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Mari Robles

Imagine encountering a group of forty adults using fabric pieces to create an improvised performance on your walk toward a museum entrance, or a father helping his daughter create a custom designed headdress while he playfully explains the ways women have been required to cover themselves through time and culture. Both of these experiences were designed by a teaching artists at Pérez Art Museum Miami and were inspired by exhibitions there: Project Gallery: Sheela Gowda and Firelei Báez: Bloodlines, respectively. Since arriving in Miami in 2012, I’ve noticed museums and cultural institutions are increasingly working with artists as teachers. Instead of looking to art historians, administrators, or curators, organizations are cultivating artists as educators as a way to help their visitors understand the creative process, ask critical questions, and experiment with modes of teaching and ways of learning. As an arts educator with a long-time interest in working with artists in this capacity, I’ve traced the history of artists teaching in museums. Here’s a brief look at this evolution, with a focus on three pioneering institutions: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Early Years
The 1870s in the United States was the decade of the museum building boom. Over a short period, several art institutions were established, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In the early decades of these encyclopedic institutions, art objects alone were seen as vehicles for public education. As museums started to experiment with and fine-tune their role, curators and museum administrators began giving gallery talks, tours, and lectures that provided opportunities for public discourse. The popularity and demand of these programs eventually evolved into departments whose sole responsibility was to take on these tasks and help the public “develop an understanding of art in order to increase their appreciation and enjoyment of it,” as stated in an early department of education charter at the Art Institute of Chicago. As early as 1910, artists began to take positions in museums and transform approaches to teaching and learning.

Democratizing the Museum
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the central tenet of the Met was to support artists, their study of the collection, and their use of its library. However, the Met had strict copyright regulations that restricted artists’ ability to create reproductions and sketching and note taking were entirely prohibited in the galleries. In 1905, these policies were relaxed to allow copyists to use the galleries; patrons with hand-held cameras were allowed to photograph the museum’s collection, and artists could draw and sketch in the galleries without written permission. These measures were proudly advertised as steps that increased the ease of use of the museum and laid the foundation for artist involvement in gallery teaching.

Drawing for Everyone
The department of museum instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago formed in 1913. As it grew in staff size, former students and teachers from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago transitioned into positions as gallery instructors. These trained artists brought to their teaching practice an intimate knowledge of the making of objects, and training in line, color, texture, and composition, which gave a distinct character to their instruction.
Dudley Crafts Watson was one of the most well-known artists—as well as a showman, travel companion, entrepreneur, and extension lecturer—of his time. He was active at the Art Institute of Chicago from the 1920s until the 1950s, pioneering a career path for teaching artists that combined artistic talent, technical training, and business savvy to reach art circles beyond the city. He believed art appreciation was best taught through entertainment and experimented with film, slides, and music to create memorable art experiences. His weekly workshop, Sketching for Non-Professionals, was popular with museum members and early advertisements for the course began with the encouraging phrase, “Mr. Watson believes everyone can draw.” By focusing on non-professional audiences, the museum clarified its goals from those of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. However, Watson borrowed many of the same structures and markers common at art schools in his curriculum.

Demonstration Lectures
In the 1930s, the Art Institute of Chicago introduced a new twist on the traditional forum style lecture called demonstration lectures—another model borrowed from arts training. These presentation-lectures featured speakers performing artistic techniques with the purpose of illuminating materials and artistic process. Part art history class, part studio training, the courses were adapted for audiences of all ages, including weekly lectures for Chicago public high school students. Lectures were offered on a variety of topics, including Sports and Action in Art and Tie Dye and Batik. A rapid rise in museum attendance in postwar America increased educational programming of this type at many US art institutions through the 1950s.

Claiming the Museum
The social upheaval of the 1960s pressured museums to question their role in society, both toward the populations they served and minority and ethnic groups they failed to engage. In the summer of 1968, the Metropolitan Museum of Art piloted an intensive class for “serious” high school students from marginalized communities in the city. The course aimed to improve technical skills and expose young people to the museum’s collection so that they might “claim this culture as their own right.” The main studio was outside the museum, but students were encouraged to spend time sketching and discussing artworks in the Met’s galleries. Artist instructors pushed their students to better understand the elements of design through personal inquiry and detailed assessment of composition, balance, texture, line, rhythm, and spatial relationships.

Community Building and Multiculturalism
An American Association of Museums (AAM) report titled New Century: A Report of the Commission of Museums for a New Century became a catalyst for institutions to reassess their values and priorities in the mid-1980s. The AAM commission urged museums to make the role of education clear and obvious, and the general public its primary audience. In response, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, launched a program that customized gallery and studio experiences aimed at bringing out the multicultural aspects of the museum’s collection that was then tailored for Boston communities. Artist educators encouraged multicultural youth to “feel increasingly at home” at the institution. The program was named Artful Adventures and, through its framework, artist educators visited community spaces, invited organizations to the museum, and led studio and instructional workshops.

Creativity and Interpretive Habits
Today, artists are helping museums rethink a range of meaningful audience experiences. Institutions in South Florida and across the country are employing teaching artists to help museum patrons practice skills and introduce interpretive habits, such as close looking, analyzing artworks, focusing attention, personalizing artworks, and understanding the creative process.
As head of education at PAMM, I work with a group of fifteen teaching artists who are helping visitors connect with arts and ideas at the museum and in Miami neighborhoods. These educators are also active members of Miami’s thriving arts community, an ecology we’re proud to be part of. Art museums and cultural organizations have the potential to be at the forefront of advocating for the arts in our communities. In South Florida, as museums redefine their roles within a dynamic cultural scene, increasingly they are looking to artists at all stages of their careers to develop and implement a program that attracts and engages new visitors, a participatory strategy for a new generation.

Mari Robles is deputy director of education and public programs at Pérez Art Museum Miami.