Tag Archives: arts education

Leading Voices – Past, Present, and Future

Written by Jessica Kay Ruhle

“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim

“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger

Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.

Artist talks by Nasher Teen Council members, June 2017.

As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.

John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.

In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.

After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”

Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.

In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.

Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.

Kelsey Trollinger, NTC member, leads discussion of UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014, photo by J Caldwell.

In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”

The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.

As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.

Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.


At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.

To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.

What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?

Rumaisha Tasnim, NTC member, leads discussion in Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, photo by J Caldwell.

Additional Information:

More about JFK’s 1963 speech at Amherst College –



More about Nina Chanel Abney –




More photos from the Nasher Teen Council exhibition In Our Own Worlds


Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations.  Go check it out!

  • Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
  • The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
  • Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019

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About the Author

Headshot, JKR - 2JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College.  Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.

The Landscape of Arts Inclusion in Public Schools

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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artwork-hangingArts 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:

Photo by Michael Baltz
Photo by Michael Baltz

“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.

Pioneering Partnerships

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.

art-collagesHigh 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.

Arts Education Advocacy Resources

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.