Getting Personal With Art

Some people come to a museum feeling completely at home. But what about those who are a little intimidated, feeling as if they need to have a background in art history to have a great experience?

Bradley Galleries, Milwaukee Art Museum, April 2010

Some people come to a museum feeling completely at home. But what about those who are a little intimidated, feeling as if they need to have a background in art history to have a great experience? After experiencing a new way of looking at art with one of my colleagues, my head has been swirling with this question.

Amy Kirschke, the Museum’s Manager of Adult Programs, led us through the following activity in an education department meeting (yes, once a month we get to be guinea pigs for each others’ gallery activities—it is as awesome as it sounds). In the activity, each participant gets a prompt and individually finds a work of art in the Museum that addresses it. After about 10 minutes, the group comes back together and does a “gallery walk” together, quietly walking through the galleries until one member sees the piece they chose, at which point he or she explains why he or she chose that work. The key to this activity are the prompts—mine was: “Find a work of art that reminds you of your childhood.” Others had to find a work of art that “has something to say about grief or loss,” or a work that “embodies pure joy,” or even one that “your grandmother would have liked to have in her living room.”

The immediate takeaway was that I learned more about my coworkers in those forty-five minutes than I had in the six months I’d been working at the Museum. I learned that one coworker unearthed the key to her painting process when she saw Alex Katz’s White Lilies as a toddler. Another found frightening depth in Mark Rothko’s Green, Red, Blue. Later, as we debriefed the activity, we realized that we had also been looking at works of art in a totally different way—not for their historical context or for a teaching moment to be unearthed, but for the pure pleasure of recognizing a bit of ourselves in them.

Since then, I’ve used an adaptation of the activity, with teachers of diverse subjects during a workshop, with equal success. Here’s why I think this activity works:

  • The prompts are open-ended, but also very specific: You are looking for something in particular in the work of art, but there is no right or wrong answer.
  • There is a personal aspect to the prompts: You are finding a work of art that connects to you emotionally.
  • The work of art becomes “yours”: You take ownership of the work of art and the space when presenting it to the group.
  • The group has common ground: Participants’ experiences are threaded together in a safe and comfortable environment.

It’s not necessarily a replacement for the golden teaching moment. An important part of a museum educator’s goals in using art to teach and learn is to gain context and knowledge of our world and its past and present. As the School & Teacher Programs Manager, I’m still very conscious of where our collection can connect to disciplines of all kinds, not only visual art or history, but language arts and even science (lab reports on the properties of gold leaf, anyone?). But participating in and using this activity has made me realize that to really learn from art, and get that deeper teaching moment, we need to first shed the trepidation of being in a huge institution, or of not having a background in art history. Art can often make us feel uncomfortable, but the actual activity of spending time in a museum shouldn’t. This activity—disguised as a getting-to-know-you icebreaker—can give us the first nudge we need in the direction to make a museum and works of art within it our own, so that we can probe deeper into what the works have to offer us.

Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.

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