Teaching with Contemporary Art

It Takes Two…. or Two Hundred


Production still from "Art:21" Season 4 segment featuring Mark Dion

Recently I saw the Mark Dion segment from Season 4 for the sixth or seventh time. I love the Dion segment. I was sharing the video with teachers in a small, informal workshop introducing ways of working with Art21 in the classroom. During the discussion, we talked about the fact that many, many contemporary artists rely on others, sometimes hundreds of others, in order to realize their work. On my way home that evening, I started thinking about the number of artists in Season 4 alone that rely on other people to make their work ready for public viewing and/or consumption. The total number? Fifteen out of the seventeen, at least, rely on others to bring their work full circle into the gallery, museum, or exhibition space.

I mention this fact because it came up in discussion more than once over the past week that the days of artists working alone in a studio, tortured with their ideas and feverishly slaving over canvas, are slowly coming to an end. Artists are collaborating more and more, and using teams to realize ideas that would be impossible to complete on their own.

In a few days, I plan to visit Allora and Calzadilla’s new exhibit/performance at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. The idea to cut a hole in a grand piano and have someone stand inside and play is one thing. Actually making it happen requires more than two artists with a beautiful idea. And without musicians (able to play the keyboard upside down, no less) performing on a regular schedule, their work would be a series of still photos and cheesy background music.

Students in art classes today are most often engaged with working on projects alone. Why do so many teachers resist collaboration? Is it solely the organizational challenges? We’re certainly aware of the benefits it offers to both students and ourselves. How can we overcome the fear of planning collaborative work to more realistically reflect contemporary practice?


  1. Ben Street says:

    Joe: really glad you brought this up. This is an issue that comes up a lot both in the museum and the classroom, and I think is a major sticking-point in many people’s enjoyment and appreciation of contemporary art.

    Speaking strictly from my perspective as a high school teacher of Art History (I can’t comment on fine art teaching), when considered from an historical perspective the notion of the solitary angsty artist of Hollywood legend is much more often the exception than the rule. To 17th century artists like Rubens the idea of NOT collaborating (with classical scholars, pigment-grinders, canvas-preparers, brush-makers, oil-purchasers, carpenters, and specialist painters of animals, flowers and landscapes) would be absurd. It would also be impossible. It’s only in the Romantic period and after (and helped by oil paint being sold pre-mixed in tubes in the late 1800s, among many other factors) – in other words, only in the last couple of hundred years – that the notion of collaboration was seen as incompatible with the idea of the creative artist. So what these artists are doing is actually much more traditional in terms of the broader history of art, even if their approaches seem unconventional.

    I do find that the whole outsourced-production idea has become a hook for skeptics to hang their doubts on, but the fact is that on a wider (and non-western-centric) scale, most of the best-known works of art could never have been made without at least some form of collaboration.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Ben, Thank you for adding to this post. It’s interesting that students and teachers often don’t consider the historical references you discuss, and it’s important to bring the whole idea full circle.

    I completely agree that the notion of handing over a set of instructions (or concept) for someone else to carry out is the most popular way for skeptics to put down contemporary art. Perhaps they need the same art history lesson?

    In the end, and again I’m thinking of Mark Dion’s work, doesn’t it all come down to the object, the result of the planning and work, no matter how many are involved? Also, as I asked in the original post, how can educators bring this concept of creating work WITH others into the classroom, beyond murals and other popular “group” projects?

  3. At the Nasher Museum at Duke we currently have two exhibitions that engage ideas of individuals and groups working together. The tradition of artists working with other people to realize their work is a long one, and contemporary artists continue to challenge and expand notions of collaboration.

    To accompany our school tours we created some post-visit activities that address collaboration.

    Recalling the works by Gabriel Kuri, Gustavo Artigas, Julieta Aranda and Vanessa Bell that students saw in the galleries, we offer the teacher additional examples- Yo Yo Ma and Christo and Jeanne Claude- to share with the class about collaboration and discuss the differences between working alone and with others as well as the varied tasks in works by Christo and Jeanne Claude. (Mark Dion would have offered another great example.)

    For the activity we created a series of questions about making a film, a project which requires a number of people to create. Teachers have the option of having students answer these questions on their own or with others, as well as the comparison of doing the activity on their own first, then with a small group and reflecting upon the similarities and differences in the process.

    A second activity was inspired by the Bloomsbury exhibition. Members of the Bloomsbury group often depicted or involved other members of the group in their paintings or writing. Students saw an example of in Vanessa Bell’s paintings of the writers Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. The activity, which can be done is pairs or groups, allows the student the choice about painting or writing about other students doing the opposite activity.

    While teachers are just receiving these materials, for educators particularly, contemporary artists who are redefining and expanding notions of collaboration offer works that should inspire and challenge us in our own attempts to create lessons that foster and allow students to explore collaboration in new ways.

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