t have too many limitations or structural steps. Art is about problem solving and innovation. Making art after experiencing museum quality art is a wonderful experience for us all.

    I posted some pics on twitter yesterday of a teacher s painting as part of a PD I ran.


    1. Christine – I am a Bloom’s fan too and I’m excited you shared your thorough comment to give readers a full picture of why and how you do what you do. I am kind of curious if you considered the art making portion of your programs as a possible precursor to looking at works of art? I know you mentioned the studio experience as an extension of “critical thinking that has started during conversations about artworks” but has it/does it ever work the other way? I know I am toying with the way art-making can inform gallery learning, by flipping the the gallery to studio museum ed. sequence on its head (more like the way university art professors take their studio students to a museum at the end of a skill-based course) — just curious if you have tried it/done it/will try it?

  3. Hi Lindsay,

    Sometimes at my museum students do the art activity prior to the tour but this is often out of necessity rather than choice, as we only have one room to work in. Students apply the information they have ‘gleaned’ about artistic process and context into their own work after the galleries have inspired them.

    When students approach it the other way around there is no reference point for the instructor to frame the activity, which can be difficult. On the other hand it means students aren’t intimidated by gallery works and freer to come up with their own designs and responses to the ‘art problem’ that is being proposed to them. In the galleries tour facilitators will get children to respond to works with the process of making in hindsight.

    I wonder if this is an advantage to working with Modern and contemporary works, because they’re created in response or context to and with daily life. Either way making art is important in the process of synthesising ideas. One probably isn’t better than the other, but next time it happens I will be paying more attention.

  4. I would also be very interested in exploring the differences between having the art-making occur before the gallery experience or having it after the gallery experience. I’ve always gravitated toward having the “making” build onto the “looking,” but I also understand how the “making” can provide a new creative lens for the students or visitors to bring with them into the galleries. I’m going to be leading a teacher workshop this summer in which we’ll be working with an artist to make a collaborative artwork, and then we’ll be seeing the artist’s work in an exhibition (I envision the participants making a very strong, personal and tactile connection with the artist’s work after we’ve all made our own and shared that experience). Great stuff to think about and experiment with!!

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