Teaching with Contemporary Art

Need-to-Know (Basics)

James Turrell, "Afrum-Proto" 1996 Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

On a recent visit to one of Lois Hetland’s classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Lois and I were engaged in a discussion about what teachers of art educators need to know in order to do our work effectively. Specifically, where does contemporary art fit in and how do we make a commitment to teach about (and with) contemporary art? What kind of commitment are we willing to make? What do professors on the college-level need to know about contemporary art in order to teach new art educators?

Steve Locke, an artist, professor at Mass Art and colleague of Lois’ made the point that many people involved in art education programs may consistently go to conferences like those hosted by the National Art Education Association, but how often do the same people attend contemporary art fairs? He argued that the knowledge base and experience with contemporary art just isn’t there. Now maybe I’m being naive, but you would think there would be a huge commitment on the part of university art education programs, and even on the part of art education organizations, to make direct experience with contemporary art a main priority.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In classrooms from Seattle to the South Bronx teachers continue to rely on “Andy Warhol projects” or mimicry-driven assignments that have students copy the styles of “modern” artists (aka dead for a while but a little less dead than Donatello and da Vinci) in the name of teaching about contemporary art. But what many call “modern” art isn’t really contemporary art: Cubism isn’t contemporary art; Dadaism isn’t contemporary art; Expressionism isn’t contemporary art; Impressionism and Post-Impressionism aren’t contemporary art. All of these isms influence contemporary art in one way or another, but they aren’t stand-ins. The Mark Bradfords and Mark Dions of the world aren’t found here. The Cao Feis and Ann Hamiltons of the world aren’t found in these isms.

Artists living and working today need to have a place in art education programs, as well as learning about major works and artists of the past. We need those who teach teachers to have real experience engaging with art being made today, and not just through magazines or computer screens. While I won’t advocate throwing out learning (or teaching) about Vincent van Gogh or Georges Seurat, I do feel we need to place less emphasis on many of these artists and spend less time creating projects around them (and you know exactly who I’m talking about: the Stairway to Heaven artists- the artists you know are wonderful, but have just gotten way too much airplay). In exchange for that time students, teachers, and student teachers can spend more time in museums, galleries and public art spaces experiencing different kinds of work and asking bigger questions to inform new teaching. How does this work inform our practice? How can we learn about both history and our changing world through examining the work of contemporary artists? How can we better utilize contemporary art and artists when making sense of “modern” art, and strike a balance between the art we love, the art that’s popular, and the art that helps kids make meaning?

While I tend to ask a lot of questions in this column, often hoping it will inspire different kinds of conversation, allow me to make a few suggestions this time around:

  • Throw out projects and units that are simply about copying the style of one artist. Instead, juxtapose two or more artists and have students make art that’s inspired by what they see and the ideas behind the work. Getting inspiration to create work is a lot different than copying.
  • Reconsider the artists you teach with in your own curriculum. Whether you teach studio art, art education, photography, sculpture, digital media, etc., ask yourself if and where are there opportunities to incorporate contemporary art. Whose voices lay silent?
  • Spend time learning about contemporary art by making a commitment to “discover” a new artist each week, or at least each month. Subscribe to an art periodical that you don’t currently receive- even online. Visit the web sites of contemporary art museums in order to give life to the references and resources you currently use. Then, make plans to see more work in person.


  1. KW says:

    I am a photography student at the Herron School of Art Design in Indianapolis. This article is very accurate about the art “education” that I received as a high school student. It in some ways also described the experience that I have faced at Herron. During the first three semesters I was taking art history courses that basically covered “the greatest hits” of the art world (I did learn a great deal in those courses). The instructors of my studio classes are very encouraging when it comes to looking up the works of more current artists and becoming involved in the gallery scene.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    It’s so important for students and teachers, before considering college, to become familiar with contemporary artists, works and themes. It can tremendously influence the way an art student, or someone studying education, goes about their initial work and planning. I hope that more people will weigh in on what their high school experience was like. Thanks, KW!

  3. copal art says:

    Hi Joe
    Nice post. I also have interest in art work and art video’s.

    Thanks for the nice post.

  4. B Guttman says:

    I really like the suggestions you make in your post!

    When I was at university, I loved the lectures my school organise ocasionally. They would invite artists who would present their works, show slides, talk, answer questions. I loved those events.

    I would liek to add one more suggestion: Organizing personal meeting with local artists – inviting them to give lecture about their work or visiting their studio. This is something I plan to do in my school as well. I think it can give even more layers to art education and bringing inspiration into clasroom.


  5. Joe, I love this blog and as you know it’s very personal to me as I step into teaching art teachers at the college level. I think one of the issues with both older teachers and newer ones is a lack of access and interest. What I mean is, I’ve noticed older teachers in districts I’ve taught at who either don’t practice contemporary art themselves (or worse don’t practice any type of art any longer) and don’t feel they can connect to or have interest in contemporary art. And before working with college art teacher students I assumed this might be a generational thing, but I’m seeing some of the same exact disconnects with some, not all, but some of the twenty year olds as well. In many ways, I find that it’s odd that art which is so encompassing is taught (and taught to be taught) in such narrow and traditional ways. I think you have some great ideas for where to have teachers begin, but unfortunately the teachers who could most benefit from these ideas probably aren’t reading art21 blogs. I think Museums and galleries are a great start because they are usually so accessible for educators to visit, but beyond this I think the more educators that are making a shift to teach with contemporary arts by engaging as much as they can with local artists and using the very easily accessible internet, hopefully the more demand we will bring to art educator programs to recognize this 21st century teaching approach.

  6. LJ says:

    Great points. Art educators should check out a fabulous program at SAIC called TICA (Teacher Institute in Contemporary Art)…I agree that more contemporary art needs to be used in the classroom as well as the “biggies” of the twentieth century…it’s all about balance, I guess.


  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    TICA is a great program. I participated in 2006.

  8. Pingback: Teaching with Contemporary Art: The First Three Years | Art21 Blog

  9. njpottery says:

    I’d like to add that including artists who work not just on drawing, or painting, but other artists who use a wide range of other materials. For example, there is local artist who weaves using her own hand dyed wool, yarn and thread. She has even patented a weaving loom that is used to sew pieces of woven sections into shawls, jackets and hand bags. Genius! Having a local artist who works outside the “normal” realm also opens up more possibilities for our students to see ways in which art can be effective in our lives and community! Great post by the way!

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