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Thinking Like an Artist, part 2 (and hold the Saltz)

Janine Antoni, "Tear" courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery

The Guggenheim Museum’s recent conference, Thinking Like an Artist: Creativity and Problem-Solving in the Classroom, turned out to be both an exciting and frustrating two days of panel-lectures and keynote addresses. As a matter of fact, the rollercoaster ride between inspiring moments and mind-numbing stretches of time almost gave me whiplash.

While Michael Hanchett Hanson and Ellen Lupton both gave keynotes on the first day that had us leaning forward in our seats to hear more about creativity’s developing roles in education and design, as well as seeing design as both a verb and a way of thinking, a series of panels through the late morning and early afternoon had everyone sitting for hours straight doing little but listening. Now I’m no museum-conference-event-organizer, but someone along the line had to have thought, “Hmmm…. I wonder if keeping everyone in their seats listening to people speak for hours on end is a good thing?” With no K-12 educators on any of the panels over the two days, this could have been an easy fix if it was spotted earlier. If audience members were allowed to become participants and actually talk for a few minutes about what was being discussed, I truly believe this conference could have gone a lot further than it did. While Q&A periods for a few minutes after many of the 90-minute panels may have been helpful for the four or five people that got to ask questions each time, it still left a few hundred of us staring at notebooks wanting to say something…. anything…. to make sense of it all. If there is one lesson we stress in the Art21 Educators summer institute and throughout our professional development work it is that learning must be active, not passive. If we were expected to learn about what was being presented, it would have made great sense to get the place involved.

Day two of the conference went a little like the first. Janine Antoni’s wonderful and engaging keynote during the morning session (and I’m really not saying this just because she’s featured on Art21) meticulously described two of her recent works, “Tear” and “Inhabit”, and led everyone through the inspiration and decision-making that produced them. She described being creative as being “limber” and connected her work as a dancer to her definition. And she not only described herself as an artist, but also as a teacher and learner, which scored points with many of us who kept wondering where all the classroom teachers were. After all, the conference title did conclude with “in the Classroom.”

Big questions that the conference raised, even if they weren’t entirely new, included:

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the two days was the embarrassing way it ended. Jerry Saltz is an art critic that I’ve read for many years. I enjoyed his work long before he moved to New York Magazine and was excited to hear his keynote at the conclusion of the conference. Instead of a speech (or even a slideshow) that addressed the theme of the conference, Jerry Saltz shared (performed?) a rambling, incoherent series of remarks that seemed to be put together in the taxicab ride to the museum. It’s a shame that he wasn’t able to pull his socks on earlier and join all of us for Janine Antoni’s keynote, because if he did he would have surely thrown out his plan to make his remarks a public rehearsal for an upcoming reality show venture. He perhaps spent five minutes on the theme of the conference, and in between, well, I can’t really tell you much except for the fact that he tried awfully hard to entertain. But it wasn’t entertaining. I kept wondering if people were laughing with him or at him. By the time he reached for a chair to sit down, over 45 minutes into doing his shtick, I decided it was time to head for the hills. As I made my way to the door, Jerry Saltz, the same Jerry Saltz I was excited to see just an hour earlier, was actually asking if anyone in the audience would like him to speak at future college commencement ceremonies. Seriously, I’m not making this up. The closing address turned out to be a closing mess.

While the Guggenheim gave us the opportunity and pleasure to hear speakers like Matt Williams (KnowledgeWorks Foundation), Yvette Russel (Harlem Children’s Zone) and Sarah Cunningham (NEA) talk about creativity and the future of education, I would certainly welcome a second round of this conference in order to go even further. Next time let’s all talk with one another more in order to make meaning and really think about what things look and sound like in the classroom…. and hold the Saltz.

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