The National Gallery Of Art Education Essay

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Since 1992, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) has offered a high school-based, multiple-visit program called the High School Seminar (Seminar). After several years of piloting, in which NGA staff experimented with different program designs, the Seminar reached its current format in 1997. The program now consists of ten, three-and-one-half-hour Saturday sessions at the NGA during the course of the academic year. Specific program objectives focus on content learning, critical analysis of art work, exposure to arts-related careers, and familiarity with museums. Each year, approximately 20 participants engage in activities in the galleries, classroom discussions, and studio experiences. Students keep a reflective journal, complete assignments each week, create a final art project, and present a slide lecture at the program's end.

The Institute for Learning Innovation (Institute), an Annapolis, MD-based, not-for-profit learning research and development organization, was contracted by the NGA to conduct a retrospective study of the Seminar's impacts on participants since 1997, when the program was launched in its current format. Based on the stated objectives of the program, the study assessed three main areas of impact:

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Learning in and through the arts, including specific content knowledge as well as more general attitudes and perspectives related to art;

Involvement in the arts, focusing mainly on academic and career choices; and

Personal and social growth, including self-confidence as well as social skills.

A mixed-methods approach was used to document the long-term impacts of the program. Written surveys were collected from 32 Seminar alumni, and in-depth interviews were conducted with 20 alumni. The sample was representative of the total program population over the last seven years.

Study results clearly demonstrate that participation in the NGA's Seminar changes young people's lives. Alumni articulated multiple ways that the Seminar positively contributed to their learning and identity development, even years after they had completed the program, and impacts reported were particularly strong in the area of learning in and through the arts. Given that program activities most strongly emphasize this kind of learning, one might argue that it is to be expected that outcomes would be strongest here. However, previous Institute research (Luke & Adams, 2000) demonstrates that such clear alignment between activities and outcomes in museum programs is actually a rarity. Too often, substantial disconnects exist between what museum programs set out to accomplish, what they actually do in terms of activities, and what their outcomes are. The strong alignment between the Seminar's objectives and outcomes is truly an exceptional finding, and NGA staff should be highly commended for developing and maintaining such a successful model program as the Seminar.

Key results of the retrospective study are highlighted below:

Learning in and through the Arts

The program significantly contributed to alumni's understanding of art content, and their ability to think critically about works of art and the world around them; alumni said that the program introduced them to new artists and styles and expanded their views of what art is. Some representative comments from Seminar alumni include:

[The Seminar] increased my awareness of contemporary art. Before the seminar, my comprehension and cognizance of art of the 20th century was nil. (1998-1999 participant)

[The Seminar] did make me more open to accepting different forms of art, for example Modern art. I used to not give it a second look; I thought it was ridiculous actually. But I now can look at it and appreciate it and understand what the artist was trying to convey. (2001-2002 participant)

As a person today, I walk into museums differently…I can see that the Seminar did have a great affect on me-in ways of viewing, critiquing, and knowing artwork. (2001-2002 participant)

Participation in the Seminar brought about changes in young people's attitudes and perspectives; not only did it open their eyes to diverse artistic styles and media, but it also shifted the way they look at other people and the world around them, making them more accepting of new ideas and issues. The following comments help illustrate this point:

As a result [of the Seminar], I am a person who values art and museum exhibits on a nuanced and profound level. (2000-2001 participant)

[The Seminar] encouraged me to question things but to also accept other people's views. (2003-2004 participant)

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It's not just art - you're learning about life. The different ways you look at art…you can look at only the ways you like, or you can look at things with more of an open mind and try to think of different interpretations and maybe accept multiple ones. And that's so relevant in the world. (2003-2004 participant)

Impacts on art-making skills were not as profound as other impacts; although some alumni felt the program influenced their willingness to experiment ("After the Seminar, I feel a lot more open in my art and able to try different things that I wouldn't have done before"), others said they were already taking studio courses at school that had influenced their art-making skills more than the Seminar did ("I had already taken some serious studio arts, which gave me a much stronger physical art foundation than the program did" - 2000-2001 participant).

Involvement in the Arts

Participation in the Seminar had positive, long-term impacts on young people's academic and career pursuits; almost all alumni in the study reported going on to take art or art history courses in college; even for those who had planned to pursue art in college or as a career, the program provided encouragement and support for their future path. Some representative comments include:

Since I was already interested in fine arts during high school, [the Seminar] didn't cause me to drastically change my interests - it enhanced and confirmed pursuing my interests further. (2000-2001 participant)

I would have [majored in art history] anyway, but the Seminar enhanced and solidified what I was doing. After the Seminar, I was like, "Yeah, I'm definitely doing this." (1998-1999 participant)

I'd thought about education before the Seminar, but not museum education. Now I realize that being involved in the art world is more glamorous and more fun [than school-based education.] And it's more intellectually fulfilling to be working on art history. (1997-1998 participant)

The Seminar also influenced alumni's personal interest and involvement in the arts, particularly related to museum literacy; most profound was the fact that many young people felt their Seminar experience helped them (and in some cases their family members) to feel more comfortable in the museum environment and more likely to attend museum exhibitions or gallery shows. The following comments help illustrate this trend:

[The Seminar] influenced that I go to museums, that I enjoy it more now, that I do it on my own. (2001-2002 participant)

Before the Seminar, I never felt comfortable in the museum…I felt like I didn't belong in the gallery. It was for serious people, for adults. But after the Seminar, I felt ownership. It was like it was okay to be there… The Seminar helped me see that the museum is free and for everyone, and it's okay to go and just have fun. (1997- 1998 participant)

I think I drew my parents in - for the first couple of visits, they had to take me there [to the National Gallery]. And then they would stay in the museum and look, and they learned to appreciate art more. (2003-2004 participant)

Personal and Social Growth

The Seminar played an important role in helping young people enhance their communication skills and develop greater self-confidence; alumni talked about how they had honed their public speaking skills through the program, which many felt had helped them with participating and presenting in college courses or in a professional work environment. Following are some representative quotes:

I always had to do public speaking in school and I always dreaded it. And I'm so much better at it now than I was…I think it has to do with the fact that I had to give a presentation at the National Gallery with the parents there, and really educated people. That's given me a lot of confidence. (2003-2004 participant)

[The public speaking experience in the Seminar] helps me now…I'm a business major going into law, and we do presentations and it helps me to remember that I spoke in front of all those people. So a class of 20…what am I worried about? Presentation skills are so important in whatever career you go into. (1999-2000 participant)

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The Seminar increased my confidence in speaking my mind about art and cultural issues with others, especially when I [went] to college. (1997-1998 participant)

Programmatic Feedback

Data suggested a combination of characteristics that when taken together help facilitate important life changes for young people:

Focus, referring to the strong alignment between program objectives, activities, and outcomes;

Content, referring to the multiple opportunities for exploring rich and diverse content and media;

Power of the museum and original works of art, referring to alumni's repeated mention of how special it was to be onsite at the National Gallery of Art, see behind the scenes, and get up close to "real" works of art;

Professionalism, referring to the high standards and expectations within the program; and

Intimate environment, referring to support and personal attention from staff.

The following comments help illustrate these trends:

The students were treated more as peers to the adults. Students' opinions were respected, and we were able to have intellectual debates and discussions…which was very different for me, because you can often get preached at in the school setting. (2003-2004 participant)

There's no better way to learn about an artist than when you're standing in front of their painting. The colors don't lie; the brushstrokes don't lie. Standing in front of it makes a bigger impact. (1999-2000 participant)

Overall, study results clearly demonstrate that the Seminar is an extremely successful program that continues to benefit participants in rich and diverse ways even years after they have graduated.