Tag Archives: studio practice

The What and the Where of Art Museum Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Experimenting in Museums: Creatively Interpreting Artistic Creations

Torpedo Factory Art Center, photo by bittermelon

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 make over 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.

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Works by Maria Sibylla Merian. Photo by Laura DiSciullo.

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.

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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.

Studio Practice: Still at the Core of Art Museum Teaching

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?

A Pre-K class observes the Queens Museum’s collection of Tiffany Glass and created works of art exploring transparency, color mixing, and shape. After making art, students discussed contemporary artists’ work, concerned with similar studio explorations. (Works in the photo by Sharona Eliassaf and Jesse A. Greenberg; Photo by @pemadb)

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.

A student admires the fruits of his labor

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.