My Kind of Town

Last month I had the honor of attending  the Teaching Institute in Museum Education (TIME) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ll get the TIME in a moment, but first, let’s talk about Chicago. The last time I visited Chicago (over ten years ago), I was an undergrad art student traveling north from the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama. The bus ride was approximately 14 hours; fortunately, art students are cool (almost always). After that much time and commitment, I was anticipating a pretty grand experience. I hadn’t been to New York City at that point, so Chicago didn’t even have to do that much to impress me. It didn’t. OK, the museums were good. No—they were great. A few days in the Art Institute, another day or two at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and ample hours of strolling through a city absolutely filled with public art (it’s like walking through a public art textbook from 1967), I came to appreciate the museum scene. But the rest of Chicago. . . it  just felt disparate and sleepy.

Fast forward to 2012, and I’m back in Chicago. This time, it’s for TIME. I was selected along with 19 museum education colleagues from art museums across the U.S. and Canada. I was eager to spend a full 5 days with Rika Burnham (Frick Collection) and Elliott Kai-Kee (J. Paul Getty Museum), both of whom have developed quite a following after several published articles, conference sessions, and now an excellent book entitled Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. The week’s agenda mirrored the book in many ways, with morning sessions led by Rika in the galleries and afternoon discussion sessions with Elliott on various topics and readings, including addressing our collective history as a field and the current challenges affecting museum education. The gallery sessions proved incredibly inspiring, as each day Rika led a ninety-minute session in front of one artwork. Just to spend that much time with one artwork is luxurious, but to also engage in active, group learning among such a varied and intellectual group . . . well, it hardly seemed like work. It was in the afternoons that we really deconstructed the experience and delved into the complex notion of INTERPRETATION. That’s where a lot of questions and contemplation came into the picture. Along the way, we also experimented with a refreshing approach to “gallery activities” that did not involve talking or any language at all.

TIME Class of 2012, Chicago

I appreciate all sorts of risk-taking when it comes to philosophy and teaching practice, and I felt lucky to be with a group that took risks together, including our esteemed leaders, Rika and Elliott. By the end of the week, I came away with a few good answers and many new questions. And frankly—that’s just the way I like it. As a final assignment in synthesizing our own experience at TIME, we were asked to flesh out a personal gallery teaching statement. I came up with a list of guiding concepts:

  • Encounter the art and follow its own power;
  •  Level the playing field (remove the hierarchy): bring together individual motivations, desires, interests, and resources;
  • Process the experience: converse, discuss, dialogue;
  • Synthesize the meaning

And finally, an equation: ART + VISITOR versus ART + VISITOR + EDUCATOR. Let’s make this mean something and mean something good. Where do visitors and educators “meet” when they stand before a work of art? How can we use the natural interactions between artworks and visitors to access a deeper connection between the two (ART + VISITOR) with our addition of a third (EDUCATOR)?

Outside the Art Institute of Chicago

Oh, and Chicago? It proved incredibly inspiring as well. Along with the additions made to the downtown area in the last ten years (Millennium Park and the like), I also ventured outside downtown (Perhaps the “L” has been extended in the last ten years too?) and found several cool neighborhoods worth visiting. It was almost like neighborhoods in New York City, with the diversity of a Williamsburg vs. an East Village vs. a Park Slope, etc.

You know—that’s not even fair. Chicago has its own thing going, and it’s definitely worth visiting, whether or not you’ve ever been to New York.

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