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A Picture Perfect Partnership

An innovative community partnership developed by the education department of the James A. Michener Art Museum came about through the discovery, during a 1994 summer meeting, that many of the museum’s docents were also active in an organization called Art Goes to School (ACTS).

With limited resources and staff, the museum has been searching for ways to achieve a school outreach program that would incorporate a classroom visit by an art interpreter in conjunction with visits to the museum. The goal was to reinforce the students’ museum experience, as well as familiarize them with the visual heritage of their community. Many local school children visit the museum through field trips, but their interaction with the art is brief Depending on teachers’ schedules and curricula, the experience cannot always be expanded on their return to the classroom.

The main challenge to the accomplishment of the program was the lack of available museum education staff or volunteers to travel to schools. The Michener Art Museum had (and still has) a dedicated and knowledgeable corps of docents who were giving many hours leading tours at the museum, but who were unable to commit additional time to an outreach project.

At the 1994 docent meeting, we discovered that many of the docents were former or current members of the local chapter of AGTS. This highly regarded art appreciation program reaches over 280,000 children in the Delaware Valley Region, has a portfolio of 1,500 art reproductions and over 700 volunteers. The program began 35 years ago under the auspices of the Junior League of Philadelphia. AGTS is welcomed by school districts as an adjunct to classroom learning.

According to the Evelyn Cavanaugh, co-chairperson of the Central Bucks Chapter of AGTS of the Delaware Valley, Inc., individual chapters exchange their portfolios each year for a new set of 20 reproductions ranging from cave paintings to Abstract Expressionism. By the beginning of the school year, the AGTS volunteer members have researched and discussed the 20 works they will take into the classrooms. AGTS volunteers use many of the same age-appropriate interactive teaching techniques employed by museum docents. They, however, are able to give an in-depth presentation in the 30-45 minutes spent with a class. Teaching tools depend on the age group. For example, first graders are presented with grab bags containing hands-on objects that refer to objects in the paintings; second and third graders receive handmade puzzle piece shapes with matching color and design to a segment on the art work. Higher grades investigate books with other works by the artist or a picture of the artist used for art history discussions.

Molli Conti, one of the docents doing double duty as a museum interpreter and an AGTS volunteer, points out the positive aspects of this “picture perfect” partnership. Many of the reproductions in the AGTS portfolio are of works in distant museums. With reproductions from a local institution, such as the Michener, a museum visit can easily be undertaken so that children can see the original work of art after the AGTS presentation. What excitement when they recognize the piece, amazed at the scale and the texture. The classroom interaction with the art object enhances the museum visit. Moreover, using a museum focusing on works by regional artists as a source, the outreach program fosters an awareness of the community’s artistic heritage and vitality.

AGTS chapters, of which there are now five, are delighted to be part of the outreach program. Along with the reproduction, the museum offers biographical information on the artist and commentary on the painting, allowing the group to have an additional piece without having to do extra research.

At the Michener, Assistant Curator of Education Phyllis Schwartz administrates the Museum/ AGTS partnership logistics, including telephone and mail contact with AGTS representatives, and orders reproductions that are conveniently sized to fit the AGTS portfolio. Each chapter that joins the outreach program gets the same reproduction in the first year. All groups get the same second year piece and so on.

Teachers consistently give high marks to the docent program at the Michener, and yet, the docents repeatedly comment that groups who have experienced an AGTS presentation and recognize the art piece are more verbal, readily sharing what they have learned and asking more questions. The James A. Michener Art Museum highly recommends investigating a partnership with community arts organizations willing to go into the schools. Such a “picture perfect” partnership extends a museum’s reach into the schools, allows children to see works of art, and encourages a follow-up visit to your institution. As an added benefit to the museum, arts organization volunteers often register to become museum docents in addition to their other work.

Susan Plumb is the curator of education for the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. To find out more about Art Goes To School chapters in your area, or to start an AGTS program, call Mrs. Janice Miller at (215) 248-5626.

Plumb, Susan. “A Picture Perfect Partnership,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 6-7.

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