All posts by Jen Oleniczak

The Power of the Pre Visit

Written by Alex Brown and Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

Through a partnership with The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), The Engaging Educator and ABC of NC, students ranging from 2 to 21 years old with Autism Spectrum Disorder came to SECCA as part of an art program funded by The Arts Council of Winston Salem and Forsyth County. Prior to the museum visit, SECCA and The Engaging Educator visited each class at ABC for a Pre Visit, something new for both the museum and the school. This was also the first time the school had taken a field trip to a contemporary art museum.

While educators can all agree that programs for students on the spectrum are extremely worthwhile, many institutions, educators, and schools have trepidation in approaching these programs – but knowledge provides comfort. While the idea of setting up programming for students on the spectrum is multi-faceted, an under-discussed part of programming is the Pre Visit. Going into the Pre Visit, we prepared a visual agenda, social story, and had a touch collection. Below, find our individual reflections on the importance and outcomes of our short but powerful Pre Visits:

Feels Like the First Time – by Alex Brown

I am accustomed to meeting school groups ‘cold’ when they come in the door. I know where they’re coming from, the size of the group, the age range, and I speak with teachers prior to visits to discuss the scope and expectations, but it is difficult to know the feel of a school group if I haven’t met the students. Starting ‘cold’ and getting to know the students during a program works great most of the time, but it is simply not enough for every group. Students on the autism spectrum often require extra attention and care that can be difficult to provide with a ‘cold’ start. That’s when the value of the Pre Visit became clear.

Typical school programs at SECCA last between an hour and an hour and a half. Since most school programs start without Pre Visits, I spend the first five to fifteen minutes with introductions, discussions around the definitions of contemporary art, and a primer on the exhibition. This not only helps students get comfortable in an unfamiliar space and with potentially unfamiliar ideas, it also creates an opportunity for me to ‘read the room’ so I can find out what the students are interested in and the kind of experiences they are open to. ‘Reading the room’ can be anything from a discussion with the students to paying attention to body language. It becomes easier to read students as a program progresses and as discussions unfold. By the middle of a visit, most students feel comfortable in the space and are open to expressing themselves. This process can be decidedly different with students on the autism spectrum.

The ability to read an audience by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues is based on an understanding of typical behaviors. I am not an expert on autism, but I do know that people with autism often behave in ways that do not conform to traditional behavioral norms. Their behavior is simply different, and it can’t be read using typical behavior as a baseline. This is what makes it difficult to start ‘cold’ with people with autism. I have led programs for special needs classes, special needs organizations, and group homes, and until recently I had never done Pre Visits. I have always met the group like I would have any other. Where most students that are typically developing are comfortable by the middle of a visit, some individuals with special needs did not feel comfortable until the end, if they got comfortable at all.

Through the pilot program and partnership, we included Pre Visits with every class. We met with each class for about fifteen minutes, and in that time we got to know the students, the students got to know us, and we introduced the students to SECCA, the exhibition, and museum expectations using a social story. The value of a Pre Visit became immediately apparent. In one of the pre-kindergarten classes, some students began to cry and showed signs of anxiety when we waked in the room. By the end of our visit, a student who was in tears when I walked in the room had taken me by the hand to show me around her classroom. Responses varied from student to student, but through the Pre Visits we established a shared foundation of comfort with the students. A foundation that carried over to their SECCA visits, eliminating the need to start ‘cold’ and opening more time to explore, experience, and make art.

 

It’s Not Just You, It’s Meby Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

I haven’t always been a fan of the Pre Visit. So much of what I believe in with improv-based education is the idea of focusing on the current moment – maintaining a presence in the here and now to honestly react and respond to that here and now. Initially, it seemed a bit contradictory to have a Pre Visit with that mentality. The ‘secret’ I’ve discovered after doing a lot of Pre Visits through multiple organizations, including The Engaging Educator, is: the Pre Visit is as much for me as it is for the students.

As one of the people that initiated this partnership, I was insistent on the aspect of a Pre Visit. Modeling the program after the Guggenheim for All program, I saw a lot of success in getting the students ‘ready’ for their visit to the museum, as well as preparing the teachers with expectations. As an educator that has worked with students on the autism spectrum, as well as an improv advocate, my mentality behind the Pre Visit need was simple: while when you’ve worked with one person with autism, you’ve worked with one person with autism, and people are different every moment, it’s imperative to understand individuals where they feel comfortable and where they don’t. Yes, every child would be different. Yes, we were going to roll with it and be flexible and connect to the moment – but spontaneity? NOPE.

Now is a good moment to dispel a misconception about me as an educator. I plan. A LOT. I over plan. A LOT. The reason I over plan? So I can be flexible within a great big structure I’ve planned for myself, scrap things when necessary, pivot on a dime, and connect to the people in front of me. That’s improv.

Back to the Pre Visit – by going into the students’ classrooms, a space where they understand expectations, rules, and interactions, we could see how they connected with those consistent expectations, rules, and space. We could see that the high school class was VERY responsive to the prompts given to them, that the elementary class moved around a lot and like to hold our hands, and that the kindergarten class loved counting. We noticed the wanderers and the ways the teachers interacted with the students by saying, “follow the leader” to line up and the student’s attention span.

Yes, the students got to know us. Absolutely, they heard the social story, learned the expectations, practiced a ‘museum walk,’ and touched samples that would also be at the museum. We got to tailor and inform where we met the kids because of the Pre Visit. We were able to connect with them at a completely different level and prepare with more than just the teacher information (which is so valuable! Never stop doing this, teachers!)

There is an improv and storytelling principle of “starting in the middle” – essentially you get more accomplished by starting in the center of a conversation versus using time with exposition. The same happens with a Pre Visit – instead of using time to assess the group, you have a baseline. You can begin in the middle, and fine-tune the plan based on the individual moment of that student – the student you already have a relationship with. And how much better is that museum visit when you’ve increased your structure – when you’ve over planned for things, thought of possibilities, different directions, and prepared properly for anything? That’s where my flexibility as an educator comes in. Not from an “anything goes” attitude, but a larger structure to move around in. And a Pre Vist built into a special needs program, specifically one for students on the autism spectrum, makes my structure even larger, and my flexibility even smoother.


Have you had success with a Pre Visit program, or working with students on the autism spectrum? Share your comments, challenges, or best practices.

About the Authors

JEN BROWN (OLENICZAK): Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator, a NYC, LA and Winston Salem based organization that specializes in improv based education and development for the advancement of professional, social and communication skills. Through The Engaging Educator, her pedagogical approach has trained educators, students, professionals and individuals from organizations such as W Magazine, SFMOMA, Viacom, Columbia University, The Field Museum, MOMA, UNICEF, and Saks 5th Avenue. Recently the company opened a non-profit Foundation, offering free and low cost improv workshops to educators, at-risk teens and adults, and individuals on the autism spectrum. She holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

ALEX BROWN: Programs Coordinator and museum educator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a member of both the curatorial and education departments at SECCA, Alex designs, develops and leads educational programs, family programs, exhibition and non-exhibition-related programs and film programs. In collaboration with the Curator of Contemporary Art and the Curator of education, he is also responsible for creating SECCA’s interpretive materials. By developing and offering programs that appeal to more than just one audience, Alex strives to make contemporary art approachable and accessible to everyone. He holds a B.A in History, Ancient Civilizations and Classics from the University of Iowa and a M.A in Museum Studies from Western Illinois University.

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How To Give a Good Conference Session

Written by Jen Oleniczak

Tis the season for conferences. American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and the National Art Education Association National Convention are just two of the big ones, but smaller or more regional conference hashtags are starting to fill twitter feeds. One tweet on how to have a good session caught my eye a few months ago. We spend SO MUCH time thinking about ‘what’ we are going to say – when is the last time we dedicated time to ‘how’ we say it? In the age of TED Talks, epic presentation skills and storytelling rule. How can we infuse that enthusiasm and energy into our conference talks?

Now, I’m sure there are quite a few people saying:

‘The message is what matters – not how people say it!’

I completely disagree.

Let’s be honest – when have you politely stayed in a session that was all show-and-tell and the presenter was just reading from their script? Or  because you wanted to meet the presenter/knew the presenter/were the presenter/couldn’t get to the door without being noticed? This happens – not all the time, but more often than it should. The worst part about it? It can be fixed, so it should happen so much less.

While The Engaging Educator is known for our improv-based education in museums, we also lead Presentation Skills and Storytelling Classes, as well as conduct Private Coaching. That tweet about how to have a good session stuck with me – I haven’t seen a lot of articles on how to prepare for sessions! Because it is something we work with people on, here’s our speaking tips for conferences.

Before the conference….

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: This is serious. You should be going over your presentation as many times as possible with as many different people as possible. Get feedback. Think about actors and how incredible live theatre is. They practice CONSTANTLY. This isn’t about memorizing things word-for-word; this is getting the flow and knowing your bullet points, your plan and what you want your audience to walk away with.
  2. DO NOT WRITE THINGS WORD FOR WORD: This stands repeating: Do. Not. Write. Things. Word. For. Word. Two things happen when you write word for word – you end up reading your presentation (and at that point, I ask, why didn’t you just write an article or blog post?) or you memorize word for word and then forget a word, which throws everything off. It’s the same idea behind knowing the alphabet – try saying it without singing it and skip the letters D, P, and W. It’s slower because at this point in our lives, the alphabet is memorized by order. When you take out a step in that order, the rest is harder to recall. Same thing with your conference ‘script’.
  3. Think about how to involve your audience: If your audience is made up of superfans, they are there to hear you talk. You could wax poetic about banana bread and they would hang on your every word. Unfortunately, chances are,your audience is not 100% superfan. So how can you keep them interested? Find ways to engage them. Yes – your program/research/thoughts are incredibly interesting. And you should find new and different ways to reach your audience. Have people draw, brainstorm, share, answer questions, create, move – get them involved, and they will remember your session more, versus quietly texting or Facebooking in the back of the room while you talk. Even if it’s giving them 5 minutes to talk to one another about your focus, you’ve broken the monotony of your voice.
  4. Work on your how: The how is just as important as the what. That’s been one of my biggest mottos with EE – how you say things matters A LOT. Your cadence, tone, volume, speed, disfluencies – all of these connect to how you are perceived as a speaker. When you are practicing, use different ways of saying things – do everything with an exclamation point, throw in a bunch of dramatic pauses, over do your gestures, speed up, slow down. Change it up. And while exclamation points may NOT work the whole time, by experimenting you might find times it does work.If you are plagued by disfluencies – essentially anything that breaks up speech – slow down. I notice many adults struggle with what I call ‘grown up’ disfluencies – the extension of words, the insertion of ‘so’ and ‘you know’. Disfluencies exist both because of habit as well as thinking what comes next. Just slow down!

An hour before the conference…

  1. Warm up your voice: Don’t go in cold! If you’ve ever stumbled over words, you should warm up your voice before a presentation. Do a few tongue twisters – say them slowly and over enunciate.
  2. Don’t over practice: If you don’t know it now, you won’t. At this point, you should just be relaxing, doing a quick run through of ideas and enjoying the conference. Check out your room, if possible, and make sure your tech works.
  3. Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Now take a few more. Even if you aren’t nervous, breathing correctly allows your voice to be rich, deep and resonant versus shrill and pinched. Make sure you are breathing low, meaning your stomach area expands when you take a breath in.

During the conference… 

  1. Breathe!  THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT! If you find yourself getting lost or nervous or going too quickly – take a breath. Now take another! If you look awkward and nervous, your audience focuses on that and then starts feeling awkward and nervous.
  2. Let it go!  This is the time to fail gloriously. Go big or go home. Just do it. Let it go. All the inspirational songs and sayings!All joking aside – there is nothing to do now except rock it out. So do it now, or forever wish you had.

After

  1. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t:  Think about what was successful and why as well as what didn’t work. Was it you? The audience? The subject? Even if you aren’t making this presentation again, reflection is priceless. 

Any other tips to add? Add them in the comment section below!

Check out www.theengagingeducator.com for more articles and resources on speaking.

Header image: Audience at MuseumNext Fringe event, Heritage Sells presented 3 keynotes about preserving and presenting heritage outside museum walls and practices. Photo credits: Maarten Jüngen www.n8.nl CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, no changes made.

A Museum Experience Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

“Dialogue isn’t for everyone.”

These words were said to me recently regarding change in an educational mission. I couldn’t agree more – it’s why we as educators carry a toolbox; activities for any occasion, any learner, and keep them at the ready for our audience.

Fresh from this experience, I read another article by Judith Dobrzynski, this time drawing attention to Bruce Bratton, a Santa Cruz columnist who outwardly attacks Nina Simon and the changes taking place at the MAH. While Bratton is cited by Dobrzynski as an “institution” in Santa Cruz, I hesitated to give him attention, realizing everyone has an opinion. However, since art journalist Dobrzynski addressed the article, it’s only fair to have an opposing piece.

A museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org
Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org

After my initial inflammatory reaction to the Times Op-Ed, I now commend Dobrzynski for drawing attention to the other side. As museum educators, we are consistently looking for ways to make art interactive and for experiences to happen in the gallery. There are people that just want to sit, look at a works and have a quiet moment. This is still available – on my recent trip to MFA Houston, I was welcomed into quiet galleries and had a beautiful moment with a Turrell Ganzfeld, alone. Even in a busy NYC museum, you can find yourself alone in a space, enjoying the art.

But it’s not for everyone.

Some people literally do not know what to do with a work in front of them. They think it’s important, only because it’s hanging on a museum wall. They look at the label and don’t have a clue what that odd decimal-ed number is. Exhaustion sets in after seeing the whole place, and they leave, barely remembering anything. Hopefully they come back, but chances are, some of them don’t. Nothing inspired curiosity, so why come back?

The truth is, we aren’t all art nerds. Formalism isn’t sexy to anyone but art people. Museums, unless they want to be seen as elitist institutions, have to appeal to more than just the art appreciators. Museum programming opens up the world beyond the quiet sitters and lecture attendees.

The problem with both Bratton and Dobrzynski is neither quotes any specific interactive programming as a problem. Sure, in her Times piece, Dobrzynski critiques interactive art, but really, people hated the Impressionists too. But where is the study of the actual programs? Dobrzynski is a New Yorker – I promise you there is no shortage of programs she could attend and critique. Bratton states in his column:

Remember … when you could sit or stand and just think about the art pieces you were able to see in person? Think how many thousands/millions of students and artists were influenced by seeing circulating masterpieces or from the local collections…not now. Consider the impact on the next generation of art and history-lovers; the kids. Where can we take our kids now to learn how to experience a real museum; a place that challenges the attention span a little? There are experiential activities everywhere, as I mentioned but the former MAH was our only real museum environment that offered art in a museum context; a respectful place that created the sense that what you’re seeing is important, and worthy of your consideration.

Why can’t you sit in the gallery any longer and look at a work of art? I popped onto the MAH event listing, and found a film festival, some walks that take place outside of the museum and a free Friday event that features music after 6:30pm. Which of these events are disruptive to the people who don’t want participatory experiences? Furthermore, which events change the ‘real’ museum environment?

And which events bring new visitors? new people to see museums as important cultural institutions?

Bratton posted some support to his article, and a few mentioned my next point – this idea of a ‘real’ museum. What is a real museum? In the past, it was an activity for society. Dress up, visit the salon, look at the work deemed appropriate to be hung on the walls. But as times changed, the ideas behind museums have changed. Said nicely in an article that addresses this change, “in the last few decades, as the museum field has grown more serious about independent learning, deep audience engagement, and participation, museums have been able to bring that inspirational experience to more of their visitors.”

Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com

Isn’t this a good thing? Don’t we as a society want museums to be seen as incredible places where people can think anything and connect with our past as humans? All people are not the same, and not everyone is a quiet sitter or a lecture attendee – and not all of the sitters or lecture attendees understand why the art is ‘important’ or why it’s there. I’ve given member tours, and gently pushed passed the initial “I already know everything, I’ve been to lectures” to the “wow – I’ve never seen that in this work before.”

Museums are links to our history. Art is not created in a bubble – each work has stories, amazing stories, attached to the artist, the process, time period, acquisition. But for some people, they see a canvas on the wall with some paint. They think it’s important because it’s hanging in a museum, but they don’t understand WHY.

And for many people, they don’t even go to the museum because of hours, past experiences as kids brought to expand their attention span, stigma. So if they go to attend a dance party, and take part in an amazing conversation on a work in the African collection they never knew existed, great. Even better if the experience inspires them to come back. Museums are for everyone.

So kudos to Nina Simon for revising the MAH mission statement and taking chances to make the museum a participatory space for the WHOLE community. Congrats to Museum Hack, for challenging the notion of what a museum tour is. Three cheers to Brooklyn Museum for every First Saturday. And the biggest thank you to every single education department working to make the institution accessible, available and awesome to everyone.

And to Bratton and Dobrzynski, an open invitation to come as my guest to any participatory program that I am leading or attending. Before you write another criticism, I encourage you to be an active participant. Try asking other participants what they think. Open your mind and attempt to see that a museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

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Editor’s Note: Given that Judith Dobrzynski’s opinion pieces have once again flared controversy and passionate responses from many in the museum and education community, I wanted to take this opportunity not only to feature Jen Oleniczak’s personal response, but also to utilize the community of practice that exists at ArtMuseumTeaching.com to share additional responses from contributors.  Below are some of this community’s response to this issue and to this challenging of participatory practice in art museums.  I also invite others to post their response and thoughts below in the Comments section, and add to the rich exchange already happening.

Rachel Ropeik

As a museum educator with an art historian’s training, I sometimes feel split on the “museums as experiential space” vs “museums as reflective space” debate. Personally, I love having quiet time to sit and bask in the presence of an inspiring work of art.  But professionally (which is, of course, personal, too) I’m aware that not everyone enjoys that sort of museum engagement, and, more importantly, some people feel active barriers blocking their way to it.  For those people (and of John Falk’s five types of museum goers–explorers, facilitators, experience-seekers, professional/hobbyists, and rechargers–it’s a minority who only want reflective museum time all the time), there need to be alternatives provided.

Museums have a well-established international history of being large, stuffy, intimidating institutions full of stringent rules to be followed.  That doesn’t sound fun, even to me, who loves museums passionately.  Instead of furthering that stereotype, we need to do what we can to, if not destroy it, poke some serious holes.  We need to meet visitors where they are, not where we think they should be.  Our visitors (and yes, that includes more and more who view our collections online and never set foot inside our galleries) should welcomed using a whole range of techniques that will stimulate and intrigue and invite and amuse and confound.

Museums have always been contemporary spaces serving contemporary audiences’ needs, and what those contemporary audiences need changes right along with history.  While we who work in museums may be dedicated to preserving the legacy of the past, we are also dedicated to sharing that legacy with the public.  Like it or not, time marches on, and continuing to look backward to the past for some sort of ürmuseum is never going to cut it in a society that’s moving ever-faster forward into the future.

Felice Cleveland

My father visited me as I was studying abroad in Paris. He had to get his passport in order to make the trip and we went to the Louvre where I was taking a class at the time. My father is not what you would call an art aficionado and hasn’t visited museums extensively. We were in a gallery with just one piece of artwork, a lot of people were taking pictures, and all of the lights in the room were trained on this one piece. All of the visual cues were in place and my father whispered to me, “Is this something important?” It was the Venus de Milo.

I think of my father often as I work to create programming and educational materials. Museums often don’t have to work hard to already convince the art-lover to visit. It is working to be inclusive and open doors to people who might not see the museum as a resource. The museum I currently work at is in a residential neighborhood and our collection is contemporary installation art. Some of the work is very complex and deals with challenging issues. It is important to me that the museum is more than a place to just view artwork every once in awhile. As a museum educator, I want to create a safe place to explore new and challenging ideas. I want to create programming that welcomes all audiences. I want to create a place that is a laboratory to experiment with new ideas and materials. I want to create a go-to place for the community. If museums don’t work to include the community – then what is the purpose? How do we make ourselves relevant if we don’t invite visitors to share and explore? Do we just house art? Do we just put artists on pedestals? What is a real museum? How can we respect the creativity that our community brings to viewing artwork? I have seen museums come in many shapes and sizes, which is one of the reasons I love them so much and keep exploring museums in new cities the world over. I want to be surprised and see things in a new way. There are all types of museums for all types of people. And on different days people want different experiences at different museums. As a museum educator, I work to create experiences for as many visitors as possible to engage on the level that they feel comfortable with. And every day I work to open our doors just a little wider.

“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.

A Teaching Interview: THE Audition for Museum Educators

Stricken with those awful nerves that overcome your system while you try to remember those lines you were up past midnight cramming into your head, you cling to your crumpled, dingy papers for dear life – the papers that contain the information you were trying so hard to memorize, the statements you need to naturally and conversationally say. You know you know it, but every time you try to say something without glancing at your papers that are quickly becoming damp from your sweaty palms, your brain freezes. Your name is about to be called as you sit in the uncomfortable chair, fidgeting with the sticker that betrays your best outfit. Doors swing open, and a smiling voice says, “We are ready for you.”

This scenario easily depicts almost every audition I’ve ever had. It also depicts the ‘teaching interviews’ or ‘sample tours’ or even ‘classroom simulation’ I and many other museum educators have had to do as part of interview processes. As a still-sometimes actress, if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, call it a duck – museum educators audition for their jobs. A lot. Good monologues do not get actors cast – and good information doesn’t always get museum educators hired. Technique plays a large part in both careers, posing the question: Isn’t it about time we start paying more attention to how we are saying things, and not just what we are saying?

Teaching AuditionIn an audition, the actor is usually provided with an opportunity to bring in a prepared monologue. The actor will perform said monologue and the director makes a decision if the actor is getting called back or sent on their way. Generally speaking, the actor will spend hours, days, even weeks finding that perfect monologue that not only showcases their skill set as a performer, but also connects with the particular role they are auditioning for. If an actor is auditioning for Cosette in Les Mis, their first choice wouldn’t be a piece that brings people to gut-busting laughter. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

For the teaching interviews I’ve had the pleasure and anxiety of experiencing, it all starts with successfully completing the in-person/phone interview. Then there is the nerve-racking moment of reading the invitation to do a teaching interview. While each institution is different, usually the main idea is to assemble a sample tour (or tour stop) and, with a nod to multimodal learning, an activity for that stop. Usually the prospective educator has about a week to put together this stop and spends countless hours researching the collection, choosing objects, picking that ONE object that will showcase knowledge, teaching skill and personality. Just like an actor auditioning for a role.

actors warming up prior to auditions
actors warming up prior to auditions

But actors will warm up before auditions – take 10 minutes and walk into Ripley-Grier and see dozens of actors at all times doing tongue twisters, stretching, working on breath support and even adjusting their posture. They’ve realized that it’s not just about what you are saying – while the selection is important, it’s equally about how they are saying those words. There is the old adage that you can make people interested in a banana bread recipe if you are interesting enough. In museum education, you might know every fact about Rembrandt and his Self Portrait that hangs exquisitely in the West Gallery at The Frick Collection – but, if you can’t capture your audience and if you can’t be heard, then what?

Some museums are picking up on this idea and calling it what it is.  I had the pleasure of being at the Denver Nature and Science Museum at the end of January to lead professional development workshops and found they audition their education staff. There is an educator position entitled “Performer – Facilitator” and part of the interview is a legitimate audition. According to David Allison, Visitor Programs Manager, and Samantha Richards, Educator/Coordinator for Earth Gallery Programs, after the telephone interview, “they [the candidates] are asked to prepare a monologue and a science facilitation…we also have them do a ‘cold read’ of a script.” When asked why, David replied, “The cold reads show us the comfort level they have with improvisation and the ability to ‘ramp up’ their performance on the spot…the prepared pieces both shows us how well they prepare and also what their instincts are around performing and presenting dynamic shows to our guests.” Samantha added, “The cold read also shows us their performance skills…it is as much about how they wear the cape and how engaging they are as how comfortable they feel.”

For the educators who are uncomfortable with the performance aspect, DMNS has an alternative. According to Samantha, “We do also offer the option of reading two contrasting stories instead of monologues.” The audition section of the job description itself is very clear:

Two contrasting monologues (e.g. comedic and dramatic, 3-5 min each) with some movement;

OR

Choose two children’s stories to read. For one, pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading one on one with a child. For the other pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading to a large group, where you would need to use dramatic voices and movement to tell the story.

David added, “Some educators take to it quickly and can easily adapt. Others struggle. We can generally tell very quickly if someone is a good fit or not for our team.”

The audition aside, DMNS also does ask for a science facilitation – the information and research is still there. They are also focusing just as much on the presentational aspect of the positions. Samantha added to this idea: “It is very important that our staff is comfortable doing everything from talking to one child about a rock to wearing an astronaut suit and ‘being’ an astronaut in front of a hundred visitors.”

Teaching interviews are not much different than auditions. As educators, it’s time to start focusing on how we are saying the things we are saying. Take an improv class. Do deep breathing before a tour. Pull out some tongue-twisters to get the muscles in your mouth ready to say those artist names and movements without tripping over syllables. We are not actors – but – we have an audience. And taking advantage of every trick of the trade will only make us more engaging and our passions more interesting. In the words of Kid President during his pep talk, “Boring is easy, everybody can be boring. But you are gooder than that.”

Have you had a teaching interview/audition? Does your institution conduct them? How did/do you prepare? Should more museums have auditions and practice-based interviews for education positions?

Improv(e) Your Teaching

When I left the improv world after 10 years, I was never going back. I had just gotten a job at my first NYC museum (NY Transit Museum!) and was back in school for art history, ready to put acting far behind me. Time went on and the more I learned about museum education pedagogy, the more my brain connected it to improv. Fast forward a few years, museums, internships, freelance jobs, and tours later – I found myself convinced that good museum teaching went hand in hand with everything I learned as an improviser.

Giant Improv Class by CM
Giant Improv Class by CM

NPR recently aired a story about MBA students taking courses in improvisation. But why improv? For the very same reason every museum educator should be trained in improv: communication. That is not saying we should all be “onstage” when we teach, cracking jokes and making our students laugh. On the contrary, many improv principles are qualities we strive for in our teaching – things that are not taught when we learn a collection or study museum education.

The idea of an educational toolbox is something we hear at every professional development conference and class. What are we really filling it up with? The multi-modal teaching strategies and classroom management skills are essential. But have we been paying enough attention to how we say what we are saying and how to sharpen and enhance our listening skills? Or flex our collaboration muscles? Improv courses do exactly that. It’s like going to the gym for your brain – those revered careful listening, honest responding, fearless and flexible teaching skills are all enhanced by improv ideas.

Yes, And…

One of the first things educators learn about inquiry is the idea of asking open-ended questions that allow for many responses, then scaffolding information on top to deepen the conversation. This idea is echoed in improv. The first ‘rule’ of improv is the phrase ‘yes, and’. A scene partner offers information. You take it, affirm it, and add something to it, and your scene partner repeats. This back and forth is the foundation of improv. Negation ends the scene – and in inquiry, defeats the students. It’s about saying, “Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better” instead of “no, I have a better idea.”

yes-and2The ideas of ‘yes, and’ and inquiry only work when people are listening to one another. If you are not paying close attention to what your scene partner is saying, you may miss the information needed to propel the story. The fact is true with inquiry as well – if you repeat what the student is saying incorrectly or miss their point, you will change the meaning of their observation or interpretation.

During beginning improv classes, instructors lead students in several affirming exercises. It’s all about taking a gift, agreeing, and adding. It is also raising the stakes. By scaffolding more details on to a suggestion, a scene immediately becomes rich and interesting. Sharpening those careful listening skills is essential to any improviser. Responding skills are also put to the test and enhanced through speed games that not only quicken response time, but also better public speaking skills.

Collaboration

Improvisation is a group sport. Teams will practice weekly in order to get to know each other and build trust. Interaction is key to improv – which is why so many companies will hire improvisers to teach team-building. The activities teach individuals how to interact effectively, operate under pressure and, most importantly, trust one another. Also important in improv: the notion that you always want to make your scene partner look better – you will in turn look better as well. We want to affirm our students ideas and teach them to practice critical thinking. Working together builds on the idea of a team: you and your group are living the art in that moment, experiencing it together. These values: trust, interaction, and poise– even when 15 more students than you expected show up for a field trip in a tiny museum – are imperative in good gallery teaching.

Failure is Ok

75% of improv is bad. Real bad. You may see a show after reading this and think “Wow. I do not want to look like that.” But how they look is not the point – improv is all about removing the sense of failure. In order to grow, you have to fail. In some improv classes, when students get that feeling of “I screwed up” they take a ‘failure bow’ – a bow, paired with the declaration “I failed!” The rest of the class will clap and cheer, affirming the chance that was taken. When people are less afraid at failing at improv, it connects to their lives, and we learn to handle setbacks with grace and ease.

As educators, we aim to create celebratory spaces that embrace student work. But how can we create these spaces if we ourselves fear failure?

We improvise every day of our lives. We have no idea what the next word is that might come out of our mouth when talking to a friend or co-worker. These skills taught in improv classes will only make for better educators – ultimately better communicators – all while having fun. If only our theses made us laugh this much. The same week I finished school, I was welcomed back by my old improv troupe – and rarely miss a single rehearsal or show. The difference this time? It’s my professional development for teaching.

Have you ever taken an improv class or used it in your teaching? Or do your peers or colleagues have any experiences with improv as professional development? Share your perspective.

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