Museum Education and the Pedagogic Turn

by Michelle Millar Fisher , Summer 2011

Beginning in the 1970s and exploding in use recently, curators and artists have claimed the terms “discursive turn” and “pedagogy” to describe elements of their practice within museums. From Institutional Critique (Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser) through the loose associations of New Institutionalism (Charles Esche’s multifarious projects at Van Abbe, 16 Beaver) and Relational Aesthetics (Bourriaud, et al.), these contemporary artists and curators take the museum as subject and are frequently posed as radical practitioners. Concurrently, perhaps due to its increasing professionalization, the role of museum education has been largely excised from institutional and scholarly histories of contemporary art. Instead, a theoretical and philosophical focus on “pedagogy” linked to the artist and curator has been forged within critical art histories.

Our interest lies in neither curators, nor contemporary artists per se, but artist-educators. And not in the line of Joseph Beuys, but artists who work specifically with museum education, particularly the institutional gulf that lies between the curator, that traditional protector of collections, and the educator, the champion of the museum mission to educate the public, in all its heterogeneous forms. Thus, the abbreviated exploration here concerns a largely unwritten thread of museum education as artistic practice through two specific case studies from the 1970s, and reflections from current museum educators. Radical museum education practice of the last 40 years offers important precedents for the recent history of contemporary art, and a means to understand the current proliferation of the very terms “discursive practice” and “pedagogy” for artists, curators, and others within the museum. It perhaps also offers the beginnings of a bridge over this institutional gap between curator and educator in terms of history and theory, but also practically, in terms of my own position as an art historian and fledgling teacher.

In conversation and in print, artist and educator Pablo Helguera, Head of Public Programs at MoMA in New York, has been direct in his description of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress (2010). The exhibition, or “constructed situation,” began with a child asking approaching visitors, “What is progress?”, from which developed a conversation based on a series of further questions posed by successively older interlocutors. The work has been framed (in certain assessments of Sehgal’s ouevre) as the culmination of earlier gestures in the same Guggenheim museum space by artists such as Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. Helguera reframes Sehgal’s use of an open-ended question—“What is progress?”—less as radical practice and more of “an accident” that the artist’s method so closely mirrors museum education “inquiry” techniques. He raised questions that had been on the lips of many museum education staff, not least those at the Guggenheim who had been told their services wouldn’t be necessary for the run of Sehgal’s show because the artist declared their practice too close to his own. While the show played out to rave reviews, he wrote a nuanced assessment of it, asking: “Can you keep a secret? … the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program … but to say something is educational is the kiss of death in art.”

If we take the recent trend towards the terms “discursive practice,” “participation” and “pedagogy” as something of a given, then let’s take a short step back to propose a partial origin for their use. The ubiquity of these terms within contemporary art discourse today obscures, or more bluntly, deliberately ignores the precedents for this “radical practice,” which has actually been a foundational element of many museum education programs from the 1970s onward. Why this obstruction? Put simply, “education” doesn’t have the same institutional and contemporary kudos that the notion of the discursive turn has mined. Radical practice in museum education since the early 1970s is an ignored yet vitally important precursor to the way terms such as “discursivity” and “pedagogy” are used in the museum setting today. Two New York-based case studies from the 1970s to illustrate this argument: the Metropolitan Museum’s Arts Awareness program that existed from 1972-74 and operated out of the Met’s Education department; and Artists Teaching Inc., founded in 1975 as a small interdisciplinary artist-educator organization. Both were programs that exclusively employed artists—writers, poets, musicians, painters, new media artists and dancers—as museum educators. The link between these two groups is Rika Burnham. Trained under Merce Cunningham, Burnham taught dance as part of Arts Awareness, co-founded Artists Teaching Inc. and was also a staff museum educator at the Met from 1975–2008. Through her position as the current Head of Education at the Frick Collection, Burnham is also the connection between the ’70s and a new generation of artist-educators, such as Helguera, the winner of the inaugural International Award for Participatory Art.

These two programs highlight the often overlooked site of artists who work deliberately and consciously within museum education departments and whose practice, in direct contrast to Sehgal’s accidental (or perhaps just quietly deliberate) co-option, is immediately connected to their engagement within the museum education field.  Artist-educators are now routinely employed to connect the museum-as-mausoleum to the present, while the institution and the associated programming serve as a site for the artist’s contemporary practice within pedagogy. However, these artists who work within museum education are rarely, if ever, written about in terms of their status as artist or linked to contemporary critical histories of the museum. In many ways, Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc. represent the origin of the strategic employment of artists as educators by museums, and a deliberate use of the museum site by artists wishing to experiment with educational strategies as a radical component of their practice. In the early ’70s, both the artist and the institution were in pursuit of an active model of participation—using the museum as site—in the politically-charged cultural climate of that decade. In the ensuing thirty years, the use of artist-educator models has risen exponentially, resulting in different, wholly institutionalized and professionalized deployment of the artist-educator within formalized museum education departments. Museum curators now employ a parallel use of the term “pedagogy” in order to distinguish contemporary artists’ interest in education from the activities organized by museum education departments. MAs in Social Practice are now de riguer.

The beginning of the 1970s saw museum education departments in the U.S. beginning to cement their institutional presence, and, after the social upheavals of the 1960s, several political and governmental mandates towards the end of that decade positioned the early 1970s as a crucible for the experimentation and development of modern museum education practice. All of the Arts Awareness-era artist-educators that I’ve interviewed to date strongly identified themselves as “children of the era of May 68.” They saw themselves as artists who were enmeshed in the same ideological debates that were simultaneously being played out by artists showing (or protesting) in the institutions where they worked as educators—the Met, MoMA, the Whitney—and where some of the early foundations of “pedagogy as art practice” were laid. Brian O’Doherty (aka installation artist Patrick Ireland) articulated the contingent power of the institutional space in a series of three seminal articles for Artforum in 1976, later collected for publication under the title “Inside the White Cube.” Less well-known is the fact that he oversaw the NEA’s visual arts program (from 1969–74), and in particular the Program Grants for “interpretive exhibitions and community education programs” which were instituted the year he took up this position. It was in this context, funded by just such an NEA grant, that Phillip Yenawine, head of the newly formed High School Programs at the Met Museum, began Arts Awareness in 1972. It sought to provide a program of art appreciation and art-making using the museum as a classroom and artists as teachers for new, expanded audiences. O’Doherty’s politicized observation that the gallery space is not a neutral container but an historical construct was an idea shared by and reflected in the work of his contemporaries, artists such as Michael Asher and Daniel Buren, and the institutional gestures of contemporaneous artist-educators such as Yenawine as well.

Despite then-director Thomas Hoving’s strategic interest in community programming and outreach at the museum, there was much institutional resistance to the daily activities of the Arts Awareness program which took place in the galleries and were improvisational in nature. Contemporary video shows children of various social and race backgrounds moving—floatily, self-consciously, excitedly – through the European wings performing interpretive dance movements or carrying cameras and crayons. Curators complained that students moving around and clapping their hands in the gallery was “beneath their feet” and “a negation of all we stand for.” Security guards declared the program a constant source of annoyance, bemoaning cords strung between works of art, bongo drums and burning incense disrupting their ability to police the museum environment effectively.The program was short-lived, and ran for three years until Yenawine’s departure from the institution. He deliberately provoked the curatorial department with an anti-art historical or “zero-information” teaching methodology, and viewed artists as a tool in the subversion of existing institutional and museum education frameworks. Working within a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, within a major institution, and with the Met’s historic collection, it’s perhaps difficult to position the program as wholly subverting the conventions of the institution, especially since it existed inside it. The program was used as a political tool by museum management, an example of “look-aren’t-we-progressive” programming that employed the latest technologies using cameras and video. This, coupled with attempts at engineering audience diversification, equaled political capital in the eyes of the senior staff. However, the artist-educators saw it somewhat differently.

Arts Awareness was neither the first time high school students had entered the museum via the education department, nor the first art classes in a museum by any means, but as Rika Burnham, an artist-educator on the program, frames it, “There was an extremely radical edge to [Arts Awareness]. While Victor D’Amico at MoMA was part of the institution … Philip Yenawine took the attitude that The People were going to take over the fucking museum, an attitude of entitlement within the institution that would never happen today.” Burnham has a point. The new, institutionalized language of museum education is now a model that borders on the corporate. While the final report at the end of the first session of Arts Awareness suggested that the absence of learning outcomes, lesson plans, or a clear evaluation rubric for the program left much to be desired, the embryonic practices developed in this program have now become institutionalized as the mainstay of contemporary museum education experience. Almost any public or school tour in a U.S. museum today will have been influenced by the strategies developed in the early 1970s: inquiry-based, open-ended questioning, and VTS or “Visual Thinking Strategies.” VTS was formally codified by Philip Yenawine in conjunction with psychologist Abigail Hauser directly after he left the Met, and the technique limits the educator to three open-ended questions that construct a seemingly-improvised encounter between educator and visitor, the mainstay of Arts Awareness. This use of pedagogy to reinterpret contemporary collections or to “remodernize” iconic mid-century museums may sound familiar; Tino Seghal’s practice has many precedents.

Artists Teaching Inc. was born out of the ashes of Arts Awareness after it was disbanded post-Yenawine’s departure from the Met in 1974. It was founded by some of the artists who had worked at the Met on Yenawine’s program as an “independent not-for-profit arts organization devoted to collaboration in teaching and performing,” and its core artist-educator program activity was concentrated in the late 1970s. Then, as now, artists invited into the museum through the education department were firmly segregated from artists hosted by the curatorial department. Artists Teaching Inc. managed to blur these lines with some of their earliest post-Met programs, drop-in summertime education activities created for children and families. These took place during the first few years of ArtPark, an outdoor experimental art space for artists who were creating work outside of the studio. Artpark was founded in 1974 in upstate New York, with an artist’s residency program in honor of Robert Smithson who had died a year earlier. Participants included Alan Sonfist who produced a 25-foot-diameter clay basin for catching aerial seeds (Pool of Earth, 1975) and projects by several women artists in the 1970s including Nancy Holt. Burnham, who had worked on both Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc. programs, recalls that although she and her Artists Teaching Inc. cohort shared a closely aligned interest with these well-known artists in dissecting the phenomenology of viewed experience, “we definitely felt like second class citizens because … they were the great Minimalists of the ’70s, and we were doing a family workshop. We worked really hard to have our programs not be separate, not to be trivial but to take people to an edge where they hadn’t been before. I went back the next year to do a [non-education] dance piece. Then I was part of the real deal.”

Artists Teaching Inc. went on to do residencies and commissioned programs at MoMA, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, various east coast universities, and at the Brooklyn Museum. At the same time that Burnham co-taught on these projects, she also presented dance performances within museums under the umbrella of Artists Teaching Inc. Beginning with Museum Pieces I & II performed in 1975, much of this work was choreographed specifically for the museum site in a way that directly reflected the strategies she, Yenawine, and their colleagues had developed through Arts Awareness. The Burnham Dance Company regularly collaborated with Arts Awareness artists and transposed Arts Awareness exercises into their personal practice within many of the same museum sites they had taught in. Using this specifically educational vocabulary, they became part of the canon, however small, of education-inflected contemporary art of that time. With Artists Teaching Inc. they were no longer entering through the “back door” of the education department. Now they were, in Burnham’s words, “the real deal.”

To return to Helguera’s original conflation of contemporary artist (in the shape of Sehgal) and pedagogical gesture, it is clear that in the decades since the 1970s museum education and interpretation strategies have been paralleled, consciously adopted, parodied, or unwittingly employed by many artists, either as a way to describe power relations within the museum (critically or otherwise), or more recently as a “flat-lining” of exhibition programming as in the language of New Institutionalism. Writing on “Education Aesthetics” in the very recent Curating and the Educational Turn, Andrea Phillips describes contemporary educational practices employed by artists and curators. Predictably, she makes no reference to early museum education models, and makes a distinction between contemporary art and curatorial projects from museum education; for her, artists and curators employ “the discursive turn” and are “conceptually and politically interested in education,” a paradigm that is wholly separate from museum education departments, which are “traditional” and employ “artists whose work has been determined as community or school friendly.” While the reductive hierarchy she implies between artists commissioned by curators and artists commissioned by museum education departments is unsurprising, her description of “radical” practice throughout her essay bears ironic comparison time and again with that of the much earlier museum education models such as Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc.

Is it due to the increasing professionalization of museum education that it has been largely excised from institutional and scholarly histories of contemporary art? Recent artistic gestures – such as open-ended questioning of a museum visitor – reveal how notions of artistic status and hierarchy are constructed differently depending on their authorship and reception. These case studies of Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc. highlight an overlooked history that arguably belongs within the history of similar educational practices within critical histories of contemporary art.  These programs also initiate a conversation about how we construct these contemporary histories, and the hierarchies implied by the terms themselves.  When is an artist an “artist” in the museum? When is something “pedagogic” and when it is “educational”?  These taxonomies are often employed politically to denote differences in institutional point of origin, but also economic value, but remain blind to the similar nature of artists’ practices.

While the point is not to “rehabilitate” artists who work as museum educators, or suggest their work as worthy of its own monographic exhibition at the Guggenheim, one might recognize the points of contact that Helguera describes, and the need to bring them out of the historical and theoretical shadows. The artist-educators I interviewed for my project to date see their work as an intuitive, artistic, performative set of gestures. When they codified the foundations of modern museum education as we know it today, they viewed what they did as a specifically artistic practice located within the same currents as other artists of their generation working in New York who used the language of education. To ignore this overlapping history is to ignore a population of artists who belong to a history of radical institutional intervention that remains only partially written if it continues to bypass their presence. This is to the detriment of the critical context of socially engaged art today and those of us who have vested interest in reflecting on what “pedagogy” or “discursive practice” really means. There is a rich history of museum education practice that, to date, has never been made available for comparison or conjecture. The potential to circumvent such a fate lies in the hands of contemporary figures like Helguera who wield institutional power alongside personal practice, as well as with every museum department that invites artists into the institution. The art historian, too, bears the responsibility to reframe historical artistic practices to better understand those of the present. It is an interdisciplinary project, much like Arts Awareness and Artists Teaching Inc. themselves.