Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching with Contemporary Art: An Introduction


This is my first-ever blog post.

There…. I said it. Everyone and their Mom has a blog somewhere and I guess it was bound to happen to me, too. Blogging, I suppose, allows for a kind of rolling perspective reel. It allows for not just multiple perspectives but even overlapping ones. At least that’s what I hope. It certainly should be more than just a “report” on contemporary art education.

Teaching with Contemporary Art (the title of this column) is about the things that happen when we share Art:21 artists with our students. It’s about what happens to their approaches making art, the way they talk about art, and the ways engagement can help shape and redefine the art they create. Whether students are being introduced to Elizabeth Murray combining painting and sculpture or to Mark Dion balancing sculpture and ecology, this blog will focus on why contemporary art in the classroom is important, the kinds of things that happen when it’s part of the curriculum, and ideas for approaching contemporary art from a variety of angles.

But why bother? Why incorporate new artists in your classes when things might be going well enough? Students are producing strong work, perhaps. They “know the elements and principles.” But how well are they able to articulate their thoughts about art being made today? What kinds of skills can we give them for engaging with art beyond our classrooms after they graduate? These are some of the questions I’d like to take on as we get started….

Artwork by Nicole Bencivengo, Nyack High School, 2007.


  1. Brian Counihan says:

    I am interested in how contemporary art in the classroom help high schooler engage their world and help them articulate their thoughts and permit them to take chances.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Artists such as Nancy Spero, Kiki Smith, Janine Antoni, Judy Pfaff and even Barry McGee certainly teach about taking chances with process and practice. Take a look at their pages on our site!

    I have also used the Art21 companion texts for teaching students to articulate their thoughts about art since it allows them to pause and digest the descriptions in short bits, rather than trying to “get it all” from a broadcast or dvd. Have you used the companion texts at all?

  3. Jay Taylor says:

    This is wonderful! Thanks for the invitation to keep growing in creative ways.

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thanks, Jay…
    Please tell others about the blog. Each installment comes out on Weds, but we can always use suggestions for topics and questions you’d like explored.

  5. Nate Morgan says:

    You make a terrific point about moving beyond the elements and principles of art & design. While I recognize the importance of the elements of art & design, I don’t find them to be what makes a work of art…well….Art. A Faith Ringgold painting is rich with pattern, pattern, in and of itself, is not what makes it important and valuable as a work of art. Joe made a great point at a recent Keynote Address he gave – he pointed out that an artist does not wake up and go into their studio to make a painting that demonstrates unity.

    I participated in a terrific workshop given by Laura Kaufman from the Aldrich Museum and her presentation recognized the need to expand our conversation that we have about the the Principles of Art and Design to include elements like Sound, Light, Time, and Motion (not Movement, but actual Motion).

    Utilizing contemporary artist/art as a way to grow our discussions with students is a great way to expand our conversations about Art. I look forward to the lively discussions that this blog will create

  6. I am very happy to see a blog about teaching with contemporary art. I have just finished my Master in Art Ed program (one year ago), and as a substitute teacher in for other art teachers, it is very difficult for me to see the examples of art on the classroom walls. It seems that older teachers (and please no one take offense) tend to rely on the old masters and common names like Hopper, Pollock, Mondrian, and Van Gogh to teach their lessons. The results? A lot of work that looks like Van Gogh. These images are used so often in publications and on television that elementary students are so eager to answer every question with “Starry Night!”; I think that I would rather have them puzzled over how to respond to Elizabeth Murray or Franz Kline. Even more disturbing is that some teachers (again, please do not take offense) do not even know most contemporary artists. I was in an interview in December, where I proposed possible photography lessons based on creating installations and photographing them. The artist for the inspiration was Nancy Skoglund, a very noteworthy contemporary artist who pushes many boundaries. The chair of the art department, and each of the other 5 people in the interview had no clue. I continued to name off many contemporary (but not super-new) artists, and all of the teachers drew a blank. I was shocked, and somewhat appalled. On a farewell note, I hope that this blog may continue and remain a sounding board for those who believe contemporary art has a place in the classroom.

  7. Margaret Pinto says:

    Crystal: I think that it is difficult for art teachers sometimes to know about contemporary art, many of the productions made available to art teachers, books, videos and magazines continue to talk about the same “old” artists again and again. I love to bring contemporary art into my classroom but I have to hunt for it. I think too that many administrators are completely unaware of more modern and sometimes really challenging artists. In some more rural districts they literally do not “get” any art past the 1960’s. Good luck.

  8. Margaret: I am glad that you are bringing contemporary art into the classroom, even if it means you must hunt for it. I realize that most publications are based on more historical artists and that it is hard to find visuals of more contemporary works. However, in my college program this just wasn’t acceptable. If I wanted to use a contemporary artist, then I spent 2 hours at Staples blowing up portions of the visual I needed and piecing it together like a puzzle. Granted I suppose an actual teacher just doesn’t have the time with developing lessons, board meetings, school activities and a home life/family to run. I have developed packets of visuals for students to reference in pairs as well. I have noticed that these methods worked during student teaching as well as in the workshops I have taught after graduating. Even if as teachers we do not use a main visual that is contemporary, why not let the students lead us to the contemporary art by giving them a homework assignment or spending a day in the computer lab searching for contemporary artists that relate to the lesson. Let them share their findings with the class, print out an image in color and post them on a board where all students can be influenced by them? Let the students begin to establish this importance.

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