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Transforming Lives through Art

Don Bacigaiupi was one of a number of presenters at the National Docent Symposium in San Antonio in October, 2001, who gave docents different perspectives on museum education. The following is an excerpt from Dr. Bacigalupi’s keynote speech, which focused on a program developed for high school students, but has much to offer those striving to work with students who are just a bit younger.

The Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, is a non-collecting institution, so all its programs focus on an active series of changing exhibitions. It is located on the campus of an urban university, in a quadrant of Houston populated primarily by Latino and African-American families of limited means. And, the university campus is neighbor to many of the public schools attended by the children of these families.

Perhaps because Blaffer is a university museum in an explicitly educational setting, we were able to seamlessly integrate educational efforts and programs into the museum’s totality. There was never a notion that education programs or docent activities somehow came AFTER the fact — as add-on benefits to an exhibition or installation. Rather, they were integrated into the very core meaning and possibility of each exhibition.

One of the advantages of any museum set in an urban environment, and the Blaffer was no exception, is the diversity of its audiences, potential audiences, and volunteers. Houston afforded us docents of all backgrounds — so much so that we were eventually able to offer our tours to school groups in seven languages (including American Sign Language)! Also, being affiliated with a university, we were able to recruit and cultivate docents from the university community— an educated, interested group — and many of them graduate students themselves.

Our docents offered a 3-part tour program. First, they traveled to school classrooms in advance of each tour visit — offering a slide show to set the stage for the exhibition – students were about to see ( and making connections to classroom curriculum). Then, they led an interactive tour at the museum. Finally, they followed up with a hands-on art-making activity inspired by the exhibition.

We learned a great deal while refining this program. Importantly, we learned firsthand that individuals receive information in many different ways, and if we could provide stimulus to accommodate these multiple learning styles we’d reach the maximum of our audiences. So, the 3-part tour program offered opportunities for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

However, as anyone who has ever given a tour knows, there are always a few slackers in any group — those who fall behind, whose eyes and minds wander, and who are rarely reached even by our most extraordinarily skilled docents. We cannot always explain the reasons why we are able to reach some members of a school group and not others, but it happens. We decided, with the help of a pilot grant, to try to remedy this situation, to see if we could design an adjunct program in which we identified these “unreachable” students and a way to reach them.

We focused on our high school groups, where we saw the worst of the problem teenagers. It became pretty clear that many of these drifters were also those students whom their schools identified as “at risk.” Some came from difficult family situations, or from dangerous neighborhoods, or from gang backgrounds, or any number of other circumstances that left an imprint on their attention-level and behavior. Working with a core group of docents, our sole education staff member, and a number of teachers committed to the undertaking (these comprised a “steering committee” for the program), we devised a pilot program to reach these students.

We learned a lot about learning. We listened to our students at every step of the way, and they helped guide us through refinements that continued to improve the program immeasurably. And, just as we all try to be life-long learners, I believe that the best organizations are indeed those that are learning organizations themselves.

Here’s how our pilot was to work: We called it the Mentoring Arts Workshop. During the run of an exhibition at the museum (approximately 8-12 weeks) we would invite (with the assistance of our teacher friends) a dozen at-risk teens to come to the museum every day after school (Monday through Thursday). Working with the expert guidance of a few select docents, students explore every aspect of the artwork on view in depth — delving deeply into its history, social context, intellectual underpinnings, cultural significance, medium, and techniques of its creation.

Intermixed in this deeper learning would be a hands-on component, learning to work with like materials, similar techniques, mastering the art form itself. And finally, the culmination — with the background knowledge and inspiration of the art on exhibition, and the technical and material knowhow— our teens would create their own works of art, inspired by what they had learned and also by their own voices, perceptions, and expressions. These, then, would go on view in their own exhibition at the museum in an adjacent space, in time to be viewed in juxtaposition with the original exhibition that inspired them.

Now, here was the tall order: how to get the right mix of expertise to guide the students in all facets of this process. Sometimes we found every ounce we needed among our own docent ranks. We discovered that several of our docents were accomplished artists in their own right, and they were very willing and able to teach the practical portions of the program as well as the art historical. Other times, depending on the content of the workshop, we brought into the team a professional artist from the community to partner with our docents in the workshop setting.

Let me walk you through a typical Mentoring workshop. An exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s work (from the Museum of Modern Art, NYC) opens at our museum. The show focuses on LeWitt’s voluminous output of prints, including his extraordinary artist’s books. The students are selected, with the help of our advising teachers, from two neighborhood high schools, and they walk to the museum after school. (Later as the program expands to include schools further away, we arranged with City Schools for transportation, which is always a challenging issue.)

Docents take the opportunity to teach the workshop students the history of graphic media, looking at all manner and techniques of printmaking. They also look at the history of books and text printing. Working in partnership with the hired mentor artist, our docents introduced the students to all aspects of making multiples and about making books. They visit print studios, bookbinderies, and even a publishing house. They then set about creating their own books, which they decided to call “Dream Books.” (It soon became a tradition that the student groups devised their own theme for their works and their own exhibition tide.) Some interpreted the theme as describing their actual dreams or nightmares. Others decided to address their aspirations. Each student nuanced the notion of what a book could be, and created something original and personal. Many were quite stunning, including a book that took the form of a treasure chest, where the future hopes of the artist each popped out of the box as a symbol of a coming decade in her life.

Upon completion of their own works, and with the help of the docents-led team and student-artists, we mounted an exhibition of these works. We held an opening reception, inviting the students, their families, teachers, peers, and museum members, as well as the press. Let me tell you there is nothing more wonderful than seeing a 16-year-old, whom society has previously written off, standing before a live television news reporter talking about her future, and about how far she has come. All the kids absolutely glowed.

We knew we were really onto something when, some weeks later, the teachers started calling to say that these slackers, these former “troublemakers in the classroom” were now the leaders of the classroom. There was a huge bounce in their sense of pride and accomplishment — a sense of possibility many had not known before. Additionally, these students developed some useful skills in critical thinking and creative problem solving and their self-esteem soared.

For each forthcoming exhibition, our docent-led teams sketched a curriculum for an appropriate workshop specific to the exhibition. Later we worked through details of scheduling, transportation, fieldtrips, and material needs with the artists and sometimes the student participants themselves. Each exhibition required a different mix of docent skills, artistic mentoring, and off-site itineraries, as well as a huge amount of commitment and major leaps of faith.

For an exhibition focusing on video art, the students learned about the history of the medium, its use in contemporary art and film, and then all the technical aspects of video-making, including scripting, story-boarding, cinematography, equipment-handling, sound production, editing, and the all-important gala preview screening! Two of our grads from this program ended up with internships at the PBS television station in town, furthering their experience in television production. The program was not without flaws. We had a lot of listening and learning to do ourselves. One challenge was gaining the students’ enthusiasm and commitment to attending the workshop. They needed incentive. The promised exhibition of their own work was enough for some. Others came reluctantly and got hooked pretty quickly. Still others came and went.

We decided to draft a contract with the selected students, one that described exactly what we as an institution were willing to provide and what we expected of them. We signed and had them sign. We also had their parent, parents, or guardian sign. That worked. We also heard that the name “Mentoring Workshops” turned some students off. We pondered what else we could call such a program and delved into conversations with our students. It turned out that their problem with the name was that it emphasized the MENTORS, not them. They were right! So we floated a new name, focusing on their participation. We rechristened the Young Artists Apprenticeship Program in the 2″”^ year. Another success!

Next, we learned something we already knew: that one of the difficulties in recruiting was that the program seem like an extension of school hours after school ended. We needed help in promoting participation and vouching for the fun and value of the program. One of our early graduates took on this task. Misty Campbell, a 16-year-old African-American young lady (who very poignantly described for us the crack houses in her neighborhood that she passed every morning on her way to the bus) was among the book-making group. She took it upon herself to design a comic book, which was easily reproduced, and used photos of her group’s workshop and RAP music lyrics touting the joys, fun, and rewarding aspects of the program. Misty also volunteered to go with us to the schools and talk about her experiences. Soon we had more students applying than we could handle, and we eventually were able to expand the program’s frequency.

Finally, in the program’s second year, we secured ongoing, regular funding to ensure its continuation. Now, it is in its 6* year. And, in that 2″*^ year, the museum received an unsolicited grant to endow a scholarship program so that one student from each class could receive a funds toward higher education, with an additional fund in that student’s name going back to his or her high school.

The first award presentation ceremony was, as you might expect, a very special and emotional time for these young people and their families. The participants remembered being written off as slackers and troublemakers. And now, they were making out applications for college and thinking seriously about their futures. They were participating in creating futures for themselves as we had worked to transform lives through art. I believe that docents are indeed the key to any museum’s successes in its community. After all, docents are our front line — the human face and liaison with the art works. And in every way, every day— from the daily tours, to workshops that engage visitors for 8 weeks at a time, docents have the potential to change the individuals they meet. Docents can offer something very special, access to other worlds. They—YOU — are the agents of change that make our museums’ visions work. Docents have the power to transform lives through art!

Don Bacigalupi has been director Of the San Diego Museum of Art since 1999. Before that, he was director and chief curator at the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. He has also served as curator of contemporary art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, chief-curator for the Whatley Collection in Austin, Texas, and the director of galleries in New York and Massachusetts. In addition, Dr. Bacigalupi has taught art history at several universities.

Bacigalupi, Don. “Transforming Lives through Art,” The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 17-20.

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