Guest post by Jackie Terrassa
Three more weeks at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown.
Since 2010, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation has funded an annual museum education summer fellowship at the Clark. Five other scholars in art history—all curators or professors—are also here this summer as part of the Clark’s fellowship program. We get a private office with a view of trees, a few hours a week of support from a research assistant, access to the Clark’s fabulous library, plus an apartment that is larger than my own in New York City.
But what we really get are hills, ponds, green—lots of green. Time for pause and concentration. This is quite rare, especially in museum education. We have all become masters of the art of mixing life and work, 24/7, or rather crowding life with work. It’s an endurance test.
My focus here? To kick-start the formal planning year of what will hopefully become a major, national research study. This collaborative project has been taking shape since 2010 as an initiative of the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA), which I direct until my term ends in 2015; the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) recently joined us as partners. Four years ago, a group of museum educators decided to do something about a startling fact: that in spite of all of those field trips that happen every day at art museums nationwide, in spite of evaluation studies of specific programs at different institutions, we as a field don’t have any rigorous, broadly generalizable information about how people benefit from art museum experiences. And yet we in this community of the art world and museum education believe that young people should have the chance to physically go to art museums, spend time with great art as part of their school day, create or make sense of these works of art on their own terms, and also enjoy these experiences with their friends and families, outside of school. We also believe that while these experiences might be beneficial because they somehow improve test scores or help school retention, they are actually valuable because of deeper, more complex, more important, and more human reasons. But we have little to prove this. This disconnect between what we believe, what we do, and what we actually know makes us weak in the eyes of funders, school administrators, and government officials, especially in today’s evidence-based educational environment. It also means that, without a strong research basis, our own practice as educators suffers.
This led us to develop a research framework and conduct some initial focus groups with educators. Now, with funds from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, we are staring to work with a research firm to design a study that will address this question: What are the benefits to K-12 students of object-based experiences in art museums with original works of art as part of their regular school day?
Answering the question is quite difficult. We have to first devise criteria for a type of field trip that happens often enough at big and small art museums across the country, in rural and urban communities, and that is based on some understanding in the field about what constitutes good practice. We also have to define the grade range (elementary? high school?) and clarify our hypothesis about how students may benefit from these experiences, including social, affective, cognitive and creative dimensions. Finally, we have to establish criteria for selecting the museum sites and school districts where the study will take place and begin to develop the methodology of the study. And we have to fundraise for the study. To inform our thinking and contextualize the project, we are conducting a literature review that includes studies on field trips in general, impact studies about visual arts experiences, and texts on interpretive theory and museum education. And that is all before the study can begin.
Over the last few weeks, I have spent a good part of my time wrapping up the process of selecting our research partners as well as shaping the literature review–establishing a framework for what to include, identifying key texts and other relevant documents, and also reading and building an annotated bibliography. This work will continue over the next three week as I also begin planning in earnest with our research team.
This fellowship experience is far from a vacation. The truth is I am working just as hard, balancing Met upkeep hours and NAEA-AAMD research, plus a handful hours toggled between reviewing grant proposals for a foundation and securing contractors or talking to a real estate agent about property still owned, soon to be sold, in Chicago.
What is radically different is the outlook, the change of pace and place. Sometimes quiet, green, and alone is what one needs.
Jackie Terrassa is the Managing Museum Educator for Gallery and Studio Programs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and, until 2015, directs the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association. This summer she is the Kress Summer Fellow in Museum Education at the Clark Institute of Art. At the Met she leads a range of public programs that engage people of all ages and backgrounds with original works of art and that may also involve artists and art-making. She cut her teeth in art administration and programming at the Hyde Park Art center; after which she worked in various roles at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; served as Head of Planning at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; and led public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She has written and presented on art and art education, taught museum education, and served on advisory groups and panels, including those of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the Terra Foundation for the Arts, and the Joyce Foundation.