Cultural policy Fairs Features USA

All aboard the field trip to an art fair

Miami art education is an example to the rest of the US

Miami students contemplate Kehinde Wiley’s Sleep, 2008, at the Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Ever wondered why every year on Thursdays and Fridays during Art Basel Miami Beach there’s a line of yellow school buses parked on Washington Avenue by the convention centre? The reason is that, in Miami, arts education in high schools is flourishing, in stark contrast to many other cities in the US.

As in previous years, up to 500 high school students from ten schools (the schools change every year) are being bused in for a field trip to experience a super-sized art fair.

Miami-Dade is the nation’s fourth largest public school district and for years its schools, like many in the US, suffered from low attendance and high drop-out rates while students achieved poor grades. As well as being educationally deprived, the majority of young people come from families on low incomes: around 74% of the district’s 350,000 students are eligible for free and reduced price lunches. But last year its public schools received the Broad Prize, which is worth $1m. Awarded by the foundation set up by the billionaire Los Angeles-based art collectors Eli Broad and his wife Edythe, the Broad Prize recognises America’s most improved public school.

Eli Broad, who was at the fair this year says: “My wife, Edye, credits her school trips to the museum for her love of art—and she is the reason I became interested in art.” Broad recognises that schools have to make tough choices, and “applauds” those that do not cut the arts. “Arts education will be one of the priorities of The Broad, our new contemporary art museum currently under construction,” he says.

It has been quite a transformation, which only five years ago few would have thought possible. Crucial to turning around the performance of Miami-Dade’s schools was the election in 2008 of a Portuguese-born, former Miami teacher as superintendent. Attendance is good, drop-out rates are down and grades are rising across all ability levels thanks to Alberto Carvalho’s leadership. Although he had to cut budgets (administrators went but no teachers were made redundant) and increase fundraising to balance the books, he did it without sacrificing arts education, as many other public schools across America have done. In recognition, he was this year given a National Art Award by the government lobbying group Americans for the Arts.

The Miami model

Art Basel Miami Beach provides free tickets for students, while the local school district’s life skills division provides the educational know-how and groups’ guides. Linda Mangual, the head of the division, oversees the distribution of the tickets and which schools receive them. She also manages the district’s 11 museum educators who work year-round with the students and 22 partner institutions. The field trips to the fair are part of a wider programme that means teenagers get direct experience of art in Miami’s public museums and private collections. Among the venues they visit are the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Bass Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, the Rubell Family Collection and the De La Cruz Collection. “We are very atypical in the US,” says Mangual who says Carvalho’s support is crucial. When schools’ budgets are cut, arts education is typically the first thing to go, she says.

What do the students get out of a trip to the fair? Besides seeing an array of international contemporary art (parents sign a permission form that includes a warning about potentially challenging and controversial images), Mangual says that a guided field trip is also about “seeing vendors and buyers, witnessing how the fair is put together, meeting the art handlers”. It’s also about students discovering for themselves that they too could carve out a career in the visual arts.

The students also get to visit the nearby Bass Museum of Art and Public, the outdoor sculpture display in Collins Park, which for the first time will stay open beyond fair week. It is due to run until March 2014, which greatly enhances its educational potential, says Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the director of the museum. She says that while children and families are well catered for at the Bass, young people are harder to reach, although the outdoor sculpture will inevitably help draw more than might otherwise be the case.

“Our 32-year-old programme of museum studies has come full circle,” says Mangual, citing the artist Hernan Bas (Lehmann Maupin, K15; Victoria Miro, M9; Galerie Perrotin, G6) as an example of a Miami-Dade public school graduate who is now a successful artist with work in the Rubell Family Collection, which organised a retrospective in 2007 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami among other collections.

Another artist, Pablo Helguera, who also works as the director of adult and academic programmes at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (and creator of “Artoon”, published in The Art Newspaper) says the immediacy of seeing art in person can’t be overestimated. “I remember my first powerful experience with art, my grandmother took my to see the murals of Orozco and it impacted me so deeply, I wanted to become an artist from that,” he says. “Learning is social, and has a very experiential component, that is why museums are so critical for education.”

Katherine Hinds, the curator of the Margulies Collection, regularly welcomes groups of high school students to the Warehouse, Miami. The students, some of them from the city’s tougher neighbourhoods, often have their first immersive experience of international contemporary art. Hinds says that teenagers often relate first to video pieces, such as Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Movie, 2004, consisting of handmade hacked Nintendo game cartridges and Barry McGee’s Untitled, 2004, a truck laden with 12 television monitors. Marty Margulies purchased the later at Art Basel Miami Beach, partly because he knew when he saw it that “the kids would love it”. Hinds says that it is rewarding when “the cell phones come out and they start asking questions”. Best of all, she says: “They slow down.” The aim is to get them talking about art, letting them know that “however they respond to art is OK”, she says. She and Margulies prefer to take an “unorthodox”, softly softly approach to arts education, “We don’t go in for big curatorial statements,” she says.

Another leading Miami collector is stepping up to the plate to support its public schools. Dennis Scholl, who shows his collection in the space World Class Boxing, is also the vice president for arts at the Knight Foundation which, with the support of bankers UBS, provides six-week paid art internships in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District for 30 high school students. Called Arts for Learning, the programme aims to show that they could make a career in the arts.

Back to the chalkboard

Since the advent of America’s No Child Left Behind policy in 2001, which requires standardised testing for schools to receive federal funding, the priorities have been reading, writing and maths—the more readily testable subjects. One unintended consequence is that nearly four million elementary school students do not get any visual arts education, a government survey revealed last year. The arts suffer because “it’s not something that is tested every year,” says Anne Kraybill, the manager of school programmes at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum recently published the results of a study conducted with the University of Arkansas on the effect that school trips to the museum had on students. The results of the research showed that visits to the museum had the biggest impact on critical-thinking skills with minority students and those from poor or rural areas. “Part of what the report found is that we have to start measuring more things than just math and language,” Kraybill says, and the hope is that policy makers will take note. “You can’t argue with this data.”

As much as arts organisations are doing, however, it will never replace the need for regular, structured arts education in schools, experts agree. Cubiñá says that museums can take more risks and be experimental in ways that schools cannot. That said, a one-off visit to a museum, collection or art fair is no substitute for formal arts education. “I believe in constant and regular arts education that you take very week,” she says. “Museums should never be put in the position of being the sole provider of art education,” says Helguera. “The best way for museums to work is with teachers so they can help inform part of the curriculum,” says Dana Carlisle Kletchka, the curator of education at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. Helping educators by providing professional development and training is a growing trend at museums.

Last year at a talk at the fair, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, stressed the importance of museums going the extra mile to provide arts education in schools. Govan says: “We can connect with elementary and middle schools on multiple levels. By using our collection to help students learn to interpret and create art, we add a valuable and tangible layer to their curriculum and fill an important need.”

Lacma devotes around $1m a year to put teaching artists in classrooms to provide lessons at every grade connecting to social science, language arts and the visual arts and has partnerships with six elementary and two middle schools in Los Angeles’s public school district.

The goal is not to replace but to “complement and create a more robust system”, says Kristen Engebretsen, the arts education programme manager at Americans for the Arts. As budgets continue to be squeezed beyond Miami, and communities find different ways to make sure that children learn about culture, there will probably be more collaboration between schools, museums and local arts organisations. “It’s a much more complicated ecosystem,” Engebretsen says. “It’s probably the future of arts education.”

Who’s left behind?

Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act say reforms are needed because among its shortcomings it does not encourage enough students to go on to college or properly prepare them for the world of work. While the US government has made the arts a core academic subject, it does not require that states and/or school districts offer arts education programmes. The No Child Left Behind Act expired in 2007 and is currently authorised through a temporary provision. While many have called on Congress to reform it, only one reform bill has been introduced and made little progress. The law has been whittled away, however, with the Obama administration granting waivers to a number of states so that now 42 states have more flexibility than allowed by the Bush-era act, which was designed to make all students proficient in reading and maths.

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