The What and the Where of Art Museum Education

Educational practices in art museums don’t often make the pages of major newspapers, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this article, “From Show and Look to Show and Teach,” in the New York Times a few months ago (see also Lindsay Smilow’s earlier response to this NYT article). After a cursory glance, I assumed it would detail educational activities as part of an ongoing commitment to fostering free-choice or constructivist learning experiences in some of the most well-known museums on the planet.

As I read, two assumptions of the author began to take shape:

  1. “education” in museums is equated primarily with engaging in processes of art making; furthermore, museum guests expect such offerings under the auspices of “participatory events;” and
  2. the locations of education programs provide significant but conflicting messages.
Whitney Studio, designed by LOT-EK. Photo by Inhabitat

On one hand, the writer cites the director of the Whitney asserting that “education is part and parcel of what we do” after explaining that the physical space for educational activities (presumably at other institutions) is often physically isolated. Shortly thereafter, the author lauded the rather unique Whitney Studio, a “pop-up” center for education at the Whitney that is not only isolated, it is separate from the building altogether. It seems metaphorically significant in this instance that this temporary space is made from enormous shipping containers.

These assumptions prompted me to reflect on my own thoughts about what constitutes education in museums, and where that education should occur. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s I was fully ingratiated in the paradigm of Discipline-Based Art Education, in which aesthetics, art history, art production, and art criticism are considered basic subject areas from which to derive content for art education—while art production for me has always been one way to come to a better understanding of art, the conversations that may be engendered in gallery and other spaces have always been far more intriguing and significant in my own educational practices.

I am certainly not the first person to reckon with the importance of art making as part of an overall educational endeavor. My colleague and friend, Professor B. Stephen Carpenter, made an interesting comment during a panel presentation on reconceptualizing curriculum at the 2012 NAEA convention in New York City. He questioned, ever so briefly, whether or not the act of art making is, in fact, the primary goal/foundation of every model of art education, though his question specifically focused on eco-environmental curriculum. At the time, I thought… if it is primary, then where does that leave the myriad other discourses that surround art education and art museum education? What happens when we as professional educators privilege a particular kind of knowing over all other ways of relating to objects in the museum, particularly when few people excel at those skills, especially as they are presented in very short classes?

The article featured other examples of art-making-as-education in spaces outside the museum, such as Open Field, a grassy space next to the Walker Art Center, and several digital spaces, including online art production classes offered by the Museum of Modern Art. Art museum education has long been relegated to basements and other hidden or cordoned-off areas of the museum, and I pause to wonder what messages are being transmitted when learning is offered outside the physical space of the museum.

Does this practice reify the notion that education is a by-product of the more serious business of being in the galleries? Or is it simply a practical response to a space issue for educators who are increasingly offering educational opportunities that are responsive to their particular learning communities, collections, and spaces?

If one considers art making to be an important exercise with which to engage in order to understand art, a separate space is necessary for obvious reasons, as art can be (and should be) messy. If not, then the what and the where of art museum education is an important and evolving conversation.

I invite you to add your own thoughts and perspectives below, so we can continue to engage in productive exchange about these ideas that are core to our profession.


7 thoughts on “The What and the Where of Art Museum Education”

  1. Museum architecture is a fascinating topic. I remember reading (wish I could remember where) an essay or book that provided a rationale for why museums are designed as meandering spaces to get lost in and why the gift shops are positioned as they are. It is interesting where the education spaces are in relation to the overall design of the museum and perhaps can be thought of as a metaphor for how education is positioned within the psyche of the institution. Many museums were built and designed a long time ago when the focus was on display not interaction or participation and the adapted spaces have become or always were inadequate. When learning facilities are purpose built is it common practice for the users (the education staff) to be consulted?

  2. Great questions, Dana. You bring up some excellent points in regards to the particular positioning of art production within museum education. I firmly believe that art production is a skill that can be taught to just about everyone, much like reading. However, like any physical skill, it requires hours upon hours of practice to master. Therefore, a museum is equipped to teach art production only if it has the ability to offer students that time – as well as the specialized space of a studio. Beyond that, what we can offer to the public is a brief experience of what art productions feels like – the chance to handle art materials and construct something creatively with them. This can be a very valuable experience for a beginner, whether that is an adult or a chld. These kinds of experiences can be fun, social, enlightening and create memorable moments for visitors – that is, they can meet many of our goals as museum educations – but they are not the same thing as art production. However, neither creativity nor art education is limited to art production, so even if your museum (like the museum where I currently work) is not equipped with the space or staff to offer full art production classes, there is still enormous amounts of ground to cover – for art is a fantastic doorway to almost the whole of human experience, from culture and history to chemistry and physics to aesthetics and philosophy. I have worked with collections great and small, in museums with studios and without, and have yet to find myself at a loss for what to teach. There are as many ways to approach art education as there are visitors standing in front of a work of art.

  3. Dana, your post (and the comments above) have gotten me thinking a bit about the difference between “art museum education” and “art education” (something I dwell on quite frequently). While the former is often subsumed under the latter, especially through many of our professional organizations, I think there are many distinctions to be made between the goals and strategies of “art education” versus “art museum learning/teaching.” Your post sparked some questions in my head about how often we, as art museum educators, have created programs to meet the goals of art education and art instruction without thinking about the goals and key aspects of museum learning itself (the informal types of learning and thinking that can happen inside and outside of museum spaces). I’m guilt of that myself, so I appreciate your challenge to the primacy of art-making as THE way of knowing in art museums. There are so many other ways for people to make meaning in art museums other than making art, and museums have only begun to crack into this (with the exception of the few experimental education programs that happened throughout the 20th century, most of which faded into distance memories).

    I’ve spoken with several museum directors recently who would firmly state that the goal of their art museums is not to “teach people how to make art,” but rather for visitors to gain an appreciation and understanding of the collection. While this is somewhat valid, I hope that we can begin to more clearly see the human-centered role of creative and artistic practice in the experiences we provide for visitors and communities in our art museums. Is working with artists always about the objects in the collection or an exhibition? Do the artistic and creative activities we facilitate in the galleries always need to be directly connected to the collection? How important is it for us to simply explore the creative process with visitors and audiences?

  4. Dana, thanks so much for this post and for sharing these ideas. I remember being intrigued by the nytimes article when it came out and happy that some issues that are close to my heart are being discussed in other venues.

    At the Mattress Factory we have a beautiful and spacious art studio that is set apart from the rest of museum (partially by design and partially for logistical issues – making art IS messy and it is nice to have an education studio with its own sink and bathroom and a place to be loud and not worry about bothering visitors). I have found that we take advantage of a large lobby space we have for many of our workshops and art activities. We have elbowed are way into being in the middle of everything and it is really wonderful. We can’t always be as messy and we are often dragging tables and materials around – but we have torn down some of the walls and allowed our visitors to be part of the creative process. We have positioned ourselves as an “experimental lab” and this is really showing that side of our mission. Also at the heart of our mission is the artists – we work with artists and have them live at the museum, use their gallery as a studio and create an installation for that space. With our drop-in art activities – we follow a similar model (so as to engage visitors for a moment in thinking about the challenges artists face and also giving them an opportunity to work with an artist). We invite an artist (either from the exhibition, community or staff) to use the lobby space as a studio, to invite visitors to create something collaboratively or to think about some of the materials or ideas from the exhibition in a new way. The emphasis is definitely on “experiment” and “lab.” It is very important for me as an art museum educator to give visitors a deep and meaningful way to engage with the museum and understand more about the process.

    I wonder how this could work at other museums? Setting up pop-up exhibitions in communal spaces – asking visitors to think about curating, creating, viewing, themes, etc. That the emphasis isn’t on teaching visitors a new skill (ie. watercolor, oil painting, etc.) but giving them the same challenges as the artists and viewing the museum in a new light.

  5. I wish I could respond to each comment individually directly beneath them—they are all very prescient! @Christine, a good article about museum architecture that I assign in my Museum Studies course, is by Michaela Giebelhausen, titled Museum architecture: A brief history, in Sharon Macdonald (ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 223-244.
    When writing this post, I absolutely envisioned the space in which art production is held to be a metaphor for its positionality within the museum hierarchy.

    @Erin, I think you are absolutely right—there are many ways to approach art museum education, as there should be. Each museum is situated at a fascinating intersection of geography, community, culture, politics, space, tradition, staff/donors, etc. and the programs, experiences, and discussions in each will each be different. I agree that art making is an important element in nearly any art museum education program, but I get nervous when it is held as *the* gold standard for education.

    @Mike, The AME/AEd is a question I have asked myself a lot, particularly since I am working more closely with art education professors lately. We have a lot to learn from one another, but making meaning is as important as making objects in both contexts. The answer to many of your questions is going to depend a great deal upon the educator and his or her professional experience and education.

    Lastly, @Felicia, I LOVE the Mattress Factory! The nature of your exhibitions and your space absolutely lends itself to messy, fun, educational art making. Based on conversations I’ve had with members of your education staff, I suspect that you may have a bit more freedom in creating some less traditional activities. Run with some of your ideas (and be sure to write about it!).

    I enjoyed reading all of your thoughtful words. Thank you for commenting!

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