Mind the Gap: Art Museum Education, Academia & the Future of Our Field

Written by Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Palmer Museum of Art

Keynote Address as National Museum Education Art Educator of the Year, Museum Division Awards Ceremony, NAEA National Convention, March 26, 2015

I would like to begin by thanking the National Art Education Association, the leadership and members of the Museum Education Division, and the colleagues who so kindly nominated me for this award, including Dr. B. Stephen Carpenter at Penn State and Dr. Leslie Gates at Millersville University, both of whom are inspiring educators and supportive colleagues. I would also like to thank Dr. Pat Villeneuve, my mentor from the very beginning of my journey into art museum education who nurtured my interests and provided guidance when I was a (perhaps overly-eager) graduate student at the University of Kansas in the mid-1990s.

What would happen if we reconceptualized writing as an important part of our praxis and practice, and re-prioritized the sharing of information as a necessity rather than viewing it as a luxury? What impact would that have on our field?

I am really proud to see other profoundly dedicated art museum educators in the room who started their careers around the same time as I did, including Amanda Martin-Hamon, Kristina Walker from the Spencer Museum of Art, and Ann Rowson Love at Florida State University. I would be terribly remiss if I did not also thank my incredibly supportive spouse, who is at this time taking care of our two children while I enjoy a brief respite from a Northeastern “spring” in the company of a few thousand fellow art educators. Lassiez le bon temps ruler!

Immediately after it was announced that I won this award, a friend messaged me a note of hearty congratulations and asked if there were any prizes that came along with the award or if it just came with undying fame and glory, at which point I recalled the awards ceremony from last year and realized that the prize with this particular award is the opportunity to share a few thoughts with fellow art museum educators about our field. And then I realized that rambling comments probably wouldn’t cut it and that I needed to really hone in on one subject that I care about—which is, in fact, harder than I thought it would be.

This is my 19th NAEA conference. My first conference was right here in New Orleans. I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas in art education with a concentration in Art Museum Education and I recall flipping through the convention book meticulously, noting the museum division presentations, highlighting the higher education offerings and really struggling over which ones I should be attending. As a graduate student, I wanted to hear from the professors and researchers who were theorizing the field, but as a future practitioner, I was eager to learn from those who were doing the work that I desperately wished to do. It was a quandary deeply felt: which sessions should take precedence? And why?

Even still, thoughts about the relationship between the fields of art museum education and academia are never terribly far from my mind, mostly because I went through the process of earning a doctoral degree in art education, I work at a university art museum, and I teach courses under the auspices of an art education program and an art history department. These thoughts have returned to the forefront lately as a result of a few separate but related events:

First, I am currently co-editing a book on professional development opportunities as they occur in the art museum context, particularly those that utilize contemporary art, which is something I don’t know that I ever would have considered without the suggestion and encouragement of my co-author, who is a tenured professor and whose favorite phrase is “you should be writing about this!” In the conversations that provided the impetus for the book proposal, I recall saying that I thought there were a number of really important voices that simply weren’t being heard because, as art museum educators, we are neither required nor encouraged to publish in the same way as our curatorial counterparts. Art museum educators in general don’t have the luxury of time to reflect on their work, much less write about it, either formally or informally. The problem is that our silence cannot build a foundation for our newest colleagues or expand the understandings of our more seasoned peers.

Second, because very recently on Twitter, Mike Murawski brought me in on a conversation with Michelle Grohe, Elizabeth Nevins, and Susan Spero about who, exactly, is writing about the theory and practice of our field, what resources are necessary to enable a broader discussion to take place, and whether or not we should ditch the “old, outdated hierarchies of publishing, knowledge, and authority.” Arguably, both digital and traditional publishing are valuable—even the academy is rethinking its relationship with digital publishing, mostly through digital humanities. In our field, ArtMuseumTeaching.com has emerged as a vital space to exchange ideas and share resources. I’m proud to be a part of it even in very small ways because it helps to fill a longstanding need for a community of practice amongst geographically dispersed art museum educators. I should also mention here the monthly Google Hangout peer-to-peer initiative of the NAEA Museum Division, which is a great way to hear other art museum educators talk about salient issues. But I also worry that we are neglecting a commitment to the broader, more rigorous practice of academic writing at our own peril.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0  (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (CC BY 2.0)

Third, in the recent past I began serving on committees with masters and doctoral students in art education who are interested in the field, which lead me to consider more carefully the ways in which art museum educators are prepared for their careers. I want to be clear that I don’t think that there is any one best path to becoming an art museum educator—the field is too diverse and museums are incredibly complex institutions. As I understand it, the most common academic paths for our field include masters’ level degrees in art history, art education, or museum studies programs. Some universities offer minors, areas of concentration, or one-year certifications in museum education either in residence or online. Most of us had at least one internship at a museum. If you don’t mind indulging me with a bit of informal data-gathering, I would like to see a show of hands in order to get a sense of the professional preparation of those in the room.

Please raise your hands if you have a bachelors/masters/PhD?

In art education/art history/educational theory/curriculum & instruction/studio art/(other)?

How many of you did some sort of internship or professional preparatory experience in a museum?

Okay, now: many have published digitally/in peer-reviewed publications/in books?

"Library" by Stewart Butterfield, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
“Library” by Stewart Butterfield, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

It seems clear that people who have spent this much time researching and writing required papers and masters theses are up to the challenge of writing—your backgrounds are more academically advanced and intellectually rigorous than most people in the workforce today. But if our conversations yesterday are any indication, the primary reason that we do not publish is a lack of time rather than a lack of interest. What would happen if we reconceptualized writing as an important part of our praxis and practice, and re-prioritized the sharing of information as a necessity rather than viewing it as a luxury? What impact would that have on our field?

The title of my talk is “mind the gap,” which, in addition to being a nice way to remind people to watch their step as they are getting on or off the train in Great Britain, is a call for us to attend to the separation between academia and our field. A few considerations that might inform our thoughts include:

  1. The field is moving away from having an academic home, even as more and more museums are asking for their high-level staff to have advanced degrees, including PhDs. These are widely available in art history, art education, and education. Is it time to consider which of these might be the most flexible, transdisciplinary, and appropriate space to situate our growing field?
  1. The people who teach classes that prepare art museum educators are most generally non-practitioners or individuals who have been out of the museum for a number of years, which is a reality for most academic fields, yet it concerns me nonetheless. Things change, in academia, in education, and museums. How can we as a field reconcile that our practitioners are not always part of the academic preparation of the newest generation of educators? Is it possible to change that, and how?
  1. Increasingly, foundations are interested in the professionalization of our field, notably the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Samuel Kress Foundation, both of whom support or provide seed money for post-graduate education experiences or positions in art museums. Both are genuinely interested in university art museums to the extent that they have commissioned and published online reports about them. We need to collectively harness the interest of a broader constituency and enliven the discourses within which we work. We must be a significant part of this discussion. The best way to do that is to write about and disseminate information on what we do and how we do it.
  1. Our professional organization cares about the research that we do. NAEA has a research commission with an agenda that “is designed to encourage and disseminate research communicating the value of visual arts education and its collective impact on students, schools, community, and society.”  They call particular attention to Professional Learning by stating “NAEA members across all divisions indicated a need for greater understanding of research methodologies and application of these methodologies for their teaching and research. Professional learning about research supports understanding of implications of research for practice and developing capacities for conducting research.” This is a call to all of us.

In short, I am asking us to “mind the gap” not only over a concern about the separation between theory and practice, but also because of the deep belief that we are the most qualified individuals to shape and mold our field. We owe it to the next generation of art museum educators, and we owe it to ourselves.

*   *   *

Featured Header Image: “Mind the Gap” by Robert Donovan, via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

4 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: Art Museum Education, Academia & the Future of Our Field”

  1. With regard to Dana’s question “…whether or not we should ditch the “old, outdated hierarchies of publishing, knowledge, and authority…”, have a look at Elaine Heumann Gurian’s recent post (on Linked In) about why she has just made most of her writings free on line..

Share Your Perspective & Add to the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s