Monday, May 14

The Long Goodbye

Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but it's been a rough few weeks. As many of you already know, my teaching position at the Getty Villa was among those eliminated in the recent massive cuts to the Education Department at the Getty Museum. You can read more about the cuts here. My last day at work is in early September. Until then, I will continue to work and help train the volunteers who will replace my fellow educators and I this fall. Thus begins what I'm calling "the long goodbye." While there is something to be said for quick goodbyes, I plan to use my last bittersweet weeks here to savor what I've enjoyed most about working at the Villa. Although I will miss my co-workers dearly, I will also miss this beautiful place at which I've had the privilege to work these past five years.

I could offer my own comments on the Getty's decision to make such deep cuts to its education staff, but I can do no better than F. Robert Sabol, President of the National Art Education Association. He wrote an excellent letter to the Editor of the L.A. Times (a letter that--so far as I can tell--has yet to be published by the newspaper) expressing his dismay at the cuts, specifically the choice to replace professional educators with volunteers. Here is his letter, in its entirety:

May 7, 2012

TO:  Editor, L.A. Times

FROM:  F. Robert Sabol, President, National Art Education Association

RE:  Museum Education Cuts at J. Paul Getty Museum

For many decades, the J. Paul Getty Museum has played a leading role in promoting object-based learning through high-quality museum education programs and the professionalization of gallery teaching. The recent decision by President and CEO of the Getty Trust James Cuno to eliminate 19 positions in the Museum Education Department represents a significant step backward as well as a lack of understanding of the public value that museum educators provide.

Mr. Cuno's statement, "The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else," is out of step with how the museum field and external environment are evolving. (The savings from the education cuts and staff reductions in other museum departments will make available $4.3 million for art acquisitions--a relatively small amount in today's art market.) Given today's competitive economic, cultural, educational, and leisure climate, many art museums are shifting from being solely "about something to being for somebody"--a concept first introduced by Stephen Weil, the late emeritus senior scholar at the Center of Museum Studies at the Smithsonian. While the collection and preservation of works of art are essential, for museums to remain viable in the future they must also demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities, which is precisely what museum educators are trained to do.

Art museum educators help students and adults see, experience, and understand works of art from a variety of time periods, cultures, and regions--and encourage lifelong learning in the arts. Through inquiry and dialogue, museum educators promote the development of creative and critical thinking skills and an appreciated of diverse cultures, ideas, and human experiences. To these important ends, numerous art museums employ professional gallery teaching staffs.

Many museums also rely on docents to lead tours and support the educational mission of the institution. Indeed, the thousands of men and women who volunteer their time provide an invaluable service for millions of visitors to American art museums each year.

However, professional museum educators possess extensive formal education, considerable professional training, and specialized knowledge; they are uniquely qualified to help the general public develop an understanding of the value of art and artists in society. They have a deep knowledge of individual works of art, artists, and art history as well as a solid grounding in education history, theory, and practice. Museum educators contribute important scholarship to the field and use that research to inform the daily work of museums. Indeed, Elliot Kai-Kee, Education Specialist in charge of gallery teaching at the Getty, recently authored with Rika Burnham, Head of Education at The Frick Collection, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, a pivotal book that The Art Newspaper calls, "Essential reading for anyone engaged in the interpretation of art."

When Mr. Cuno chose to assign the responsibility of gallery teaching to volunteers and mandated that such a program be up and running in a few short months, he undermined the Getty's educational mission and its longstanding commitment to visitor engagement and learning. It remains to be seen what vision emerges for the future of public education at the Getty. Works of art will always be central to the missions and purposes of museums, however, their continued relevance to individuals and contemporary society is dependent upon establishing meaningful connections with the people that view them, something that museum educators are uniquely trained to do.

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