Teaching with Contemporary Art

Looking Back on an Inspiring Art21 Educators Institute

James Rees creates a tape drawing during the opening TASK event

From July 6th through the 13th Art21 hosted our third annual Art21 Educators summer institute, which kicks off a year-long professional development initiative between the organization and 16 teachers from around the country. It’s not a stretch to say that each year gets better and this current group has us excited in many, many ways.

Since last year we have had the opportunity to tweak aspects of the summer institute with art education heavy hitters like Lois Hetland, but this year we added a real spark in Flossie Chua from Harvard’s Project Zero. Since participants this year were not strictly art educators, we were interested in having professionals with us who could directly address concerns and ideas related to interdisciplinary planning inspired by contemporary art. So, besides being a tireless and enthusiastic colleague (to put it mildly), Flossie was able to seamlessly fit into the flow of the institute and facilitate a variety of workshops with us.

The first days began with an Oliver Herring-inspired TASK event that allowed participants to meet one another on, literally, a different playing field. Rather than an “introduce-your-partner” activity and typical yawn-inducing kick-off activities, participants spent two hours taking a blank room and turning the place into a strange, colorful and playful installation (for more information on TASK click here). Afterward, they squeezed themselves into the Art21 offices for a quick tour and then made their way to New York University, who graciously hosted our workshop series.

One of the primary goals in the institute is to not only introduce participants to the possibilities of incorporating contemporary art in the classroom, but also to familiarize everyone with the wide range of Art21 resources available to teachers of all disciplines. By the end of the institute, all participants are asked to write a unit of study that incorporates learning from the week and to begin planning for teaching this unit in the coming school year. In the past, we (meaning Jessica Hamlin, Marc Mayer and myself) asked teachers to have big ideas and themes drive the unit planning. This year, we made a shift to big questions which made a significant difference.

Some of the questions driving units this year include:

  • How are relationships expressed through art?
  • How do artists deal with fact and fiction?
  • How can we use systems to create art?
  • How do we communicate our beliefs?
  • What is the potential of art in public spaces?
  • How do we edit memories?

Participants visit Oliver Herring in his Brooklyn studio

As participants worked on their units over the course of the week, they were treated to a studio visit with Oliver Herring and an artist talk given by Shahzia Sikander. We also spent an entire day at the Museum of Art and Design to consider how teachers can work directly with exhibitions in more meaningful ways. Even alumni from our first two years visited and shared their work over pizza and wine!

Art21 Educators looking into a model at the Museum of Art and Design

What excites me most about this current group of educators is the community that was formed, extremely quickly, in the eight days we were together. The willingness to share feedback, shape ideas and ask questions was more akin to a cohort that had been working together for months, not days. And it is scenarios like this that remind me of why I am so enthusiastic about facilitating Art21 Educators with my colleagues.  In August we will meet online for our first monthly meeting with the group and begin planning for sharing and developing our work together. To say I’m fired up about the potential for what these teachers are going to do with their classes is a gross understatement.

Next week I want to share some awesome quotes from our week together. Until then, let me just say THANK YOU to everyone who worked so hard to make this third institute a huge success…


  1. Stacey says:

    At the museum I work with in South Florida, we have a similar program; however, I insisted that tribal/primitive/ancient art become part of the teaching emphasis. Pre Columbian art, African art, and even American Indian art should be taught to educators.

    Tribal Art Hunter

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Stacey, Art21 Educators is an institute about contemporary art education, so we really do not focus on tribal and primitive art…. Sorry.

  3. Nancy Walkup says:

    Joe, I’ve asked James and Samantha to write articles for SchoolArts detailing how they use this experience with their respective students!

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Nancy, This is excellent. Thank you so much!

  5. Lois Hetland says:

    But, of course, there are contemporary Native American, African, and tribal artists, as well as folk artists and those who make “outsider art.” So what counts as Contemporary can be extended to lean toward some of those exhibitions. And, for example, Kerry James Marshall in his Art21 film segment goes to see ancient African sculptures and uses them as inspiration for his Contemporary comic works. So there are connections back into the forward!

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