Written by Hana Layson (Head of Youth & Educator Programs) with Laura Bartroff (Director of Communications) and reposted from the Portland Art Museum’s News blog.
Last month, over 70 educators from across grade levels and disciplines gathered to experience the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR) as a space of creativity, learning, and leadership. The event, Finding Place: Art, Power, and Community, is part of an initiative to nurture teacher leaders at the Museum through the 22-member Teacher Advisory Council, year-round professional development programs, and the Summer Teacher Leadership Fellows Program. The initiative receives generous support from the Oregon Community Foundation.
The Finding Place program was planned and facilitated by educators for educators. Twelve members of the Teacher Advisory Council began meeting last October to brainstorm a way to meaningfully celebrate the Council’s fifth anniversary. Through a series of open conversations, the group identified place, belonging, and equity as some of the most vital issues in education and art today. They decided to design an experience that would encourage social and emotional connections as well as intellectual inquiry. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted the experience to be joyful—an opportunity for educators to step away from the tedium of standardized tests and administrative meetings and to reconnect with the joy of learning, creating, and being part of a community.
The day began with a story circles workshop for former and current Teacher Advisory Council members, facilitated by Charlene Martinez, Associate Director of Integrative Learning at Oregon State University and a current Council member. Story circles are a popular educational tool used in community organizing and arts-based social justice efforts. They offer a great way to build empathy and relationships quickly. For this session, participants were asked to respond to the prompt, “Think of a time when you did or did not feel you belonged to this nation.” Council members deepened their friendships with each other and came away with a new pedagogical technique to share with students and colleagues. As Dawn Nelson, a Language Arts teacher at Forest Grove High School, reflected afterwards, “The story circles not only gave me so much inspiration that day, but also when I used them in my classroom, they were so powerful—such a great way for a serious subject to inspire hope, joy, and community.”
Following the morning workshop, Teacher Advisory Council members opened up the program and welcomed all interested educators to the keynote presentation and a series of workshops inspired by the exhibition the map is not the territory. Dr. Natchee Blu Barnd, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at Oregon State University, engaged participants with interactive activities to better understand decolonization, land and displacement, and how to implement concrete strategies for the classroom. Seven Council members facilitated small-group workshops connecting art and decolonization through a variety of disciplines, including movement and music, medicine and postcolonial literature, ink drawing and chipboard-sculpture-making. During one session, educators explored the exhibition independently, responding to prompts that encouraged reflection and dialogue.
Along with the deep thinking and conversations, educators also played. They filled in bingo cards that asked them to “Take a selfie with someone you just met” and “Discuss what you love most about teaching.” They posed before a gold-sequined curtain at the photo booth. They shared a meal and conversation and laughter.
In building teachers as leaders within the Museum and their own schools, the Teacher Leadership Initiative further supports the Museum’s efforts to integrate the arts into classroom teaching.
“When we began the planning process for this event there was an emphasis on being welcomed and respected as collaborators,” said Lilly Windle, a visual art teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland. “Through a commitment to listening and building on shared ideas, we made progress, learned and built a program that kept the original vision of connection, joy, collaboration, community and power, clear and at the forefront.”
The continuum of empowering educators was evident as the inaugural Teacher Leadership Fellows joined the Teacher Leadership Council, and participated in hands-on, collaborative resource-sharing during the symposium. As 2018 Fellow and H.B. Lee Middle School teacher Franky Stebbins observed, the planning process and final program were “a reminder that the leaders I respect and appreciate the most are those who are DOING—who are willing to lead, but also jump in, be vulnerable, and co-create.”
“For me personally, it felt grounding to experience a high-fidelity educator workshop addressing the many layers of connecting with the land and having Indian Country be visible,” said Carrie Brown, a teacher at the Native Montessori Preschool in Portland Public Schools. “So often, our Native families and students are invisible in university education courses and workshops. Much gratitude to the Portland Art Museum for hosting this workshop and supporting the exhibition the map is not the territory.”
My skin is clammy, sweating as I powerwalk back to the studios, cursing my inability to have everything set out and finished prior to the morning of a program, any program. Why is that so difficult for me? I am mildly out of breath as I reach the check-in table, alphabetized nametags placed in a precise grid pattern, waiting for their owners. I reach down and turn one nametag a millimeter clockwise, perfecting its position. I ignore the part of me that asks why I bothered, considering what’s about to come flying down the hallway. I tell that more reasonable self to zip it, that I am a Well-Put-Together Museum-Education-Goddess and that everything must be perfect for my preschoolers. If I say it enough, maybe someday it will be true.
The Museum, normally quiet and still, echoes with the cacophonous chaos of 5-year-old sandals slapping on the white oak floors. Children break into sprints, running ahead of their out-of-breath, resigned adults, grabbing their nametags and transitioning into Studio A in a whirl of crumpled stickers and juice boxes. “We’ll get started in a few minutes!” I sing into the room. I receive a polite nod from one adult and complete disregard from the pack of feral children systematically dismantling the carefully staged playing area. A woman with shoulder-length grey hair checks her phone. A man in his work clothes crouches near a boy in blue shorts, sorting through felt shapes to stick to the tactile wall.
To pass the time, I rehearse The Plan in my head: Greet the people, go over Museum Manners, follow-the-leader, story time, gallery activities, done. At 5-past the start time, I walk into Studio A and calmly request that my friends “help their toys find their homes” and meet me at the big felt tree. We’re ready to begin. Children bounce up and down in front of me, ringlets and ribbons flying. A little boy rolls an orange matchbox car back and forth on his arm. A girl holds a plastic dinosaur limply by its head.
I take the opportunity to give a little bit of context. “Adult friends!” I say, “please prepare yourselves to do just as much adventuring as your child companions. We’re going to be doing lots of teamwork today!” I’m met with a mix of reactions, ranging from puzzled to thrilled. “Alright, friends! Please raise your hand if you remembered to bring your adult with you today.” A smattering of giggles as small hands raise. “Wonderful! Please find your adult and grab onto them tight. Don’t let them escape!” It amuses me how many children and adults are tickled by the idea that it’s the adults we have to watch out for. Little do they know how true that often is.
We follow-the-leader through the hallways, children latched onto their adults to prevent a getaway. We are soldiers marching, birds flying from branch to branch, elephants swinging their long trunks, and sideways-scuttling crabs. At the gallery entrance, I give everyone the traditional 10+ seconds of unfettered wiggling (followed by bonus seconds for my more wiggly friends). I take note of the fact that most of the adults choose not to wiggle along and I wonder how I look to them, flailing my arms and doing the can-can. I experience a brief moment of self-consciousness before continuing.
Into the gallery we flood, using our walking feet and holding onto our adults, walking as slow as turtles so that we can look at all the sculptures before finding a cozy place to settle down with a book. We play the traditional dance of sitting close enough, but not too close, finding windows, sitting comfortably, giving one another space, and my solemn promise to show the pictures to every child always (acknowledging that we may have to be a little patient). I have their attention.
I read a book featuring a rhythmic romp through the belly of a greedy snake with a tricky little boy and his whirly toy. We laugh, we wiggle, we make gulping and burping noises. An adult with short hair flinches as our inside voices start to become our outside voices. For dramatic effect, I clutch the book to my chest, close my eyes, have everyone take three big deep breaths with me, and then read the next page in a whisper. I lean in close, widen my eyes, annunciate clearly, wink at the shy little girl with blonde hair as she clutches her adult, and flip to the next page. BLARG! The climax of the book, which I will not spoil here, unfolds and we all shriek with gallery-safe giggles. Most of the adults, including the gallery attendant, even giggle.
As we reflect on the book, I notice adults start to disengage from the conversation. I increase my eye contact with them. This helps, and adults and children both share their thoughts about what was funny, what was scary, what they would’ve done differently, and what their “tummy ache faces” look like. Much to the amusement (and horror) of many of the adults, the children deviate into a fascinating tangent. Each child excitedly talks about all the different occasions on which they have vomited throughout their lives, which they are all-too-proud to share. This is one of those wonderful, un-planned opportunities to validate and share the quiet dramas of childhood and life in general. What a wonderful thing to be able to relate to those life experiences in an art museum!
It’s time to put everyone to work. I have gallery activities planned, though I use the term “plan” loosely. What I have are bundles of materials and some simple prompt cards, to be deployed as seen fit. I have no interest in forcing these families to do anything, so it’s good to avoid situations in which they feel railroaded into their experiences. We proceed with a warm-up game I call “Feed the Snake.” This activity is slightly more closed-ended, in order to ease my new friends into the rest of the activities. I have each family choose a card that guides them to an artwork and asks them two questions: What noise does your artwork make? What movement does your artwork make (what does it like to do)?
Three adults look mildly befuddled, as if they’re waiting for me to give them further direction. I simply say, “Find the artwork on your card, or a different one you like better, answer the questions as a family, and then come back to see me!” I take note as the shy little girl, who hasn’t said a word to me yet, grabs her adult by the hand and charges off with her most forceful walking feet to find her object, a golden statue from Nepal called Standing Buddha Shakyamuni. She immediately poses with her left hand up and her right hand down, palm facing outward, hips gently swayed to the right, just like the sculpture. They’re doing just fine, I think.
While each family is off discussing, I unfurl a long felt snake. I choose a card and do the exercise. I circulate among the families, asking what they notice about their sculptures, getting the feel for how comfortable (or uncomfortable) everyone is, and then call everyone back to meet me at the snake. We take turns acting out everyone’s noises and actions, feeding our sculptures to the very hungry snake in turn. The group takes particular pleasure in making it rain just like the Rain God Vessel, starting crouched on the ground, pulling the rain from the soil, standing up, raising our hands unfurled, and then Ch! Ch! Ch! tossing the imaginary rain back to the earth.
Now the group has an understanding of the format of the rest of these activities: I provide some materials and prompts, but each individual family is left to make their own connections, come up with their own knowledge, and then share with or challenge other families at the end. The families decide to make some smell-o-vision bags and some tactile bags, each choosing a set of clues related to a favorite artwork. Reluctant or apprehensive adults took cues from their invariably assertive children (and vice versa), and throughout the program, the grownups start to look less befuddled. I continue to float, but my presence is largely symbolic at this point.
Bric-a-brac and scent bottles, ready to be used.
The preschoolers do not at any point rise up to form an anarchic government, nor do they swing from sculptures like monkeys or run foot races through the galleries. Adults and children take turns being in charge, choosing objects, and asking questions. Their clues are personal, abstract, funny, and insightful. As the program ends, we gather and reflect on the fact that we’ve met new people, seen new things, talked about something, laughed about something, and tried something new.
A coworker walks by after the families depart for lunch, commenting on my “ability to control those kids” in the gallery, as if I’d been in there cracking a behavioral whip of some kind. I laugh under my breath. Control is a funny concept. Especially interesting is the idea that people should be allowed in museum spaces only if they are “under control.” Meaning visitors, especially children, should remain quiet, together, not touching anything, quiet, and quiet.
Art museums are already highly controlled environments, largely by necessity. Installation, temperature and climate control, tickets, open hours, and restricted areas complement the oft-ingrained societal pressure that creates “appropriate” museum behaviors: be silent, be unobtrusive. We perceive a group of people to be “under control” if they meet those criteria, and imply that a good museum visitor will calmly hold their hands behind their back and stoically look at the art. There will be reverence instead if silliness, compliance instead of questions. I don’t think we can expect to have genuine interactions with our visitors, especially children, if we are constantly trying to control their behaviors.
I don’t think museum staff or docents automatically deserve to be in control of any group, though we are often seen as a de facto authority because we’re the ones with the badges and lanyards. This is an awesome responsibility, particularly when working with children. Treating children with dignity and expecting them to pull their own weight in the learning process keeps their minds and bodies too busy to do the boogie-ing that puts artwork in danger. A facilitator shares authority by encouraging and trusting everyone to take responsibility for our own bodies, behaviors, and learning. Preparing a flexible scaffolding of opportunities for children and families to choose their learning path sets the stage for reciprocated respect. An engaged group does not need a puppet master or authoritarian leader. An engaged group will lead itself.
About the Author
ALLI ROGERS ANDREEN: Community Engagement Coordinator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She develops and collaborates on a variety of programs, and works primarily with multi-generational groups, teens, and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She thoroughly enjoys collecting resources, capturing strange smells, making sound suits, and crowing like a rooster in the galleries. She received her MA in Museum Education with a Certificate in Art Museum Education from the University of North Texas and her B.F.A. in Studio Art from Texas State University.
Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?
When we look at and create art, we are exercising spatial intelligence to analyze and construct objects and images. Rich experiences with works of art have been shown to significantly enhance student math achievement, as documented by the Framing Student Success program that studied the effects of standards-based instruction that integrated high-quality visual arts, math, and literacy content in three high-poverty New York City Public Schools. These findings support a growing trend in K-12 programs across the country to merge arts instruction with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, pioneered by Rhode Island School of Design’s STEM to STEAM initiative.
How can the excitement around the potential of the arts to contribute to STEM education, along with current research on spatial ability be shared in an art museum setting, so that PreK-12 teachers can bring the ideas into their classrooms? Here we’ll share the activities and discussions that we designed with this aim. The two-hour gallery session was a part of a week-long teacher institute, VAST (Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching) held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past July. The overall theme for VAST was integrating art across the curriculum. Our session was led by Andrea Kantrowitz, Assistant Professor at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, who co-wrote and implemented the Framing Student Success curriculum; Rebecca Mitchell, former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Lynda O’Leary, Distance Learning Coordinator at PMA.
Through a series of structured activities (individual, small group, and large group) – looking at art, drawing, creating sculptures, discussing, and choreographing a short dance on a work of art (yes, you read that right!), the teachers engaged their spatial thinking skills to think and create in two- and three- and even four- dimensions.
The setting: Temporary exhibition, Minimalism in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and permanent collection galleries
Audience: 80 PreK-12 teachers (in groups of 20 at a time)
After a short introduction to the Framing Student Success study and some research findings about spatial thinking, the teachers began their first activity. With pencils and sketchbooks in hand, the group spent 10-15 minutes drawing Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1970, a piece made up of four large cube-like objects. Andrea explained that there was no “wrong” way to draw the sculptures, and that a variety of approaches would be beneficial to our discussion later. Since there were art teachers and classroom teachers in each group, we didn’t want anyone to feel self-conscious about their drawing ability. Andrea emphasized that it was the thinking and problem solving that was most important, not how “accurate” the drawing looked. The teachers sat wherever they felt comfortable, and drew the sculpture from whatever angle they preferred.
The teachers then watched a minimalist dance performance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs and filmed by Babette Mangolte in 1973, Calico Mingling (available here: http://ubuweb.com/film/mangolte_calico.html) and notated it however they wanted to – through sketches, notes, or some combination of the two. Again, the goal was to observe closely and record these observations with pencil and paper. In the Childs piece, the dancers move around and through a grid pattern on the ground, located at Robert Moses Plaza at Fordham University.
Many ways to solve a problem:
We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance. We discussed the challenges and strategies to translate three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface, and the added complexity of movement and time.
Building it out again: three dimensions
Now it was time to experiment with creating something three-dimensional from a two-dimensional material: paper. Working with a 1 1/2 inch dot grid on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and small circular stickers, teachers created sculptures. No specific instructions were given except to create something three-dimensional based on the grid. The teachers cut, folded, and taped. Discoveries were made, and sculptures were adjusted. They learned what worked and responded to their new knowledge as they continued to build. As expected, this exercise resulted in a wide range of sculptures – size, shape, and orientation. We displayed the sculptures in the center of the room and discussed the process and results.
Introducing time: the fourth dimension
Happily, there was a Carl Andre sculpture installed in the exhibition, which consisted of 17 copper squares, arranged in a line on the floor. Another grid! This gave us, the facilitators, the idea to culminate this part of the session with physical activity, something we thought would also benefit students when these ideas were translated into a classroom. Andre’s sculptures are meant to be experienced by walking over, around, and on them. Taking inspiration from Childs’s dance, we split the larger group into groups of 4-5 teachers and gave them 10 minutes to create a dance on and around the sculpture. Although coming up with choreography was a new experience to many of the teachers, they embraced the challenge and had fun working together. Again, the final pieces showed great variety:
Some moved in grid-like movements: forward, backward, side-to-side, while others incorporated more organic movements. Some were in unison, others had each dancer moving in a unique way. All utilized the length of the sculpture and responded to its structure.
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On a concluding walk through the galleries, we took note of how artists throughout time and place use the grid to organize space. For example, the use of one-point perspective in a Canaletto painting or the incorporation of multiple perspectives in an 18th century Japanese screen. From grids on floors, to decorations on the ceilings, to paintings, drawings, decorative arts, and sculptures on view, it became clear that grids abound in art and architecture. We began to consider the world around us in new ways and recognize underlying structures that order our built environment.
These exercises drew the teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraged them to engage in creative play – looking, drawing, creating, dancing, and discussing. They considered spatial relationships from several perspectives and through different means. It is our hope that the teachers left the session with practical ideas for the classroom, an enriched understanding of spatial intelligence, and a new appreciation the interconnectedness of art across the disciplines.
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About the Authors
REBECCA MITCHELL is the former Manager of Teacher Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she taught students in the galleries, organized teacher programs, and wrote teacher resources (to view the PMA’s teacher resources, please visit www.philamuseum.org/teacherresources). She has a B.A. in art history from Smith College and an M.A. in art history from the University of Delaware. She currently resides outside of New Haven, CT, where she is spending time with her two young children, but remains active in the art museum education community.
ANDREA KANTROWITZ, EdD, is an artist and researcher, who has lectured and given workshops internationally on art and cognition. As the director of the Thinking through Drawing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, she organized a series of international drawing and cognition research symposia, in collaboration with colleagues from the U.K. She holds a B.A in Art and Cognition from Harvard University and a MFA in Painting from Yale, and an Ed.D from Columbia University in art education and cognitive studies. She teaches foundation drawing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and art education at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She worked for many years as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools and has been involved in multiple local and national arts in education research projects. Her own art work is represented by Kenise Barnes Fine Art.
Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Manager, Dallas Museum of Art
The creative process is often described as cyclical and sometimes, when I’m in it, it can feel like I am going around in circles, ending up where I started. Hopefully, when I come back around that circular process, my ideas have evolved so though I may be in a familiar place I am truly somewhere new. Perhaps the path of the creative process is then more like a spiral, repetitious yet constantly moving forward. This concept not only illustrates an important artistic process that we want to share with visitors to the Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art, but also it describes the methods we employ as our space evolves. The creative process is an inspirational component of C3 and it is exemplified through the Art Spot, a hands-on art making area.
A Brief History
In 2008, the hands-on art-making area within the C3 exhibition Materials and Meanings was called the Materials Bar. With a total of eighteen standard and tall seats, the space was designed as a communal area for visitors of all ages. The Materials Bar provided a hands-on experience of the creative process engaging visitors with an inspiration wheel, videos that modeled techniques, materials that encouraged play, and a reflective label writing component. The materials provided were similar to or related to works of art on view.
In 2010, C3 presented its second exhibition, Encountering Space, which involved a complete redesign of the entire C3 and transformed the Materials Bar into the Space Bar. Though it remained a hands-on making area, the focus on the new exhibition theme was evident in the inspirational prompts and reflective labels. Prompts challenged visitors to “transform a cube of space” or “build a sculpture with positive and negative space.” The label cards not only encouraged visitors to reflect, they also introduced vocabulary about space through a word bank. Additionally, the seating was expanded to accommodate twenty-six visitors.
In 2012, C3 transitioned away from themed exhibitions and towards a more fluid process of rotating works of art. Along with our process, the physical space changed, reflecting the end of Encountering Space and the beginning of a simplified graphic identity to reflect the DMA brand. With additional seating for a total of forty-four visitors, the area was renamed the Art Spot: Anytime art-making for everyone. Since then, we have experimented with different approaches. For a year we focused on one work of art, Family Portrait 1963 by Martin Delabano. Although we changed the materials and prompt every couple of months, they always related back to the work of art. The following year we explored the broader idea of creativity. We provided unconventional and everyday materials (like red plastic cups, spoons, paperclips, and twist ties) and challenged visitors to make something new and unexpected with them. More recently we have made connections between the Art Spot materials and our wall of visitor-submitted images with themes like Textual Awareness or Flowers.
Commonalities and Spiraling Forward
For me, the creative process can be simplified to four steps: inspiration, exploration, creation, and reflection. With each iteration of the making area in C3, we come full circle. We start with an idea—a theme like materials, space, or creativity— or a work of art. Next, we explore the possibilities of that idea and play with what it might look like. Then, we construct it for visitors to experience, and finally we reflect on the actual visitor experience. Over the years, the various iterations are in many ways similar, but with each new endeavor we learn and revise. In each iteration we were inspired by visitors, and hoped to inspire visitors — as art museum educators, we place an importance on encouraging visitors to connect with works of art. Furthermore, the area has always been about three-dimensional making and the creative process. In our upcoming redesign, we are sticking with these tenants, but are approaching them in different ways.
In the past we strived to inspire participants with the art on view in the Center for Creative Connections, though we found this can be difficult when the works of art are not directly adjacent to the making area. Often visitors come straight to the art-making area without looking at the works of art or, if they spend time looking at works of art, they may not be thinking of those objects when they arrive at the making area. When we installed Family Portrait 1963 directly in the Art Spot, we hoped that visitors would be more prone to draw inspiration from the work. We found that despite its positioning and large size, it quickly gets lost behind a sea of visitors when the Art Spot is full.
In the upcoming redesign, we are installing more works of art in the Art Spot and are strategically placing them near the tables where participants will be creating. Furthermore, the cases housing these works will have prompts directly on the glass to provoke thought and discussion about the materials, design, and process. These kinds of prompts can help visitors get into the making mindset, a way of critically looking at and exploring materials.
Also, our approach to choosing works of art has shifted. In the past we chose works of art that exemplified a concept and might inspire visitors to create. This time we are taking our inspiration from our visitors. Over the past few years we have documented the kinds of creations made at the Art Spot. We know that, regardless of the theme or materials, there are common items that are made: rings, animals, flowers, hats, and woven objects. So, we started with those observations and chose works of art that visitors might more easily relate to and that had some evidence of both the materials and the method of making.
Finally, we will continue to encourage the creation of three-dimensional objects, but rather than having one set of materials, we will offer different materials at different stations that relate to the nearby works of art. This will offer some variety so that visitors have more options.
When the Art Spot reopens in the next week, we will continue to ask for visitor input and revise, because being an experimental space means that we are constantly evolving through the creative process. We will document the creations visitors make; read the reflective statements they write; talk with them about the works of art, the materials, their creations, and their overall experience to get a sense of what aspects of the new design are working and what we may revise.
How Do You Do It? Share Your Thoughts
How would you describe your creative process?
How do your programs, activities, and gallery spaces change and evolve?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, and let’s collectively reflect a bit more on our planning and reflection processes for these types of creative, experimental spaces in museums.
Written by Jessica Fuentes, Center for Creative Connections (C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
Reposted from the Dallas Museum of Art’s education blog DMA Canvas, where the museum’s fantastic education team writes about creativity, community outreach, technology, and insights into the field of museum education.
The Center for Creative Connections (C3) at the Dallas Museum of Art is unique because we focus on learning by doing. That means we design activities for people of all ages to learn about works of art from the collection by participating in a hands-on way. The activities we create to accompany works of art prompt visitors to engage in ways that are different from the standard didactic approach of a wall label. In C3, we want to provide experiences where visitors can make personal connections by drawing, writing, making, and discussing works of art with each other.
This kind of active engagement carries a certain stigma; many people assume that it’s only for kids, mainly because we are used to seeing activities like these in children’s museums. Part of our design process is to evaluate visitors’ experiences by observation, interviewing and counting. We’ve learned that half of our participants are adults and that there is a reoccurring theme in their comments regarding why they participate. So, why do adults flock to C3 to draw, write, make, and talk about art? Because it connects them to a childlike curiosity and creativity which, as an adult, often takes a backseat to other responsibilities and tasks.
In January 2014, we installed a large table in the middle of the C3 Gallery, that hosts three activities that rotate on a monthly basis. As a part of the evaluation of these activities, we interviewed visitors about their motivations for participating, their past experience with art making, and their view of the value derived from participating in a making activity at the Museum. I was repeatedly intrigued by the responses of the adult participants.
For example, I spoke with a couple participating in a portrait drawing activity which encouraged close looking at the proportions and scale of the human face. The couple, in their mid-thirties, each claimed to have no artistic experience. Through our conversation, they divulged that they both graduated from arts-based college programs. “I went for fashion, like a BFA in Design, and he went for Graphic Design. We don’t really draw in our free-time though, I mean, he does for work,” the woman stated as she looked over at the man who accompanied her. He added, “Yeah, but just on the computer.” Then the woman broke in, “And I do for work, but it’s not the same. Like, I do fashion sketches, not this kind of drawing.” I prodded them a bit to understand what “this kind of drawing,” meant. “Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”
This idea was reinforced by further conversations with other adult participants: drawing, making, and discussing in C3 is fun in a freeing kind of way. I interviewed another thirty-something couple drawing at a light box activity designed to assist in the making of hybrid imagery. The man began with, “I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here.” The woman with him agreed, “Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.” A sixty-something man participating in the portrait drawing activity remarked, “I used to take art classes, but it’s been so long ago… it’s like I forgot that and I saw this and I remembered.” This feeling of nostalgia for something that is no longer a part of someone’s everyday life was also a common response from adults. Many adults responded that they enjoy drawing or making but, “don’t do it enough.”
Aside from drawing-based activities, the Center for Creative Connections also has a drop-in art making area with large communal tables called the Art Spot, which we say is the place for “anytime art-making for everyone.” We invite visitors to explore their creativity by making creations out of unexpected or everyday materials. Every two months we change the materials and provide a prompt to inspire ideas. Each time I’m hesitant and wonder, “What will people make with this?” But, I am always delighted and surprised by the imaginative creations that are made and left behind. Children often come to C3 and head straight for the Art Spot, while adults can be a bit more tentative. However, regardless of age, most visitors stay anywhere from 5 minutes to two hours, with an average of about 20 minutes. Once they gather their materials they become immersed in their creation. For some it is a hands-on problem solving activity while for others it is about manipulating materials. How can you combine these objects (cups, spoons, paperclips, wire, egg cartons, cardboard, etc.) into something unique and surprising? This kind of open-ended activity, reminiscent of childhood playing and pretending, is not often made available to adults. I frequently watch my eight-year-old daughter take something like a toilet paper roll and turn it into a piano for her dollhouse, or repurpose a cardboard box to make an enormous rocket ship. This nostalgia for childhood play was brought perfectly into perspective by a recent Art Spot creation.
At the DMA, learning can take many approaches and forms. We strive to be inclusive so that we can reach visitors with a multitude of interests and experiences and preferences for learning. In the Center for Creative Connections, our mission is to engage visitors of all ages with works of art and the creative process of artists. We hope that by designing participatory ways to learn we will provide fun and playful activities for all of our visitors, regardless of their age.
How Are You Engaging Adults in Unexpected Ways?
As museum education steps further away from a traditional didactic style and more towards an inclusive approach that attempts to reach a multitude of interests and learning styles, the question of how to engage adults is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. What if our adults want a lecture? What if they shy away from participatory activities? Will we isolate a large population of our adult audience by trying a new approach? These are valid questions to consider, and making a change does not imply that you have to make a 180-degree turn, but rather consider offering varying opportunities including these types of child-like playful activities. How are you engaging adults in unexpected ways? What successes and struggles have you come across as you experiment with offering new adult experiences?
Read more about the Dallas Museum of Art’s education programs, community outreach, and explorations in creativity through their educator blog: DMA Canvas.
About the Author
JESSICA FUENTES: Center for Creative Connections(C3) Gallery Coordinator, Dallas Museum of Art. Jessica received her MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. Her thesis was a collaboration with her then six-year-old daughter to explore self-guided family experiences in art museums. Jessica’s daughter remains an important resource in her work developing interactives and activities which provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with works of art through drawing, making, and discussion. Jessica is also an artist and a member of 500X Gallery, one of Texas’ oldest, artist run cooperative galleries. In her down time, she can usually be found with her daughter enjoying an art museum or making art in their home studio. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Dallas Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Emily Shallman and I started talking about exclusion in arts and education while we were both working on our respective Master’s degrees. Lately, I have been eager to ask her to blog about her extensive research in inequitable access to the arts in public schools. Her findings suggest that museums, along with many non-profit arts organizations, are needed as key partners in providing equitable arts engagement and learning for students. Emily’s research prompts me to consider the museum’s place in the “landscape” of arts access, best practices for partnering with schools, and if museum’s are achieving their full potential to impact students. How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves. – Aletheia Wittman, The Incluseum
You can also read this post in its entirety on The Incluseum website, including additional citations and notes. The Incluseum is a blog and project to promote social inclusion in museums coordinated by Rose Paquet Kinsley and Aletheia Wittman. Art Museum Teaching and The Incluseum are co-hosting this post in hope that Emily’s work and observations can catalyze a broader dialogue among museum professional and educators.
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Arts education is a complex system today, as public schools–in conjunction with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), local arts organizations, teaching artists, art specialists, volunteers, museums, school boards, the state legislature, and national policy–work in collaboration to deliver the arts to children. This intertwined web of arts advocates is a reaction to the worsening reality that the arts are no longer a stable piece of public school curriculum, with many schools excluding the arts altogether. The arts have had to react, and find a solution for inclusion in this landscape of severe budget cuts and focus on math and literacy. Rather than demanding to be included in the daily curriculum, with a mantra of “Do not cut the arts,” the arts have forged new partnerships to keep arts education alive in some public schools.
Let me paint the picture for you as best I can in an effort to make arts education more transparent, so that you can see how you fit into this landscape, and where there is room for improvement.
Schools, in the way they deliver (or do not deliver) arts education to children are highly diverse. This diversity means that public school A in Los Angeles, CA, is very different from public school B in San Francisco, CA, based on school population, size, parent involvement, student engagement and achievement, and of course, arts education. In the same way, public school B in San Francisco is also drastically different from public school C in San Francisco. Public schools are increasingly centered on the local, as arts education funding (at least in California) is distributed by local school districts. This distribution of funds, while on the surface entirely equitable, is not.
While each public school may get an equitable amount (based on school population and size, among other factors), PTA’s can quickly change the picture of arts education. More affluent schools tend to have more active PTA’s, and usually raise additional funds for academic programs that they value (and this sometimes includes the arts). Moreover, schools can decide how best to use the money they do receive—does this mean hiring a teaching artist for a week-long intensive for third graders in dance instruction, or does it mean buying new music stands and replacing outdated instruments, or does it mean using these funds to add to the overall school budget to help save a teacher from getting laid off (and hoping that teacher involves her students in arts learning)?
As you can see, arts education in public schools gets complicated quickly, and the picture can also seem rather bleak. However, I believe we are in a golden age of opportunity and collaboration.
Getting Arts Education into Public Schools
Local arts organizations, arts non-profits, and museums, have been afforded the opportunity to help deliver arts education to public school children. These institutions can provide a critical piece of learning to students, and if the success is documented, these collaborations can have a large impact on student learning. Unfortunately, there is no one model to follow when it comes to arts education delivery. As schools are centered on the “local” so is the delivery of the arts. The report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011) summarizes this nicely, stating:
“Almost every community—indeed almost every school—that tries to address the vexing problem of how to get more arts into schools does so differently. A complex patchwork of arts education services across the country is the result, representing a mix of delivery models that include standards-based sequential arts curricula taught by arts specialists; formal and informal arts integration strategies; and short and long term teaching residencies for artists…There is no one model that works best for every community, and no single solution for the host of economic, pedagogic and logistical challenges faced by arts education advocates.”
Much progress is still to be made in terms of equitable and engaged learning with the arts, however. Interestingly (as based on my thesis research), a local elementary school in San Francisco with a high-poverty student population was a target of grant funding for the arts and actually had so many arts programs that the teachers were concerned about having enough time to teach other subjects. Comparatively, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an average socioeconomic student population (neither affluent, nor high-poverty) had very limited arts education, despite a very vocal and committed PTA full of arts advocates. Lastly, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an affluent student population and a highly involved and highly funded PTA, had hired a full-time art specialist (a very rare occurrence, I can assure you) to teach sequential visual art to all students for an hour each week. The national trend, however, is still that those students in the highest poverty areas are the ones with the least amount of arts education, and are those that could most benefit from them.
There are substantial connections and programs to be cultivated with schools and outside organizations to bring quality arts education to all children. The arts, more than any other academic subject, is an area pioneering these partnerships. One successful example is seen at the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) here in San Francisco. At CCM, public and private elementary-school through high-school students can participate in creative field trips such as claymation, music studio, or innovation lab taught by museum educators.
High school students can work at the museum in the C.I.T.Y. (Creative Inspiration Through Youth) Teen Program, a paid employment opportunity, helping run exhibits and getting job experience in an arts non-profit environment. In addition, CCM has a growing outreach program, teaching claymation workshops at after-school programs in the Bay Area. While CCM’s programs are quite established and the link to childhood and youth arts education is evident, I know of other arts institutions that are taking baby steps toward inclusion. For example, some art museums now have field trip guides (sometimes just a folded pamphlet) for elementary students to learn about famous artworks in understandable language.
Arts advocates, one school at a time, are inserting the arts, sometimes briefly, to change the landscape of learning. Hopefully this trend will continue to gain momentum. I know that it takes a whole ecosystem of arts advocates, from those working at the national and state level who make policy that supports equitable and quality education, to those at the local level, who raise additional funds for arts education to be taught in public schools, to teachers who understand the importance of the arts, to researchers who publish this knowledge, to people who have been impacted by the arts who share their stories to create more arts advocates.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a full-time arts specialist in every school, in addition to a visiting teaching artist and relevant field trips to museums, as well as after-school arts programs by local arts organizations? Just think of all those students could accomplish!
How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions, art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves.
EMILY SHALLMAN has a BA in Elementary Art Education with a Washington State Teaching Certificate and Reading Endorsement from Western Washington University, and a MA in Urban Studies from the San Francisco Art Institute. Emily has experience as an Art Specialist, teaching visual art to grades K-5. Her MA thesis researched the history of arts education in public schools, as well as case-study analysis of the inequality of arts education based on socioeconomic factors. Currently, she works at SFAI, serves as a Board Fellow for the California Alliance for Arts Education and runs a children’s illustration blog www.illustrationsby.com. She lives in San Francisco, CA with her husband and two cats.
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:
“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
the locations of education programs provide significant but conflicting messages.
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.
A typical art museum exhibit contains pieces of art, each accompanied by a block of explanatory text. Sometimes this text only includes the basic facts of artist, title, country, date, and provenance. Other times, wall text is lengthier, giving detailed information. What materials were used, and how did the artist use them? How long did it take to make the work, and what changes did the artist makeover time? Who or what influenced the artist, and what is the artist trying to convey? What, in the artist’s own words, is the piece all about?
We can often learn the answers to these questions by reading the text on the wall, or by taking a guided highlights tour. But what if we could actually see the answers unfold as they happened? What if we could watch artists transform materials, speak about their work, and try one technique and then another?
Wall text and traditional tours are useful for understanding art, but museums need not limit themselves to these two methods of conveying ideas. As a museum educator, I have enjoyed trying a variety of art-centered activities, designed to reach diverse learning styles and allow for a more holistic interpretation of the art. I have also had the opportunity to see creative forms of art interpretation as a museum visitor. I have seen art interpreted through museum theater at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), and through dance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the Torpedo Factory Art Center, visitors can watch and chat with artists as they work, a chance literally to watch the creative process unfold.
At NMWA in 2011, actors performed three short one-act plays in the galleries to bring the art of their Trove exhibition to life. One of these Trove Trilogy plays featured an artist interacting with the fictional broom-person she painted. This sketch fascinated me the most, as it showed an artist’s conceptualization of her own creation. Another play portrayed an interaction between photographer and subject, and finally, another play depicted an artist (Maria Sibylla Merian) at different points in her life and in her career of researching and making engravings of rainforest flora and fauna. These plays all served to help visitors understand the art by creatively helping visitors to understand the artists. You can read more of my thoughts on the plays here.
Art is all about unique, creative expression. Art museums can, in the spirit of this creativity, embrace unconventional interpretive experiences, including opportunities for audiences to see art being made and participate in art making. Varied, nontraditional means of interpretation blur the barrier audiences might perceive between themselves and the art, and can change a scornful “I could have made that!” to an inspired “I want to make something!”
The idea of experimentation may be daunting, but the results can be quite enriching. As noted in the Elastic Manual, “It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists create.” The Elastic Manual does not give a specific checklist of what makes a project experimental, let alone give a step-by-step list of how to implement such a project. Instead, it offers guidelines and things to keep in mind when embarking on any of the many kinds of undertakings that are unconventional and experimental. I read the manual as a statement that is deliberately open-ended, with a focus on trying new out new ideas – and letting creativity happen as it will.
SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below. See all posts in the series by clicking here.
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?
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.
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.