Museums, as cultural institutions, are uniquely situated to define and mediate history in real time—and museum education departments, in particular, play a critical role in doing so. Every visitor to a museum brings an individual set of experiences and points of view, and finding ways to make art accessible and resonant to all of them is no easy task. Educators—traditionally one of the most diverse groups on museum payrolls—hold the keys to engaging different communities and facilitating difficult and necessary conservations. And at a moment when society as we’ve known it is shifting—with our country in crisis and protests calling for an end to persistent racism, police brutality, and white supremacy around the world—now is a time to bolster and reimagine the role of education within museums and the world beyond their walls.
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Instead, we see movement trending otherwise. In late March, a little more than two weeks after closing amid the coronavirus crisis, the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced it was terminating all contracts with freelance education staff due to looming economic uncertainty. Several museums soon followed suit and furloughed or laid off educators, citing “redundancies” in light of financial pressure. An open letter signed earlier this year by more than 1,500 museum workers from across the globe condemned these widespread terminations and highlighted the need to evaluate how museums are living up to our ideals, specifically the need to promote—not displace—the crucial role that educators play in public engagement, especially with vulnerable, non-elite populations most in need of connection and support in this time of crisis.
Are museums providing a safe place for community development? Are museums sharing diverse perspectives that encourage critical conversations? Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., issued a call to action in a panel discussion convened this past summer by the American Alliance of Museums: “It’s not enough to be a good museum.… The reality is what you really want is to change and make your community, make your region, make your country better. What I want to hear from museums in their vision statements is about the greater good.” In order to reach the communities we aim to serve in this unprecedented time, we must invest in our education services in the service of that greater good.
As vice president of Education and Public Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I’m called to reflect on the present moment of reckoning and purpose-finding in the museum world. Matters of representation are critical in creating a safe space for visitors and making museums more accessible to more communities. Museumgoers must be able to identify with the people who work in museums in order to picture themselves surviving and even thriving in the world that museums serve. But a Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey in 2018 revealed that 72 percent of staff at institutions affiliated with the Association of Art Museum Directors are white, with the remaining employees of color filling roles primarily in facilities, security, and human resources. By contrast, education teams tend to reflect much higher variety along racial, class, and gender lines—and it is clear that museums should invest in advancing such diversity even more.
As a child, I experienced the wonder and diversity of museums through my mom. She was introduced to museums and art collecting through her aunt Janet Carter, who was an early board member of the Studio Museum in Harlem. My great-uncle, a longtime security guard at LACMA, made sure my mom saw the landmark exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at his museum in 1978. And her exposure to art of all kinds, especially the work of African American artists, lit a lifelong spark that my mother passed on to her children.
As I was growing up, she was constantly dragging us to new exhibits all over L.A. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, my mother was giving me an invaluable gift that made art an accessible space and helped me develop my understanding of the world. My career so far is the realization of three generations of African Americans—from my mom’s aunt and uncle to me—who were moved by the power of museums.
In my current position at LACMA, I understand the challenges that museums are facing right now, but I cannot mask my distress at the trend of dismissing educators. Beyond the moral imperative to cultivate different kinds of understanding, a prominent body of evidence confirms the impact of work in the museum education field. Two prominent research studies, one by the National Art Education Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors in 2018 and another that studied field trips at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2012, validated the work that museums do with youth and highlight how important education opportunities in art are to student learning and skill development.
Both studies found that museum visits led to developments in critical thinking, tolerance, and empathy in students. I don’t think I could come up with a better set of qualities to be an engaged citizen of the world today. The conductor of the Crystal Bridges study—Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas—said of its results, “We also found that these benefits were much larger, in general, for students from rural areas or high-poverty schools, as well as minority students.” That emphasizes how truly crucial our roles as educators are in vulnerable communities. And as schools across the U.S. face budget cuts and the challenges of engaging students remotely, museums can support them to ensure that the benefits of art education are not lost.
At LACMA, we have prioritized education outreach for more than 30 years, from conducting classes at elementary schools to presenting exhibitions at local libraries. Our partnership with the Charles White Elementary magnet school, for example, has exposed students there to the importance of the visual arts over the years, and our robust mobile programs have served tens of thousands of children elsewhere around L.A.
As one of the largest art education providers in Southern California, we take our position seriously. At the beginning of June, we sent a survey to more than 10,000 teachers and received responses from 60 area school districts. We asked teachers to characterize their districts’ plans for schooling in the fall and also to predict what impacts Covid-19 would have on their students’ interaction with art education. Unsurprisingly, respondents expressed worry at the impact the budget cuts would have on already small arts education programs, with many saying that the prospect of any field trips in the 2020–21 school year—beyond the health concerns involved—would likely be out of the question due to funding issues. The teachers also cited the power of art education in helping their students process the coronavirus crisis and racial traumas—and asked for more support to continue providing their services. The call was loud and clear: the resources available to museum educators must be increased in the ever-evolving delivery of education in response to the tumultuous world we live in today.
LACMA is stepping up to provide just that. Under the leadership of Michael Govan, the museum’s director, we made the decision early in the pandemic to maintain all our staff members. My 20 full-time and nearly 60 part-time education colleagues are part of the fabric of LACMA, and I will continue to be an advocate for their role in shaping our mission moving forward. We are not talking about how to return to normal when “this is all over”; we’re working to reimagine how museum education can leverage and transform what the new normal looks like.
We started this work by investing in our education team members, extending our outreach services to reach more children and teachers, working to pilot and design remote and in-person events, and using our platform to highlight Black artists and antiracism resources. We have produced live virtual classes and prerecorded sessions, such as our self-directed “Art and Social Justice” course. We have created an extensive, publicly accessible library of digital teacher resources to supplement primary and secondary school curriculums, and have offered online training to teachers through our K-12 professional development program “Evenings for Educators.” We have also complemented digital offerings with the delivery of home art kits with materials for projects such as painting, collage, and mosaics, as well as guidance via video by one of LACMA’s education teams to ensure that communities without internet access can commune with art too. Through such programs, we have a unique opportunity to seed discussions at the family dinner table—the way they happened around my own.
We also want to provide people with a host of antiracism resources so they can do the critical work of self-education. In collaboration with several arts and community groups, we launched a series called “Racism Is a Public Health Issue” to explore the ways that racism creates chronic physical and emotional conditions detrimental to those who suffer them. During a series of virtual panel discussions featuring prominent public health experts and Black leaders in the arts, participants have examined the role of police brutality on Black communities. And we’re committed as well to showcasing riches of Black joy and Black art—beyond the scope of exhibitions—that comment directly on our present social moment and expose the public to diverse ideas. None of this would be possible without a robust team of committed educators.
The sustained energy we’ve seen across our nation in a time of crisis is inspiring, and we must take advantage of this period to rethink what education will look like in an actively antiracist and post-Covid-19 world. We have all thought a lot about essential workers—from healthcare providers to grocery store clerks—and how they’ve kept our society afloat despite the challenges of the pandemic. To navigate the difficulties of turning protests into lasting and meaningful change, cultivating dialogue and acceptance will be key. And those who help facilitate such actions—teachers and museum educators very much among them—must be treated as nothing less than essential.
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A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Education Is Not Expendable.”