In the age of No Child Left Behind and its latest incarnation, the Common Core State Standards, arts education has slowly faded from prominence in public school curricula as districts struggle to meet education standards with shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes. Politicians questioning the economic value of non-STEM education often single out the fine arts, in particular, as a subject with no practical use — President Obama recently recommended that young people forego an art history degree in favor of jobs in skilled manufacturing.
Arts education is, however, very much alive at centers of higher learning like the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan Museum of Art provides the entire University and Ann Arbor community with access to a fluid collection of artwork from around the world while offering a wide variety of tours, performances, films and lectures aimed at creating a learning environment and benefitting the public.
In addition to its work in Ann Arbor, Ruth Slavin, UMMA’s deputy director for education, explained that the museum has, in recent years, expanded its services to reach learners of all ages and provide opportunities for kids to interact with art on a personal level.
“We’ve always had a healthy elementary school population that comes — we serve about 5,000 kids a year through that elementary school program,” Slavin said.
Aside from the area immediately surrounding the University, UMMA has expanded its educational outreach programs to include 22 different school districts and 16 independent schools from across Michigan. The proximity of local Washtenaw County schools allows for closer working relationships with the museum, however.
“We have a partnership with Ypsilanti High School, where each high school student is coming at least once this year, and 11th and 12th graders are coming twice. So we serve about 400 students through that program,” Slavin said.
Serving more than 5,000 students each year can be a challenge, especially for a small museum like UMMA. But, as Slavin explained, the museum’s small size allows it to provide unique experiences for its K-12 visitors.
“We don’t have any canned tours,” she said.
The museum works to tailor its tours to each group of students that comes through its doors and to provide an educational experience that goes beyond the limitations of a particular subject.
“With Ypsilanti High School this year, Pamela Reister, my colleague, really worked in depth to find out what the kids are studying and to make connections, not only between content and subject matter but also between skills that they might be learning,” Slavin said. “Let’s say it’s writing essays and making an argument — then we look at a work of art and pose a question in response to which you could form an argument. And then you look for evidence in the work of art and outside the work of art.”
Recent grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan have also helped UMMA expand the use of technology in its educational programming. Aside from purchasing a number of iPads to add digital media to gallery walks, the museum has been able to expand its online presence and provide remote access to its collections.
“We have a content management tool for the museum called ‘Many Voices,’ which allows teachers and students to explore the museum from their classroom,” Slavin said. “If kids come and do the ‘Art Rocks’ tour, they can then go back and the teacher can get the media that was shown on the iPad digitally through that interface.”
Although UMMA receives fewer school visits during the summer when classes aren’t in session, it continues to provide educational programming for K-12 students throughout the year. The museum’s summer programs provide an even more intimate and personalized experience for students.
“Usually the kids come for an extended period … and the idea is to make a vivid, fun, creative and exploratory experience for the kids, to not only boost their specific learning but also provide motivation for learning and excitement,” Slavin said. “It’s pretty special, you know, a lot of times they get to be in the museum when it’s not open to other people. It’s a pretty nice feeling, going from thinking ‘I don’t know if that’s a place for me,’ to thinking ‘Wow, I’ve got this special behind-the-scenes experience.’ ”
UMMA also partners with the School of Education to provide an immersive program for students learning English as a second language.
“There the kids wrote plays, wrote poems, did artworks, planned speeches and then there was a night where their parents came in addition to the student-teachers and teachers for a demonstration of their learning across many art forms,” Slavin said. “For some of those parents that was the first time that they had seen their kid in an English performance. I came that night just to see and I was kind of, just floating on a cloud, because I thought, you know, this is really what can happen when you have a partnership.”
At UMMA, arts education isn’t an end in itself. As the museum’s programs for ESL, English as a Second Language, students and its individually tailored tours demonstrate, the arts can be an important tool for helping students develop skills that will serve them in all of their academic subjects.
“If a kid is uncomfortable here and not excited about art and they just go home with facts, we don’t consider that a success,” Slavin said. “It’s all about motivation to learn more. It’s all about sparking curiosity, making them comfortable and moving their knowledge along a little bit.”
When education is limited to an endless stream of standardized tests and pre-prescribed curricula, it’s easy to lose the sense of wonder one feels when grappling with deep questions and the appreciation for the world possible through the acquisition of knowledge. Arts education at UMMA, as Slavin explained, is best viewed as a way to keep that sense of wonder alive.
“We try to look for the big issues and the big questions that art can raise that aren’t in a vacuum in the art world, but spread out to science, spread out to literature, politics, social life, history, because that’s what makes it interesting.”