This is the sixth in a series of blog posts highlighting a variety of different positions within the Milwaukee Art Museum. Each day, hundreds of visitors enter the Milwaukee Art Museum to stare in awe at the incredible wealth of artworks within the museum’s collection. But what can too often go unrecognized is the equally awe-inspiring work of the many museum staff members, without whom the museum in its current state could not exist. “MAM Behind the Scenes” is a blog series written by Digital Learning intern Emma Fallone to showcase the wide range of positions that make up a museum, and to reveal just a few of the many people whose work makes the Milwaukee Art Museum a source of inspiration and education.
Can you give a brief description of your job, in thirty seconds or less?
I have a very far-reaching job. The great thing about my work is that in the course of one day, I can be working with kindergartners, adults, and everyone in-between. I can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in a heartbeat! I can be both serious and playful about art within a very short time, which I love. The range of my job responsibilities encompasses everything from strategic planning to teaching children. And, despite my many administrative tasks, I always try to maintain some creative projects, such as developing the education gallery or spending some time teaching tour groups, to make sure that I remain engaged and energized.
What would be a “typical day” in the life of the Director of Education?
Well, let’s see… what have I done so far today? I reviewed a family guide in the morning, and I met with our Information Technology department and some of our collaborators from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to talk about an app that we’re working on developing – which was very interesting, and takes me into technological realms about which I know little but am fascinated to learn! I will often touch base with Dan Keegan, our Director, to keep him up-to-date on the projects that we’re working on. Today, I actually just sent him this great feedback survey that we received from a family who had recently visited the museum, and the child wrote, “This was the best day ever. The very best day of my whole life!” – which was really sweet. But then there are logistical details to work on too, like trying to find storage options in preparation for the reinstallation, with all of the moving of materials which that will entail. And then, of course, there’s always work to be done on the budget. But overall, it’s a nice mix of work and fun!
What is your favorite part of your job?
The aspects that I really enjoy are those things that just make me lose track of time, when I’m truly focused and engaged. I have to say, the most fun I have is when I’m working with very talented people. We have a great staff here, and I’m lucky to get to work with many intelligent, fascinating people every day. Also, I’m in charge of producing the museum’s audio guides, and I really enjoy creating those, working with the curators. And finally, I love planning exhibits for the education galleries – it’s always a lot of fun.
What is one challenge that you have encountered in your work?
I hate cutting budgets. We have all of these awesome ideas, but at times they are just not the resources for them. I’ve learned that good ideas have staying power, so when resources are available we are ready with ideas.
Is there something unusual or unique about your position that most people may not know?
People may be surprised to realize that I spend so much time with a variety of age groups. That’s something that is more unusual about my position, and an aspect that I really enjoy. I can be teaching kindergartners one minute, and doing strategic planning with senior managers the next. The age range within my typical day’s worth of interactions is pretty large. Yet at the same time, I would like to think that my approach to the study of art remains the same no matter which ages I’m dealing with. I believe art is a catalyst for our thinking about ourselves and the world, so my focus is human development. Whether I’m mentoring staff or working with school groups, for me the fundamental element is always about how we learn and grow as people. That is the value that motivates the work that I do with art, trying to create different opportunities for that growth to happen, for people of all ages.
One of the projects that really taps into this drive is the Museum’s partnership with Kohl’s and the Education Center that we have created as a result. This relationship began with a grant that we received from Kohl’s in 2008, and this is now the sixth year that our grant has been renewed. The Kohl’s Education Center that we have been able to create with this funding has really changed the face of the Museum. Before the Kohl’s funding, we would typically have around twelve thousand children come to visit the museum with their families each year. Now, after the opening of the Education Center, we’re up to thirty thousand kids, not even including school groups! This is a tremendous increase, and something that I am very proud of.
Tell a bit about yourself – how did you come to have this position?
Even as a young child, I always had a goal of working in a museum. I’ve always believed that every object has a story, and I have been fascinated by the process of discovering and sharing those stories with others. I entered the workforce doing a variety of different things – I initially worked as a low-income housing coordinator for eight years. But then, looking at where my skills and interests lay, I realized that my interest in human development, my organizational ability, and my passion for art all came together in the field of museum education. So, from then on I began to explore the idea of working in a museum. I found a museum position – and I absolutely loved it. So, I went back to school, and then one thing led to another, and I found my way to the Milwaukee Art Museum. I’ve been in this field now for almost thirty years, and it’s been absolutely so much fun.
Why do you believe that art and art museums are important in today’s society?
Art has always been a catalyst for me to think about my own life, and to reflect upon the world that I live in – and I firmly believe that I am not alone in this. I want art to be available to people so that they too can have these same powerful experiences. So, I often think of an art museum as being similar to a library, in that when you enter there are so many possibilities that exist for you. And the fact that it’s a public institution is so crucial to this availability. The resources that we have as a culture should be freely available, to all people – and especially to young children. The process of connecting with art is so important, especially early on in a person’s development, so that children are able to pursue and develop this passion throughout the rest of their lives.
The experience of art changes based upon age – young people often approach artworks very differently. Yet it also changes based on the individual, and the situation. The mood that I’m in, the people that I’m with – all of these are constant influences on my own experience. So, I love having the opportunity to see art through the lens of people of all ages, with perspectives from the profound to the silly, because one of the best parts about the field of art is that it is big enough for all of it. Art can be approached from all angles and still have purpose.
Is there anything that you would like to tell future visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum?
Well, people often talk about how the most profound statements can come “from the mouths of babes,” and I’ve recently had an experience that really proves this. One of our youth programs is called The Art of Writing, where youth will come to the museum and write a personal narrative based upon a work of art which inspired them. At the end we ask them if they have any advice to give to next year’s students. And this one little first grader said, “I would tell them to just listen to the pictures.” I think that was the best advice for experiencing a museum.
What is your favorite work in the Museum’s collection?
The first one that comes to mind is our Cy Twombly. On one level, the work is about something which is real but looks abstract – it’s a painting that looks deceptively like a chalkboard. But this piece also speaks to me about great vulnerability and power. It’s something about the way that the little shape in the center is made. The canvas looks like a surface which has been constantly drawn upon and then erased, and what emerges at the end is this little image, shaky and uncertain but also with a very primal sense of power, surfacing amid the reworking. I just love the combination of these two disparate emotions. So, that painting in particular really speaks to me, on all levels – and perhaps in ways that Twombly never imagined.
Read more “MAM Behind the Scenes” features here.