Teaching with Contemporary Art

Slow Turn

El Anatsui, "Group Photo", 1987. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

On Sunday, the National Art Education Association wrapped up their  52nd annual conference here in New York City and more than ever I am encouraged by the state of affairs at NAEA. In just the past four years, as Art21 has brought contemporary artists such as Mark Bradford, Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Dion and most recently, Janine Antoni and Oliver Herring, the change is noticeable.

This year, as I looked through the 1,000 workshops and presentations offered in the conference catalogue (?!), I noticed a deliberate shift from talking about an art education that’s driven by techniques or “the” elements and principles of design, to discussions and presentations driven by big ideas and questions about the nature of art education itself. Like a gift from the heavens there seemed to be far less offerings that proclaimed to save our school day through the creation of unicorns made from pipe cleaners (chenille stems!) or the merits of step-by step Peter Max paintings (and how many exactly thought his keynote bombed? The feedback was horrible. I wasn’t there but perhaps it’s better that way).

Quite a few teachers I spoke with continued the dialogue around striking a balance between teaching basic skills with teaching about ideas and allowing these ideas to drive works of art on all levels, including elementary school. And being careful not to throw out the baby with the bottled water is something I feel strongly about. While I can’t in good conscience ignore teaching fundamental skills, such as how to represent forms on paper or how to mix colors to achieve desired effects, the days of asking students to do “the Andy Warhol project” or “the Georgia O’Keeffe project”, where mimicry of a style or way of making is the sole focus of the assignment, seems to very slowly be coming to a close.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is reason to celebrate.

Other popular topics that kept surfacing during the packed four days included:

  • How can teachers leave more room for process and place less emphasis on finished products?
  • How will art educators be evaluated under new assessment models?
  • Where do contemporary artists get ideas? How can students get ideas from very different sources (and not just Google)?
  • How can art education play a larger role in teaching students to be critical viewers?
  • Where are the opportunities in our curricula to slow students down, as well as ourselves, and get them to make more informed decisions about the important steps that lead to finished work?

Yes, it’s safe to say NAEA is making a slow turn. If you were there this past week, feel free to weigh in! What sparked your interest? What questions and ideas came up?


  1. Laura Thompson says:

    How do I make my projects memorable and meaningful? I have been pondering this for quite some time now. I am a middle school art teacher struggling to navigate through the media bombardment and constant visual assault our present culture has created for my students. I was relieved to see many conference offerings that were about “big ideas,” and that those seemed to be the ones drawing most of the attention.

    I can back from New York with many questions looming over me: Where do I begin? How do I convey to my students the power that art has to communicate ideas? How do my state standards play into all of this?

    As overwhelmed as I was with all these heavy questions, I also came back empowered. I can take this on…after all, I am a problem-solver, a visual communicator. I can lead be example. I will show my students the art that has affected me, talk to them about what matters most to them, get them to explore current issues and share their opinions and thoughts…And then challenge them to communicate those ideas through art, whatever form that may take for them.

    I took a lot from the conference, and I am better for it. Besides, I already know how to make unicorns out chenille stems.

  2. Debbie Greh says:

    Joe, I’m glad that you enjoyed the convention. With the help of so many in the art community in NY, I hoped to showcase the variety and depth of artists living in NYC. To that end, I had the opportunity to have several conversations regarding the curatorial function of museums, galleries and yes, even Art:21! That conversations extends to the classroom, of course. My students ask, in George Bush’s words: who are the deciders? We’re hopeful there are many deciders and that those who wield some power cast a wide net.
    A note
    “Peter Max paintings (and how many exactly thought his keynote bombed? The feedback was horrible. I wasn’t there but perhaps it’s better that way).”
    All due respect:you weren’t there and he wasn’t horrible. He gave a very fine speech about his work and about creativity. His viewpoint, his perspective, may not be yours, but it is nonetheless, of value.

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Debbie, I wanted to respond to your comment here on the blog because I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Peter Max’s speech wasn’t worthwhile to some audience members. It’s just that many who shared their thoughts with me didn’t enjoy it. I appreciate Max’s work and certainly wasn’t commenting on his ability to paint.

    I think this year’s convention was one of the best I have ever attended and very much appreciate your efforts to make it engaging and meaningful. Art21 consistently enjoys participating and providing NAEA with a variety of workshops and presentations.

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