Transformative Ideas

Art museum education across continents

The job of art museum educators is to connect critical ideas, content and opinions to the lives of their audience, writes Houghton Kinsman

We Shall Overcome project © Joao Alpuim. Courtesy of Rita GT

By Houghton Kinsman
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“To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”

—Joseph Beuys, Artforum December 1969

These days, some may say that to quote Beuys in relation to art education is somewhat passé, almost cliché. Perhaps, this is because over the years he seems to have become synonymous with the field. Undoubtedly, it is hard to think about art education and to not think about Beuys, his approach to pedagogy and his lasting influence. For, his quote continues to serve as a reminder of the fact that educating is as much a creative act as the artistic practices and processes that we teach about. Therefore, in this current moment, where many institutions are rethinking the approaches and possibilities of art pedagogy, one still palpably senses the Beuysian spirit. Excitingly, it seems to be a crucial time to be engaged in and with the field of art education. And, dare I say, even more so within the context of art museum education.

With the continuous critique of the twenty-first century – “starchitect” built – contemporary art museum as a place of leisure and entertainment, arguably there seems to be an even greater pressure and responsibility on the education departments to ensure the quality of a museum visit. For it is one thing to curate an educational exhibit and another to activate it. To turn it into a relatable experience, making it a worthwhile visit.

Tasked with ensuring the quality of the museum visit, the art museum educator needs to – fundamentally speaking – help connect critical ideas, content, and opinions to the lives and intensity of engagement of those in the audience. Particularly, because these connections both make the experience of viewing art seem familiar and simultaneously challenge the audience. Furthermore, there needs to be room for the viewer to digest, question, critique, and then reflect – whether verbally, textually or kinetically – upon what is presented. This process of examination, in itself creative, is what I believe helps develop the exhibition into a stimulus for transformative action.

Recently, I found myself contemplating this idea of transformative action in relation to the ongoing student protests in South Africa. Being based in Cape Town, I was gripped – as were many – by the #RhodesMustfall and #FeesMustFall movements, two campaigns respectively protesting for greater tertiary transformation and financial access in South Africa. I was occupied with what sort of role art museum education would or could play in such a climate. Amidst these thoughts, artist Rita GT approached me, to collaborate on a workshop that was to accompany her exhibition We Shall Overcome! at the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporenea (MNAC) in Lisbon, Portugal. It was the perfect opportunity to put into practice some of the ideas I had been mulling over in Cape Town. Therefore, what began as a conversation for Another Africa’s Next Chapter Series over two years ago would eventually work itself out into a blueprint for a teen workshop around activism, performance, politicized space, and resistance in the twenty-first century.

The goal of the program, a collaboration with former MoCA Miami Curator of Education Lark Keeler, was to examine – with the MNAC’s teen program – how ideology informs space and dictates our own actions within them. Thus, the entire workshop was meant to be self-reflexive and self-critical. The aim was to encourage students to reflect on, to critique, and discuss the way in which they were being taught within the workshop. So, Rita GT – who was to facilitate the workshop – would perform the role of the educator. She planned to shift through various ways of teaching based on the different classroom contexts, as a means for the teens to compare/contrast between the ways in which information is conveyed in different settings. For example, in a rigid classroom full of desks, she would assume a traditional, authoritarian, and didactic manner of instruction, whereas in the gallery space she would shift into the role of interlocutor, mediating an informal circle discussion.

Additionally, the curriculum was constructed to convey how artists have previously approached and critiqued the framing of knowledge and spatial politics. Artists like Andrea Fraser, Steven Cohen, Fred Wilson, and Rita GT herself were to be discussed, as each of them, in one way or another, have been/are concerned with these issues. Additionally, a brief discussion of Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish was included to demonstrate a theoretical critique of ideological control of action and space.

Finally, the activity phase of the workshop was designed to challenge the teens to put the ideas they would discuss throughout into play. This was also our opportunity to link these previous ideas into a contemporary context. Therefore, they’d be asked to create a 140-character Twitter story and subsequent performance, drawing on the use of social media in 21st century activist movements like the Arab Spring, #BlackLivesMatter or South Africa’s own #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns. And, this was meant to be the crux of the workshop: allowing the teens to practically implement these skills of discussion, critique, and critical thinking, as a way to demonstrate to them how they could inspire transformative action.

However, in spite of all preparations and with Rita GT having traveled to Lisbon to host the workshop, an unexpected weather disaster laid to rest months of collaboration and curriculum development. After a few weeks of bitterness and reflection, I came to realize that in a true educational sense, we learned a great deal from this supposed “failure.” In particular, both Keeler and Rita GT’s passion for transformative practice instilled in me a greater awareness of our impact as artists and educators. Even though the workshop never went ahead as hoped, the translation of my thoughts and theory into a tangible blueprint means that the experience has also been deeply transformative personally. I now feel stronger than ever that there is some merit in teaching about the ways we are educated in art museum education. It is because like Beuys said, “I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it. “

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Working between Cape Town and Sacramento, Houghton Kinsman contributes regularly to Highsnobiety, Art South Africa, Contemporary And, Another Africa and Dazed and Confused magazines. He has worked as the Assistant to the Curator of Education at the Museum of Contemporary Art Miami.