“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.
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.
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?
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
JESSICA 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.
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
How can you be sure the programs you create will resonate with your intended audiences? As youth educators, we turn straight to the source to answer that question: our students. Youth interns push us to think more deeply about our practice and pedagogy, and, in turn, engaging them in program development and implementation immerse our students in the real-world impact of our institutional missions. To this end, in May 2016, Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps joined forces with youth interns from the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History to present a panel session at the annual NYCMER (New York City Museum Educators Roundtable) Conference, encouraging hundreds of attending educators to consider how they, too, might view their own constituents as experts.
Dovetailing with recent posts on Art Museum Teaching proposing that museums commit to being spaces for dialogue and conversation, we share the reflections of Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps members Nancy and Terrelle below to inspire you to explore how you might turn to your own students and visitors to take the first steps towards empathy: listening deeply and with care to what our audiences need and want from our institutions.
We send our greatest thanks to fellow youth panelists Cara and Yvonne from MoMA and Roman and Karina from AMNH, as well as to staff facilitators Calder Zwicky (MoMA) and Barry Joseph (AMNH), for collaborating with us on this session!
Nancy: The conference was a total success. Terrelle and I were excited for the meeting from the very start, and we were ready to introduce the Armory and all it has to offer to us, as well as the Youth Corps program, to the people attending the conference.
Terrelle: Being part of the conference was a really great experience for me. It really gave me more insight about other youth internship programs in NYC, and made me appreciate working at Park Avenue Armory so much more.
Nancy: We were part of a panel called “Ask the Experts: Activating Your Museum through a Younger Lens,”with other youth interns from the American Museum of Natural History and MoMA. We got to chat with them beforehand at a nearby Starbucks and know more about what their programs had to offer. Once we were inside the Morgan Library and Museum, where the conference was taking place, we began introducing ourselves to the educators attending our session, and all our nerves went away.
Terrelle: The first question we were asked was how we want to be identified—as teens or youth or something else? This question is quite tricky since it really depends on the type of programs and the type of people you want to reach. I have seen a majority say they would prefer the term “youth” as it is less patronizing than the word teen. To me, “teen” typically refers to ages 12-15.
Nancy: Also, at our program here at Park Avenue Armory, the age ranges from 13-22+, so “teens” wouldn’t exactly be the way to go. Instead “youth” can mean any age within that spectrum.
Terrelle: Others in our panel found “teen” to be better, and others thought whatever term makes alliteration with your program title, then that’s what you should use. Words like Student and Young Artist were also mentioned, and I liked those as well, because in a sense everyone is a student. Everyone is still learning, especially when it comes to art—there is always something you can improve on.
Speaking of improving, another question asked that stuck out for me was: “How do your programs provide space for failure?” Here at the Armory, we create a final project every semester that is inspired by a production—past projects have been guides to unplugging, an audio walk, and installation art. We typically go through a tinkering phase where we experiment with different materials, different ideas, and produce different outcomes. Our tinkering process is our trial and error phase. Many people know the saying “You learn from your mistakes.” When you fail at something, it’s not that you should give up—it’s for you to analyze what you did wrong and to fix it. Once you learn what you need to do to have your envisioned outcome, then you can adjust.
Nancy: We were also asked whether or not we felt we had a voice within our programs. This was an automatic no brainer for me since that is exactly what the Armory provides, especially with the Advisory Board, which enables us to make vital decisions for events, productions, and our program.
Terrelle: I am one who always vouches for programs to let youth have a voice when it comes to something that they’re involved in. If something is for teens/youth, then they should be able to give you feedback on how you can run it better or improve on certain things. Having end of semester feedback/questionnaires or advisory boards become essential, because this gives your students a chance to voice their ideas and concerns.
Nancy: We also got asked if we felt that the programs we are in represent the diversity of New York City. This made me think of the different schools the Armory partners with, which have ethnicities from all over, and many are international students. The different boroughs that we come from add to the diversity that our program has.
Terrelle: All in all the NYCMER conference has definitely inspired me—to work on my networking skills, one of my many personal goals for this year, and also to become more involved in youth events and teen nights in the city.
Nancy: Representing the Armory was not only fun but interesting. It was great to be able to learn about other programs that aren’t our own and meet other students who work in cultural institutions. We were glad to have been able to provide answers to arts educators!
We invite you to learn more about the Armory Youth Corps here, the MoMA Teens program here, and the American Museum of Natural History teen programs here.
Header Photo: After a successful session, the youth panelists pose in the Morgan Library and Museum. Photo by Barry Joseph.
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.
When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.
During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.
Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.
The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging
We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.
The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV. They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.
A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.
For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same. As Lizmarie described:
[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.
The Impact of Reflective Practice
We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.
From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.
I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.
(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)
In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.
Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.
Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership
When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things. —Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”
In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.
Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”
These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.
Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it. —Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:
We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought. —Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:
The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”
This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.
I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.
Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous… She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.
Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)
Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring. My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)
Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity
I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.
Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.
Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo
After reading art critic Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post this past weekend, I felt like I was being punked (does that still happen?). Someone is actually telling people how to view art? And chastising them for incorrect behavior like making plans in museum walls? As a museum educator and consultant that teaches other educators how to listen to visitors and interact with art in different ways, imagine my shock at this antiquated judgmental piece. Now, Hyperallergic beat me to a delightfully snarky response, so I present five (snark-light) counterpoints to Kennicott’s ‘how to.’
1. Take the time you have
Museums are exhausting. I’m a museum person and the stimulation tires me out. So take the time you have and spend time with the works that you like. Viewing art should be a fun experience — not a sprint to see every Picasso, Monet, and Degas until your eyes bleed.
Do you have an hour? Great. Take advantage of a pay-what-you-can day and spend some time in one collection. Or even one gallery. Engage with the art in the way you want to engage. That means if you want to take a photo, take it. Take a selfie (if the museum allows it) or photo bomb the work.
If you want to tweet, hashtag #ITweetMuseums and someone might strike up a conversation with you about the artwork. Take the time you have.
And don’t wander around, waiting for something to hit you. Do you wait in a coffee shop for true love to come through the door, walk up and propose? Nope. Art is similar — you won’t get ‘struck’ by something that shakes you to the core by racing around seeing every work you can. Take it easy, date art as slowly as you would date people. True love might be out there.
2. Seek your space
“Museums aren’t for everyone. But they should be for anyone.” – David Carr
Find those dark corners away from Starry Night. Don’t just see the highlights — see the side galleries. Did you know the Met Museum has an incredible visible storage in the American Wing? Or the Guggenheim has a basement with a theatre that often shows video pertaining to the current exhibition? Investigate the map; see what looks interesting to you and head there.
Or stand in front of Starry Night. You shouldn’t avoid a popular work because it is popular — even if you’ve seen it before. Watching people interact with artwork is possibly one of the greatest sociology experiments. I was at LACMA on business and I watched a family staring at a Rothko, trying to make sense of the color fields. The older male said, “It looks like it’s vibrating” while his wife (?) said, “it looks more like it’s swinging.” The key is finding the space that works for you and your art viewing, even if it’s the loudest corner of the museum.
3. Just do you
Some people respond to art with knowledge. Some people respond to art by looking. Some people respond by moving, listening to music, sketching. You know what kind of learner you are. And if you don’t, try things. Pose like the sculpture or move like the shapes. Just stop and look. Wiki the work, read the museum label or online catalogue, listen to the audio guide or sketch a detail. Just do you.
If you decide you are an interpersonal learner and want to interact with others, take a museum tour. Those questions the educator is asking? Chances are they:
want to see where you are at in ‘understanding’ the art,
want to see what you are interested in, or
want to show that everyone can have an opinion about art, and yours matters as much as the curators.
See the common theme? You.
Museum education programs care about the visitor. What is the art if you aren’t there? A historical thing on the wall. As a museum educator, we don’t think learning from authority is oppressive. We DO think that all opinions are equally valid, as long as they are backed up with thought. I’ve had many people tell me contemporary art is crap. “Great,” I respond, “Why do you think that?” Silence. Then, “well I could do it.” My response? “Ok you need art to show skill, let me show you x later, they were classically trained…”
See what happened? It goes back to the YOU. What you think and feel about art IS important, because without, the museum is just a place with a bunch of things on the walls.
4. Remember in your own way
This ties very much into my previous point. Remember what appeals to you. If you’ll remember your experience with the artwork by the date, fantastic. If you aren’t a number person (like me), exactly what will the date do for you? Or the name of the artist?
Take in what affects you. Is it the brush strokes? The color? The connection of the figures? If you are dealing with an artwork you actually like, creating a mental image, sketching, acting out the piece will be fun. So will Instagramming it. Museums do not have to be like school — you don’t have to cram in facts regarding the artists or movements shown in exhibitions. You definitely can, but again, you do you.
5. Ignore everything I said
How to really view art? Ignore everything I just said, except for the title of point three. Just do you. Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to Kennicott — listen to yourself. If you are bored, take a break. If you are interested in a work, investigate further. If you want to move, listen to music, sketch, get a coffee, tweet, laugh, cry — whatever. Interact with art in any way YOU want to.
A few years ago at a conference, David Carr said to a group of museum educators, “Museums aren’t for everyone. But they should be for anyone.” Never had a truer statement been said regarding museum — they should be for anyone, even if you use it as a backdrop for a date, air conditioning on a hot day, a library, a school or a place to center yourself. Without you, museums are giant holding centers for bits of human history.
Over the summer, I helped a group of teens make a mobile game at the Brooklyn Museum.
That’s a pretty innocuous-looking sentence, but it felt like a big, exciting Project of Note. There were plenty of interesting factors at play: it was my own first foray beyond digital game design into actual game creation; it was a chance to see my home institution’s collections from a new point of view; it was a different kind of programming from my usual roster. But it’s now almost two months later, and I’m still thinking about it.
Why? What made it so special?
First, let me give you the basics:
This was a program called NYC Haunts, in which teens work together to design and create a location-based game people can play on their mobile devices.
It’s run by Global Kids, a great organization that has all kinds of initiatives to help teens become informed citizens of the world. They’ve run this program in schools and libraries before, and this was the first version done in a museum.
NYC Haunts teaches teens the basics of game design and uses TaleBlazer (a free game-design app from MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program) to build the game. TaleBlazer is a visual programming platform, which means you don’t write the code textually. Instead, you put it together using click-and-drag building blocks that combine to form commands.
The game itself is designed to help a player solve a mystery about local ghosts of the past who may still be lingering around in the present.
In the Brooklyn Museum game, our team of thirteen intrepid teen Ghost Hunters collaborated on a game that invites visitors to explore our Luce Visible Storage Center. The game is called Helen’s Treasures, and the player must find all the precious items collected by Helen (the ghost protagonist of our game, based on a Chester Beach marble bust), in order to help her remember how she died so her spirit can be at peace.
This program was an exciting step towards a goal near and dear to my heart: using digital technology to explore museum collections without the technology overwhelming or distracting from the artwork. And it was a chance to explore the world of game design in museums, which has been on my museum education radar for a while. (I still love Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery. More recently, I’ve been watching as Sophia George, the V&A’s first Games Designer in Residence, develops and releases her art museum-inspired game, Strawberry Thief, into the world.)
A big part of what made it feel so special, though, was the open-hearted, open-ended nature of the whole project and that fact that the teens were building something together from the ground up. Before we talked at all about the museum-specific side of things, we spent a good chunk of time talking (and iterating) about what makes a game successful and how the game design process works. We started with the basics, which fed into conversations that started to sound a whole lot like the kind of conversations museum educators have when coming up with programming ideas.
There was debate over how the game should feel to a player and how to create that feeling. What were the goals of the game going to be and how should they be met? What did we want our players to get out of their game experience?
Once the game creation itself got underway, I co-facilitated the meetings with Global Kids staff, but we tried to stay out of the way of the process as much as possible. The teens decided what area of the museum they wanted as the location of their game. They collaborated on the game’s story. They worked smoothly as a whole group and then as small groups that focused variously on coding, choosing specific collection objects, creating the in-game visuals, and writing the detailed story players discover as they go.
And what they came up with, after only eight afternoon sessions, was a playable game that made my museum educator heart thump proudly.
It was the teens, not me, who identified that it was important for a player to look closely at art objects to answer the game’s questions. It was the teens who chose the Visible Storage Center for both the artwork and the atmosphere (it’s cold and dim in there, as well as being full of shelves bursting with miscellaneous, sometimes-mysterious things). It was the teens who created a cohesive story that brought new meaning to objects in the Museum’s collection.
They told engaging and creative stories, they created an immersive experience, and they made a fun, new way for people to discover an often-unexplored space.
Those sound remarkably like some of my Big Goals as a museum educator.
I’m trying to keep these lessons fresh in my mind as I head into a new school year of programming for teachers. How can I hang onto that spirit of open exploration? How can I help teachers see the museum in new ways? What experiences can I create that are playful and fun and build skills in the museum, all at the same time?
One final note: If you’d like to playtest the prototype of the Brooklyn Museum NYC Haunts game, you can download TaleBlazer for free (Android or iOS). Open it on your device and enter gvxkfju in the “Game Code” tab at the top. Helen’s Treasures will download to your device, and then you’re free to play, even without wifi.
Over the past four years, I have worked with hundreds of Milwaukee-area teens who love art, and who, over their time in teen programs at the Milwaukee Art Museum, grow to love museums as well.
I have always had a sense that my students grow over their time at the Museum. This year, though, to really study that growth, we designed our longstanding Satellite High School Program as a year-long experience to explore exactly how weekly sessions at an art museum might change the thinking of our teen participants. To that end, our program outcome for students was that they would show an increased ability to reflect upon their own experiences and performance.
Evaluation is a grey area—much like teaching and interpretation—and we as educators need to use multiple methods in order to get a fuller picture of what’s going on with our students.
This means I’ve been thinking a lot about evaluation: How do we show change was made? Years ago, I thought evaluation was more or less a prickly, black-and-white, necessary evil that forced me to use altogether too much math. But over the past two years, I’ve come around to believe evaluation is completely the opposite (though math is still important!). Evaluation is a grey area—much like teaching and interpretation—and we as educators need to use multiple methods in order to get a fuller picture of what’s going on with our students. And further, these methods can be tools to help our teaching, improving programs and our impact on students.
In the end, I found I needed to use reflective practice myself to understand how my students were changing, and to explore and experiment with a number of different methods for articulating their growth. In this post, I’ll share a few of the methods we used in the Satellite High School Program this year to explore how our teen interns changed through reflective practice.
First… What is Satellite?
The Satellite High School Program is a year-long internship for sixteen teens ages 16 to 18 from diverse high schools all over the Milwaukee area. Once a week after school, they come together at the Museum and explore how art can be made relevant to our lives today. They participate in “object studies” (hour-long discussions on a single work of art), behind-the-scenes career talks with staff, and resume-writing workshops, and also mentor elementary school students in tours of the permanent collection.
Teens create a final project that has a real-world impact on the Museum. They choose a work of art in the Museum Collection, research it, and form their own interpretation of the piece. In past years, students have created responses in visual art, writing, or performance. This year, the students used iPads to create videos on their work of art, explaining what the work means to them and how it changed their thinking or art practice. You’ll see a few of those videos later in this post.
We settled on one-on-one interviews, doing a “pre” interview on the first days of the program in October and a “post” interview on the final days of the program in May. Each student was privately asked the same set of questions in the pre- and post-interviews, meant to get at their ability to reflect on their experiences in the program. I scored each interview on a rubric that measured level of detail in their responses, and then we compared their pre-program score to their post-program score to see if they had improved.
At the end, every student did improve in their ability to reflect—their answers got significantly more detailed. As someone whose default is to be a more qualitative thinker, it was rewarding to use the rubric to see their interviews as data, in a quantitative, more tangible way.
But as helpful as this was, it’s still just one method of evaluation. Being able to explain in detail is certainly one aspect of successfully being able to reflect. But as I listened to their responses, and thought about what I had seen in the students over the course of the whole year, I realized there is much more to reflecting than just detail. Their responses used stronger vocabulary, they expressed sophisticated ideas, and they asked more and deeper questions. How could I articulate that kind of change?
Happily, along the way, we also found that we had collected some unexpected data which helped me more concretely see the change in my students.
At the end of each session, teens used a web app on their iPads called Infuse Learning to fill out a quick exit slip survey. Exit slips are an easy way to take the pulse of your students at the end of a session. For Satellite, they answered the questions “What is something you learned today?” and “What are you still wondering about?” Though different from our interview questions, these certainly also support reflective practice by thinking back on the day’s session.
As the year went on, I noticed that the teens ‘ responses were growing more sophisticated: they were longer, they used more art vocabulary, and they realized that they might not be able to answer questions definitively, if at all. At the suggestion of Marianna Adams, who specializes in museum research and evaluation, I tried running these responses through two readability tests to see if that would quantify the sophistication of these responses. One test produces the sample’s Fog Scale Level, which measures syllable count and sentence length (a score of 5 being readable, 20 being very difficult). The other was for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which approximates the average grade level necessary to read and understand the text.
For the first question (“What is something you learned today?”), students’ scores jumped considerably in Fog Scale and Reading Level. Since these tests measure syllable count, sentence length, and grade level, this corroborates with what I found in the core evaluation.
But I was surprised to see that when I tested responses to the second question (“What are you still wondering about?”), students’ scores actually dropped! Yet if you read their responses, there is a drastic change—for the better.
Take Student D’s responses. In his early answer, he asks a relatively basic art historical question about distinguishing one type of art from another. In his later response, he is thinking deeply about the purpose of art and how we even decide what art is. And while Student F uses high-level art history vocabulary in her first response, it’s without context; later on, she’s thinking about how two seemingly opposite concepts may have something in common after all.
The scores of these comments may have decreased, but I’d argue that their reflective quality increased—the teens ask big questions that might not have an answer; they ditch high-level vocabulary to more informally muse on philosophical questions of art, destruction, and race. Running these responses through the tests helped me see, again, that while tools can be helpful, they’re ultimately just one tool—we need more than one to paint a bigger picture.
To round out that image, I’ll share one final unexpected evaluation tool: the teens’ final project videos as well as a talkback session they conducted at their video premiere.
For their final project, each student chose one work of art in the Museum Collection and looked at it, researched it, and talked about it with others for seven months. (Given that most visitors spend under 10 seconds looking at art in museum galleries, this is a feat in and of itself!) They distilled a school year’s worth of thinking into brief, 2-4 minute videos that answered what the work meant to them, what it had meant to others, and how their own thinking had changed as a result of looking at the piece—all questions with, of course, that familiar reflective bent.
The teens also participated in a talk-back/Q&A at the celebration where we premiered these final projects. Guests—museum staff, teachers, family, and friends—asked the group questions about their experience. If you like, you can watch the teens’ videos, along with the Q&A, in the YouTube playlist below.
Impact — Can Museums Change Teens?
So: does all the above—interviews, exit slips, readability tests, and final projects—add up to a full image of the impact that a year’s worth of reflective practice can have on students?
I’m not sure we can ever paint a full picture of student growth in intensive programs such as this one. I do think combining all of these tools can help, though—especially if the evaluative tools actively support the goal of the program. The interviews, exit slips, and activities were all intentionally structured to be reflective, related to the outcome itself. This relevancy was key, not only in genuinely evaluating the program’s success, but also in supporting the students’ abilities through the methods themselves. It’s also important that we educators make the program goal transparent to the students. The Satellite interns knew from the beginning that they were working on reflective ability—this helped prime them to think reflectively from the get-go.
As far as impact beyond reflective capacity, I also want to share a few quotes from the teens themselves about their time in this program:
“The videos help us think deeper about what we do—so even in school I think deeper about what I’m doing or why this was made or why this happened.”“I learned that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. When I first saw my piece I just thought it was a bunch of different colors and didn’t really think about it actually having a meaning. But now I’ve learned that it actually has a super cool meaning behind [it], and I never would have learned about that meaning if I hadn’t taken the chance to explore. So I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”“We had to give tours and I found out that I really like to work with children and art at the same time. I would like to pursue a career in art education for elementary school students.”“I was able to change and evolve my way of thinking, now being able to look past the obvious… I learned that art holds all the answers to any questions anyone may have, you just have to search for it.”
From the other evaluation tools, we saw that the students developed their ability to reflect on themselves and their own performance. But as seen in the comments above, they were also able to develop skills reflecting on the world beyond them—the world of art history, their future careers, how they interact with other people. All of these are ways of thinking that are valuable for their futures, as they go to college, discover their passions, and pursue meaningful career opportunities.
Can Teens Change Museums?
I’ve shown how this program helped these students grow in many ways. What about the Museum itself? Have these students had an impact on our institutional practice?
Institutions move at a slower pace than most programs, and if change and impact are complex to measure in sixteen individual students, then it’s multiplied tenfold for an organization that serves hundreds of thousands visitors a year. Even so, over the past few years, the work of teens in our programs has slowly but surely worked its way into the daily fabric of the Museum. Teens have interviewed artists on behalf of the institution. They have advised docents on ideas for giving tours to high schoolers. Their video projects will be part of on-site and online Collection Resources at the Museum, as well as our Archives, for all visitors to access while learning about works of art.
Ultimately, evaluation and impact are ongoing, a grey area that has a lot in common with the act of teaching itself. When done well and intentionally, evaluation doesn’t just show if we’ve met a goal. The tools we use to evaluate ideally become part of our teaching practice, because they reinforce the very abilities we are trying to help our students develop.
As for what I’m still wondering about? This year, our evaluation methods for the most part required the teens to have specific existing skills, such as writing for the exit slips or proficiency in using an iPad (though we did have video-making workshops as part of the program). I’m thinking about other ways to holistically gather data. For example, given that much of our evaluation methods emerged from teaching tools, should I document or film our discussions with works of art and find ways to analyze them? I’d love to hear any ideas or tools you’ve used to evaluate your programs, just as I hope this post has inspired you to take a fresh look at your teaching practice and find unexpected ways to see the growth in your participants.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHELSEA EMELIE KELLY:Manager of Digital Learning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where she develops educational technology initiatives and oversees and teaches teen programs. She is passionate about using gallery teaching and technology to foster relevancy for art museums in the 21st century. She has previously worked at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Art & Historical Center, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Chelsea is a graduate of Vassar College and holds an M.S.Ed. in Leadership in Museum Education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education, where she was a Kress Foundation Fellow. She is also the founder and co-editor of The Art History Blog. Chelsea’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Milwaukee Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.
From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!
The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.
Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.
One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.
Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.
We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.
Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning
The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.
In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:
That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.
This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:
Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.
One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.
Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.
We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!
How do we engage teenagers at art museums? Our museums offer powerful classes, internships, and multi-visit programs–but their reach is limited. For many teens, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to an art museum is through a school field trip. There are already a number of great conversations on this site posing suggestions and challenges for ideal school tours, which consider the needs and perspectives of the museum educator and the classroom teacher.
But what about asking the students themselves?In summer 2012, we did just that at the Milwaukee Art Museum. A group of fourteen teen interns teamed up with ten docents to delve deep into what can make a school tour successful and engaging. They worked to jointly share ideas and troubleshoot concerns. The session was such a hit for both groups that we decided to bring back five of those students this fall to share their thoughts with our full docent corps–all 100+ of them!
We taped the dialogue so that we could share the teens’ ideas as faithfully as possible. The video below shows the five summer teen interns in dialogue with our docents. The teens quickly do a check-in/icebreaker with the docents, describe the summer program, and facilitate a Q&A session.
What I found particularly powerful about the teens’ suggestions is that they are not only relevant to teen audiences–these tips can be used for younger and older visitors, too. In the spirit of continuing the conversation begun by these young people and our docents, I’d like to offer some of my own take-aways:
Take the time to get to know each other (even if the tour is only an hour). Over the summer, I began our sessions with a “check in” activity, inspired by the Milwaukee Writing Project, as a way for us to get to know each other. If you know your audience, you can tailor your tour to their interests from the get-go. As Rosehaydee said in the video, it can bring the group together and set a friendly tone.
Be aware of your group–and do what they want to do. Be in tune with your group and their reactions: if something’s not working, move on rather than pressing it.
Be yourself. Share your passion, and be friendly and relaxed. As Sensei said, if you are enthusiastic about what you’re discussing, chances are good that your group will respond to your enthusiasm.
Museum tours can be intimidating. Teens are aware that docents and educators are extremely knowledgeable; and it’s scary to offer your thoughts in front of not just a docent but also your peers. To support conversation, Steven suggested using clear, simple language (without being patronizing), and Rosehaydee encouraged us to acknowledge student voices, even if they’re not the “right” answer, so teens know they’re being heard.
Technology is a tool, not a goal. When asked if museums should use more technology to engage teens, responses were mixed. Yes, technology is cool and lots of teens use it–but not all teens have access, and technology is not always successful or necessary. If the activity can be done equally as well or better in analogue format, it’s probably not worth it to try to use a gadget. But if it’s something that can only be done with technology–like Skyping with an artist or out-of-town group–then take the time to give it a try.
Remember that we all learn differently. To combat teen boredom, Rosehaydee suggested calling on specific individuals to get them to pay attention, but Sensei noted that sometimes it can be just as effective to try a pair-share or solitary writing activity. This reminded me that museum educators and docents have a responsibility to provide many different kinds of learning opportunities for our students. We need to know when to support and when to gently challenge them.
Respect the group; think of them as family. One of my favorite suggestions from the teens over the summer was for docents to think of the teens as their children or grandchildren. To me, this gets to the heart of working with any visitor that comes into our space: respect them–their prior knowledge, their interests, their reasons for coming to museums in the first place. We can learn from visitors as much as (if not more than!) they can learn from us.
Sometimes, as we plan programs and tours, educational goals and strict standards can overshadow the much more abstract magic that can come from engaging with works of art. I’m glad these young people remind us of the steps we can take to achieve that “bigger picture”: a museum experience that is supportive, interesting, and fun. Such experiences help teens know that museums are places where they can be themselves, connect with peers who also love art, enrich their thinking, or simply take a break from a busy day of school.
Many times when I have encountered a brusque and surly teenager in the museum (whether on a tour, in a program, or simply visiting with his or her family), I do wonder what that kid will be like years down the road. Maybe it’s the parent in me, but I can’t help thinking: will that teenager still roll their eyes during museum visits? will they perhaps change, and gain a new perspective toward museums? These same questions arose when I first read Howard Hwang’s now-infamous article “Why Museums Suck” — would he really be such a choleric and grumpy person after he became an adult? Could we ever see Howard visiting a museum alone or with his family, and loving it? If I could only hop into a time machine, and ask him myself.
Well, as it turns out, no time machine is necessary! As I dug further and further into the LA Youth article, I not only found out that Howard wrote the piece 11 years ago (part of a fall 2001 issue), but I was able to get in contact with Howard himself to ask him a few questions. And while I would have loved to actually use a time machine to write this epilogue to my original post “Why Museums Don’t Suck,” I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article, his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. In my opinion, this is a fascinating turn of events in a story that has garnered so much attention from across the museum community.
Here are my notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:
and now, the rest of the story…
Thoughts on writing the original LA Youth article: I began by asking Howard to tell me a bit more about why he wrote that article back in 2001 about “why museums suck,” and his thoughts at the time. He remembers writing the article as part of a group/community paper, focusing mostly on it being a piece that kids his age would read. It grew out of a high school project in which he was analyzing museums, so the article seemed a natural extension. “I wanted to be very honest, very blunt, and not sugar-coated,” recounts Howard. After writing the article, he recalls telling his sister, “I want to write something that will make people feel that I am talking to them.” This is a tone that made the piece more visceral for me and many of the museum professionals who have since commented, and I think it represented a certain level of honesty that many of us admired.
Thoughts on reading the article 11 years later: Howard’s editor from LA Youth (11 years ago) contacted him recently to let him know about all the back-and-forth going on in the blogosphere about his article, thinking he might enjoy seeing the ArtMuseumTeaching.com blog post and comments. So Howard did, and then he also read his original article which he hadn’t returned to since it was first published. So what was his immediate response? “My face turned bright red,” says Howard. He told me that he feels totally embarrassed by his teen article, especially because his entire perception of museums is completely different now. I asked him a little more about why he might have written something like this back as a 15-year-old, and he remembers being very “A.D.D.” with a low threshold for attention — something had to really jump out at him to win his favor.
Current thoughts about museums: It was great to hear that Howard’s attitude towards museums has totally changed. But I asked a little more about why, and how did that change come about. Howard attributes much of this shift to visiting museums in college for certain classes. Majoring in molecular biology at the time, Howard says “I really started going to museums when they related more to my own interests.” And those interests were obviously there in Howard when he was 15 as he capped his grouchy LA Youth article with unique praise for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, writing: “All you museum people should go over to the Natural History Museum. This is a great museum.”
Any favorite museums these days? My final question for Howard related to any museums he might visit regularly now, and why. He quickly mentioned the California Academy of Sciences, which he visits regularly (being a resident now in the San Francisco Bay Area), and actually just visited a few weeks ago to see their newest exhibits. Our conversation concluded with a brief discussion of what might make a museum more attractive to him these days, and Howard spoke of the volunteer tour guides and docents that interact with the public. “The quality of tour guides,” says Howard, “are a very powerful thing for the museum experience, increasing the attractiveness of museums.” He recounted the knowledgeable tour guides at the California Academy of Sciences during tours he has taken, and he wrapped up our conversation chatting about the importance of human interaction in museum learning.
I extend an enormous thanks to Howard for agreeing to talk with me about his article and his thoughts 11 years later, and I appreciate how much his article challenges us as museum professional to reflect on the extent to which we do, or do not, ‘suck’ when it comes to teen audiences. All we can do is continue to reach out to all audiences, and know that cantankerous teenagers may very well grow up to be dedicated, thoughtful museum visitors. Thanks, Howard!
This week, one of the contributing authors here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, brought to my attention a recent column from LA Youth written by 15-year-old Howard Hwang who felt compelled to write about his distaste for visiting museums. His piece entitled “Why museums suck” seems to have already generated an interesting response from the museum community and beyond, so I thought perhaps I would throw this post up and see if, in fact, anything productive could come from this teenager’s rant. Howard admittedly hates museums, but he recently decided to visit six of them in the LA area anyway and then filed his ‘report.’
So the question presents itself: do museums really suck?
I’m probably not using Howard’s exact language or ideas when I define what it means for a museum to “suck,” but I think many of the reasons for his lack of connection with these institutions are not necessarily new. For him (and he is definitely not alone), museums are boring and notfrequently places where teenagers go to have fun and hang out. But is this entirely true? While Howard’s article seems to provide an opportunity for us museum folk to lament on the perpetual problems museums have engaging teenagers (adding fuel to Howard’s flame), I would rather take this as a moment to shine some light on what museums are doing that doesn’t suck. I’m certainly not saying that museums are doing everything necessary to engage teen audiences (far from it), but I would rather counter Howard Hwang’s diatribe with some thoughts on “why museums don’t suck.” And then maybe the conversation can productively refocus on what museums could be doing better to connect with teens like Howard.
So what are some ways that art museums are pushing forward with teen engagement?
It only seems appropriate to begin this look at museum teen programs and offerings by checking out what some of the museums that Howard visited actually offer for teens. In other words, if Howard had decided to hop on the Internet before his visits, what would he have found about their offerings for he and his friends?
Norton Simon Museum: Not sure Howard would have found much at the Norton Simon. They do offer a Teen Art Academy program, but the next session is not being held until December 1st when artist J Michael Walker leads a group of teens through the galleries to examine self-portriature, followed by a workshop in which students create their own self-portraits. Pretty cool artist to work with, but certainly not a pop-in experience (the workshop asks teens to give up 3 hours spread across 2 days).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Being one of the largest art museums in the country, it is not surprising that LACMA has a range of teen programs. But it’s still exciting to see LACMA trying out new ways of bringing in the teen audience. They offer teen art classes periodically and a free NexGen membership to those 17 and under, but I think Howard would be more interested in their “After Dark” teen night that is free for teens, ONLY for teens, and offers a chance for LA teens to hang out, see art, and have fun. LACMA also has offered a teen High School Internship Program for several years, which sounds like a great opportunity for interested teens (perhaps not Howard) to learn more about museums and gain in-depth experiences with art and artists.
J. Paul Getty Museum: Hmmmm, looks like the main Getty Museum does not offer any programs specifically geared toward teens. The Getty Villa does have an interesting Teen Apprentice Program and Summer Latin Academy, but I think both sound more suited to Howard’s ‘nerdy’ friend Jennifer than to him (perhaps maybe even too academic for her). But, come on Howard, you can’t beat those views of LA from the Getty.
Skirball Cultural Center:The Skirball offers an interesting Teen Corps volunteer program that exposes interested teens to a range of museum jobs and skills. Yet, I think the work that the Skirball has done to rethink its visitor experience and interpretation model has done more to improve its experience for teens than anything else. Howard seemed to connect to this institution more than any other, likely in large part due to their work to reinvent exhibition design. I also noticed that they installed an exhibit a few years ago on immigration in LA that was told from the perspective of local teenagers — and that would only happen at an institution that seems to truly value teen voices.
Outside of Howard’s tour-de-LA-museums, there are lots of art museums that have developed robust programs to connect in meaningful ways with teenagers. I wanted to highlight a few of them, but this list is no where near exhaustive. Almost all art museums these days offer something for teens, from drawing classes and high school art projects to full-blown teen councils, teen-designed websites, parties, internships, etc. Here are a few of the best that I have learned about over the past several years (please add your favorites by commenting below):
WACTAC: Working to target teen audiences and engagement for more than the past 15 years, the Walker Art Center certainly gets a nod here. I remember speaking with their education staff a few years ago during a visit I made to Minneapolis, and I was blown away by everything they were doing to attract teen audiences and, more importantly, to listen to teen voices as they programmed and planned. Their WACTAC (Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council) provides the institution with a dedicated, core group of teenagers who work closely with staff to plan program and events for teens. Past programs have included teen art exhibitions, printed publications, performances, film screenings, artist talks, and art-making events. They even worked to design the museum’s teen website, which I think is awesome (how many museums let go this much, and open the thinking process to teenagers). The Walker also holds teen art workshops, exhibits the work of area teenage artists, and offers additional internships for this age group.
MoMA Teens: While I have always been a fan of MoMA‘s teen website called Red Studio (which is really quite fantastic, you should check it out), I recently learned more about their other offerings for teenagers. Beyond Red Studio’s teen interviews with artists and online art activities, MoMA offers free classes, film screenings, Teen Night Out events, and other websites designed by and for teens. One, called Pop Art developed in 2009 in conjunction with MoMA’s Youth Advisory Council, seems to be a new way to browse selected work in the collection and share them with friends (and I’ll admit that I spent a bit too much time on the site making my own collections and simply exploring the artworks that popped up on my screen). And if you’ve ever been to MoMA on one of their Free Fridays, you know that they are not having too much trouble attracting young audiences.
ICA Teens & the National Convening for Teens in the Arts:The institution that has continued to impress me the most when it comes to teen audiences is the ICA Boston. Like the Walker and MoMA, they utilize a core Teen Art Council to help them plan events for teenage audiences, such as their upcoming Teen Night in November that merges early hip hop with the imagery of dreams through live music, breakdancing tutorials, and spinning all night from the ICA teen DJ collective (yes, you heard me correct … they have their own DJ collective). The ICA also runs a program called Fast Forward that brings together teenagers around creating film, video, and new media. Yet above and beyond all of these individual programs, the ICA Boston has worked to pull off its annual National Convenings for Teens in the Arts — an event that was initiated “in response to the lack of opportunity for students and educators to collaboratively discuss the issues, challenges, and possibilities facing the field of contemporary arts education for urban teens” (2011 Education Report). The convening brings together teen arts leaders and museum educators to explore the role museums can play in youth development, teen program advocacy, and experimenting in museums. The ICA has created an Education Report for each of the past events, and these documents are available on their website and totally worth a close look.
This just skims the surface when it comes to teen engagement in museums — notable mentions should also go out to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Youth Insights program, as well as the much smaller but perhaps equally-as-powerful YouthSmart program at the Saint Louis Art Museum that hires Summer Teen Assistants to work closely with education staff and artists as well as lead tours for thousands of youth groups (unfortunately, you can’t find much information at all about this incredible opportunity for teens at SLAM, making it that institution’s best kept secret).
While this wide array of teen councils, parties, and online activities certainly shows that museums are paying attention to teens, I’m still unsure how these types of programs make a difference for the drop-in teen visitor (like Howard). Have these institutions and others changed their visitor experience due to their close work with teenagers? Is the remainder of the museum experience simply “business as usual” (which, for Howard and most teens, would mean ‘boring’)?
A Challenge to Museums
So I’m going to wrap-up this post where I started, and let the conversation turn back on museums. As I mentioned, the link to Howard Hwang’s article came to me via a great colleague and friend, Dana Carlisle Kletcka, who directs education programs at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State (meaning that she is constantly struggling with issues that pertain to the slightly older teen audience). In her email to me, she summed up what many of us museum educators are thinking when we read Howard’s words and reflect back on our own efforts (or lack of effort) to listen to teenagers, open up opportunities for younger voices to be heard in our institutions, and allow for something interesting to happen as teens like Howard walk through the door. So I’ll give Dana the last word here, and I invite your thoughts and responses below:
“[Howard’s] words certainly made me wonder what museum staff and volunteers can do to respond to his very honest assessment of museums, which is present in a certain portion of the population whether we like it or not…. What I had hoped to do by passing along this article was to stimulate thinking as to how the role of educators in museums–volunteer or not–can mitigate and in fact change such superficial reactions to the museum. What if he had been in a group with a really good docent? What if he had engaged in conversation with the other nameless gallery visitors who challenged his “I could do that” thinking? What if he had been greeted at the door by a friendly adult? What if he had engaged in any type of art-making activity that showed him just how challenging it can be to make something with your hands in concert with your mind?
“I’m certainly not suggesting that we modify our practices to suit one surly 15-year-old. But it is worth pondering how the work that we do is a catalyst for changing such opinions and in fact igniting sparks of intellectual curiosity that will grow in time.”
UPDATE: I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article (actually written in 2001), his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. Here is the link to my “epilogue” to this post, which includes notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:“Epilogue – Why Museums Don’t Suck: Connecting with Howard Hwang”
Teen group drops by for a visit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.