Let’s Talk: Gallery Teaching and Conversations about Art

Paul Villinski, Passage, 2011, Salvaged wood, found aluminum cans, wire, soot, and steel, Courtesy of the artist and Morgan Lehman Gallery.

It’s been almost a year, but I still remember how nervous I was on that morning last September when I led my first gallery visit for Art Central, the Blanton’s multi-visit education program developed in partnership with AISD. It felt like the butterflies from Paul Villinski’s Passage had invaded my stomach, bringing nausea and anxiousness with them. I had already finished a year of my M.A. program in Art History by the day of my first tour, so I was fairly confident in my ability to effectively present my ideas to a group of my peers, but Art Central is a program for fourth and fifth grade school groups. I was acutely aware that speaking to a group of nine year olds about art would be a much different exercise than doing the same with a class of art history graduate students.

My mind raced with terrifying thoughts:

“What if they think the art is boring?”
“What if they think I’m boring?”
“What if I ruin museums for them for the rest of their lives?”

I felt so much pressure to be a teacher, but at the same time, I was not entirely sure what it really meant to be a teacher in the art museum.

Despite my fears that first morning, I successfully led three groups of fifteen students each through the Blanton. My tours were far from flawless, but I made it through them and realized that while I had a great deal to learn about gallery teaching, I also had the ability and the desire to do so.

Each new tour that I gave was a learning experience and soon I began to develop a teaching philosophy based on the idea that teaching should not mean lecturing or knowing all the answers. Ray Williams, Director of Education at the Blanton, had emphasized this idea from my first day on the job, but I needed to have some tours under my belt before I was able to completely grasp the importance of speaking with my tour groups, not to them.

Matias Duville,
Matias Duville, Espiritú guardián, 2008, acrylic on board, Susman Collection, 2008.

The value of this approach to art museum education hit home for me during a discussion about the painting Espiritu guardian [Guardian Spirit] by Matias Duville. The work is quite large (91 in. x 144 in.) and striking in its chaotic composition, but I am ashamed to admit that before Andrea [Saenz Williams], educator and head of school and teacher programs at the Blanton, pointed out its potential for a gallery lesson, I had never really considered it carefully. Thankfully, at Andrea’s suggestion, I used it in my next tour and the discussion was nothing short of exciting. Not only were the students fascinated by the curious scene before them, they were also incredibly observant, wanting to make sense of the seemingly discordant parts of the painting. In our discussion, I found that the students were able to see things in the painting that I had never noticed. In other words, I was the teacher, but I was also the student.

Conversations like this one have taught me what I did not fully understand on that first day of teaching: When people are invited to share their observations about a work of art, they encourage others, including myself, to consider a different perspective, and more often than not, taking a different point of view results in finding something new and exciting. Effective teaching in the art museum means facilitating the visitor’s experience, not directing it.

Sarah teaching in the galleries
Sarah teaching in the galleries

Now, ten months after my first gallery lesson, I’ve led over 75 tours and though I still have a tremendous amount to learn about art museum education, I do feel confident enough in what I’ve already learned to leave you with a suggestion. The next time you find yourself with some free time, I encourage you to go to the Blanton with a few companions, walk upstairs, and stand in front of Espiritu Guardian and pose the following prompt: “Let’s take a moment to look at this work. Think about what you see and, after a minute of observation, let’s talk.”

I have a feeling you’ll learn something.

– Sarah Abare

Sarah worked as Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Blanton during the 2013-2014 school year.  She graduated with her Master’s in Art History from the University of Texas in May 2014 and will be starting as the Administrative Coordinator for the Education Department at the Blanton next month.

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