Art Museum Educators and Intentionality

For many years now, I have attended the National Art Education Association annual conference, and for the same many years, I have attended the Museum Division pre-conference—a day-long event for art educators who teach from original works of art.  These days, I am usually one of the more senior people attending—but not only because I am getting older.  The conference is often about teaching in the galleries, where many art museum educators begin their career, and as they advance to department leaders and even museum directors, they attend other conferences that help them manage their new challenges.  This year’s focus was on leadership, so a good number of other seasoned folks were in attendance.  While still outnumbered, there was a decent mix of people spanning as many as 50 years, providing a rich exchange of conversation, and for me, reflection.

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attending such a focused conference provides a great opportunity to reflect on past years and changes that I have witnessed in the niche field of art museum education.  I have always felt a kinship with art museum educators; they are so passionate about their work (I am, too), they truly love what original works of art can do for people (the Cycladic sculpture at right is responsible for my very first deeply significant experience with a work of art when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 16), their stamina for intensely exploring ideas is commendable (and I am sometimes responsible for forcing the issue), and they seem to value intentionality (and I do, too).  In fact, during the pre-conference I heard the word “intentional” a lot—it seemed like everyone was talking about being intentional, which of course, delighted me.

In the preconference alone, I feel like I heard “intentional” or “intentionality” at least twice an hour—a whopping 16 times on that day alone, and because I attended museum division sessions, I heard it many times more throughout the larger conference.  So why were so many people talking about intentionality?   I’d like to think that my conference presentations over the last decade are starting to sink in (I have been discussing intentionality in every which way I can), but I suspect the somewhat recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education is mostly responsible—as it was titled, “Intentionality and the Twenty-First-Century Museum.”  I absolutely sense a shift taking place.  I think educators are starting to realize that often they try to do too much.  I realize sometime they are required to do too much—by their supervisors—but at least now, they are replying with a voice of reason as to why they may need to stop and take stock of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  They want their work to be purposeful and they want each and every action to support that purpose.

Simultaneously, they are also realizing that they just can’t continue doing more and more.  In order to manage their workloads (and we all know so many educators’ workloads are over the top), they are rethinking what they do and why they are doing it and this is where intentionality gains respect and momentum.  As with so many endeavors, the first step is recognizing that something needs to change.  I am so grateful to have experienced so many consecutive museum division pre-conferences; otherwise, I might not have witnessed this sea change.  Intentionality is hard, as our last post so noted.  I take a little bit of comfort in thinking that maybe RK&A can help by continuing to work with museums that want to become more intentional in their practice.  Maybe our blogging will help, or this article that I wrote in 2007.  I hope so—the future is looking brighter, thanks to art museum educators’ passion for wanting their work to make a difference!

Returning to Your Core / Radically Rethinking the Museum

In celebration of the NAEA conference a few weeks ago, we tweeted out two articles about art museums.  The first, “The Power of a Masterwork,” was written by Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Museum of Art (see the March/April 2013 edition of Museum also shared at http://www.portlandartmuseum.org/document.doc?id=93 ).  When I read this article for the first time, I found myself nodding along with the article and almost audibly exclaiming “Yes!” (despite being in the designated quiet car on my train) as I read the second to last paragraph in which Ferriso poignantly notes: “The need for resources and relevance will continue to influence and affect the central mission of the art museum.  Nonetheless, the success of Portland’s Masterworks Series reinforces the notion that the foundational mission to bring together viewers and great works of art.  Moving too far away from this core can indeed lead the art museum into territory that will ultimately make it irrelevant rather than relevant.”

Art at the Core - Claes Oldenburg's Apple Core

Art at the Core
Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core

Ferriso speaks directly to a concern of mine—that museums (not just art museums) are pandering to certain audiences in an effort to stay relevant rather than respecting the unique value that only they can offer to society and embracing that uniqueness wholeheartedly.  While these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, sometimes museums think they are.  I have seen evidence of pandering firsthand in our evaluation work.  For instance, a museum client may ask us to find out what visitors want from a museum exhibition or program.  This request is often met with a shudder on our part, as we explain that, as part of our philosophy of evaluation, we seek information that will help museum’s bridge the gap between their intentions and where visitors are (in terms of perceptions, knowledge, or skills).  Therefore, Ferriso’s suggestion that museums who move away from their core (which is what I see happening when a museum indulges an audience without regard to the museum’s intentions) are making themselves irrelevant resonated deeply with me.

A few days later, I came across another enthralling read.  That article was about Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate (see “Tate Director Chris Dercon: ‘Everything Can Change’.” at http://www.artnews.com/2013/02/27/tate-director-chris-derco/).  From even a quick scan of the article, it is obvious that Dercon is a dynamic personality.  For instance, the article’s title touts Dercon’s idea that “everything can be changed” and describes him “radically rethink[ing] the role of the museum in the 21st century.”  Despite mention that the Tate director’s “risk-taking has not always paid off,” the article left me feeling invigorated by the idea that art museums can and should turn over a new leaf and change the way they do things.

Can these seemingly contrasting ideas—turning to the core versus radically rethinking the museum co-exist?  Is the idea of turning to your core a stodgy and outdated idea that is too conservative?  On the other hand, is the idea that museums must radically rethink their role too progressive and detached from the museum’s purpose?

I came to wonder whether these ideas were as dichotomous as they sound.  That is, when Dercon talks about radically rethinking the museum, it seems he may be rethinking the impact that the museum can have on its visitors, for as the article states, Dercon has a “conviction that art is a vital force for civic good and an integral element of democracy.”  Yet, this radical rethinking is centered around the idea of mixing up art presentations and provoking visitors through art, such as by “confront[ing] Germans with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler” at Haus der Kunst—the museum at which Dercon served as director (prior to the Tate), which happened to be built by Hitler in 1933.  Therefore, while the lexicon used to describe these two directorships may seem different, the fact of the matter is that experiences with art are undeniably at the core of their institutions, a seemingly simple idea that is quite laudable in this day and age.