As K-12 schools around the country kick into high gear, students at one Minnesota school have a unique opportunity to display artworks to the entire neighborhood in an outdoor gallery. It’s called Connections Gallery, and it was conceived of and constructed by students at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, in collaboration with a neighborhood artist, Randy Walker, and Forecast Public Art. Both a sculpture and a display space for artwork, the public piece represents the possibilities of what K-12 public art curriculum can achieve.
The Roosevelt project is not an isolated case. A growing number of educators, artists, and arts administrators are discovering that public art can serve a wide variety of educational purposes. “There’s burgeoning interest in this intersection of public art and education,” says Jeff Poulin, the arts education program coordinator at Americans for the Arts, which recently hosted a discussion on the topic.
Poulin sees three primary trends in the ways that schools are incorporating public art into their curriculum. One approach, like Connections Gallery, focuses on creative placemaking on the school grounds themselves. At Roosevelt, the outdoor sculpture-cum-gallery serves as a gathering place and special point of interest for students, as well as for the general public.
Another approach involves taking schoolchildren out of the classroom and into the community to participate in public art projects. A good example is Raw Art Works (RAW), based in Lynn, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. It was formed in 1988 by Mary Flannery, an artist who worked extensively with inmates through art-based prison programs. In 1994 RAW Space was created to provide programs for underserved youth in grade, middle, and high school, with a focus on art therapy.
But K-12 public art curriculum isn’t solely focused on the art-making practice. A third approach involves using the study of public art as an object lesson with relevance to subjects ranging from math to history. That’s what Michele Cohen did when tapped to found New York City’s Public Art for Public Schools, arguably the nation’s first and only public art commissioning program dedicated to a public school system.
Few metro areas host as many public artworks as the nation’s art capital, New York City. In particular, NYC schools are sites of a vast collection that dates back a century or more and includes a number of notable New Deal works.
By the 1980s, however, these works were in dire need of preservation, and thus was born the Public Art for Public Schools program, which was designed to inventory and preserve existing artworks, and to commission new ones under the city’s recently instituted percent-for-art program. But Cohen says she quickly grasped another imperative: to assist teachers and students in the interpretation and incorporation of artworks into the learning experience of their schools.
“The whole concept was initially to protect existing art, which had never even been inventoried, and also to try to keep up with New York’s very aggressive construction program. We didn’t want contractors ripping apart the art collection,” says Cohen, who currently serves as an assistant curator at Washington D.C.’s Architect of the Capitol office. “But very early on I felt that this collection and the buildings themselves should be seen as an educational resource. One of my primary goals was to also try to develop those curriculum connections.” The outcome of this goal was a set of curriculum materials linking school artworks to related subject areas.
Over the past five years, Public Art for Public Schools commissions have more than doubled with increased school construction projects. There are now nearly 2000 permanent artworks in New York City’s school system located throughout the five boroughs. New initiatives have been implemented under the program’s current director, Tania Duvergne, working directly with principals, faculty and PTA organizations to foster greater awareness of the public art in schools and broaden its usage as a creative learning tool in all classrooms.
Currently, Poulin’s program at Americans for the Arts plans to launch a year-long initiative to provide a centralized data bank of curriculum, tools, and resources for artists and educators who want to incorporate public art in a school setting. “We’re in a position where we can see trends emerging and we want to make sure we’re providing the resources that people need,” he says. As a first step in the project, the organization sponsored a webinar dialogue and collected feedback from a variety of sources.
One of the key issues that he’s observed in practice-based curriculum is the divide between the notions of educational and artistic excellence. “The education community is really looking at the experience, and they’re less concerned, generally, with the outcome,” he says.
In one case, for example, a school created a public art mural project involving students and artists through an after-school learning program. “In a matter of months, the mural was taken down,” says Poulin. “The artists were appalled, but the educators were fine with that.” In practical reality, such misunderstandings are not so different from what can happen with any other public art project: “It’s a matter of managing the expectations and outcomes ahead of time,” Poulin says.
In spite of occasional faltering steps like this one, the relationship between public art and education is heading in the right direction, according to Kirstin Wiegmann, the program director at Forecast Public Art who partnered with Roosevelt High School on the Connections Gallery. It is featured as one of four in-depth educational case studies on Forecast’s website.
“It’s a real opportunity for public artists and kids alike,” she says. “When a teacher and an artist can collaborate on a curriculum that results in a piece of public art, it involves all sorts of educational touchpoints: civics, science, technology, engineering, even poetry, and of course art literacy—all of these subject areas are just naturally built into the public art process.”