Art School

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A foundation created by the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty wants to make a place for the arts in every discipline. And it aims to do it one teacher at a time.

Omaha, Nebraska, is famous for three things: the Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., and Warren Buffett, the celebrated financier. It is not considered a hotbed of culture. Yet this city of about 350,000 is also home to the Joslyn Art Museum, an Art Deco gem that contains a surprisingly strong encyclopedic collection of paintings, prints, and sculptures. Works by some of the world's most famous artists--including Titian, Edgar Degas, El Greco, Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, and Grant Wood--adorn the museum's stately galleries.

Every summer, about 150 teachers from across the Cornhusker State take over the Joslyn and plot a revolution. They come for a weeklong professional-development institute called Prairie Visions, part of a reform effort by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts to transform the way art is taught in America. Sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council, the institute is led by a team of professors from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who train the teachers in the theory and practice of discipline-based art education, or DBAE.

The approach takes its somewhat awkward name from the four disciplines of visual art: art-making, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics. Proponents believe all of these are crucial to a comprehensive arts education and should be integrated into the entire K-12 curriculum. This is radical thinking. In many public schools, particularly at the elementary level, "art education" amounts to little more than holiday- oriented arts-and-crafts projects that wind up as family presents or refrigerator decorations. But that's not enough, proponents of DBAE say. Art-making, they argue, is an essential part of any comprehensive art curriculum, but it shouldn't be the only one. An English teacher, they point out, would never teach literature simply by having his or her students write personal essays. Why, then, should art be taught solely through art-making?

Want To Go?
To learn more about Prairie Visions and the other Getty-sponsored regional professional-development institutes, contact: Getty Education Institute for the Arts, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 600, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1683; (310) 440-7315. The education institute's Web site at also contains a wealth of information about discipline-based arts education.

It's a hot Friday in mid-June, the last day of the 1998 institute. Inside the museum's gift shop, a few casually dressed teachers are stocking up on reproductions of paintings and prints. One of them, Richard Johnson, a 5th grade teacher from Valley, a town just west of Omaha, has bought 30 postcards, each of a different work of art. "I'll put these up in my classroom," he says.

Five days ago, many of the teachers attending the institute had never set foot inside an art museum. Indeed, some even considered art itself an elitist enterprise, certainly not something to be taught alongside reading and mathematics. But after one week of nonstop lectures, tours, workshops, and group discussions, they know the Joslyn and its vast holdings intimately, and they talk about art and art history like scholars, tossing off such highfalutin phrases as "post-rationalist eclecticism" and "stylistic analysis." Summer's just begun, but they're eager to return to their classrooms in the fall and put their new notions about art and education into practice.

"I've got so many ideas going through my mind," says Vicki Richman, a high school English teacher from Lexington, a farming community in the central part of the state.

First grade teacher Julie Myers, also from Lexington, says: "I was a Friday-afternoon art person at best. You know: Here's another crafty holiday art project--let's have some fun coloring and painting. And I'm sure I'll still do some of those. But the students will be getting more art instruction, and I plan to use art to teach other subjects."

It's been a long, hard week for Myers and the other teachers. The days begin at 8:30 a.m. and last well into the evening. Not that the teachers aren't having fun at the same time. The Prairie Visions staff members go out of their way to make it a pleasant experience. Still, the teachers are giving up a week of their summer vacation, and many have left families behind. Until last year, the institute lasted for two weeks, but the organizers decided that was simply too much to ask.

Lynn Lebsack, a young 4th grade teacher from Kearney, has come to Prairie Visions with all 16 of her colleagues at Kenwood Elementary School. She's 28 years old, recently married, and she misses her husband. "I wouldn't have come if my school wasn't here," she admits. "Still, I've enjoyed it. The awesome part has been getting to know the museum. I was telling my husband how much I love being in the museum. It's really cool."

Her school's art specialist, Jan Jones, has attended the institute for years and uses DBAE in her lessons. Four years ago, she and Kenwood's principal, Pat Zeimet, decided to get the whole school involved. They applied for a five-year, $550,000 grant from the Annenberg Challenge, the $500 million school-reform initiative founded by former TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg. And when the Annenberg money came through, Zeimet signed her entire staff up for Prairie Visions.

"On a personal level, it's been wonderful," the principal says. "We've really come together as a staff, and that's going to make a difference for our students."

Discipline-based art education can be traced to the ideas of educator Jerome Bruner, who in the 1960s argued that students, instead of simply learning facts, should be given "an understanding of the fundamental structure of whatever subject we choose to teach." Manuel Barkan, a professor at Ohio State University, applied Bruner's ideas to the field of art education. In 1962, Barkan predicted that "there is the very strong probability that in the next several years, we will witness renewed and energetic attention to the teaching of insightful observation of works of art. It will not come in the form of art appreciation. . . . Rather, this renewed energy will be apparent in the creative development of teaching materials and courses in art history and art criticism."

Barkan, as it turned out, was off by about 20 years. During the 1960s and 1970s, most K-12 teachers continued to teach art--if they taught it at all--in the traditional manner, emphasizing creative development through art-making.

Art used to be considered 'a release from the hard subjects,' says the Getty institute's founding director. Principals 'didn't think it had a cognitive payoff.'

Enter the J. Paul Getty Trust, the enormously wealthy foundation established by the late oil tycoon and art collector. For years, the trust operated a small museum at Getty's former villa in Malibu, California. In 1997, the private philanthropy attracted worldwide attention when it opened the Getty Center, a sprawling complex set on a Los Angeles hilltop. Visitors flock to the center's best-known feature, the J. Paul Getty Museum. But relatively few people are aware of the Getty Education Institute for the Arts. It was this entity, formerly called the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, that set out to redefine the way art is taught in America.

In 1982, the institute commissioned the RAND Corp. to study the state of art education. In most public schools, the researchers found, art was marginalized. "It was considered a rainy-day activity, or a Friday-afternoon activity, a release from the hard subjects," says Leilani Lattin Duke, founding director of the institute. "Superintendents and principals didn't think it had a cognitive payoff, so it wasn't part of the curriculum. Well, we believed that it did belong in the general educational curriculum, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it teaches kids how to think critically and analytically."

The RAND study led to the institute's first report, Beyond Creating: The Case for Art in America's Schools. Meanwhile, Duke and her colleagues established the Los Angeles Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, where the principles of discipline-based art education were developed and tested. "We were looking to see how practical it was to teach this more comprehensive approach to art," Duke says.

After testing DBAE in 21 public school districts in the Los Angeles area, the Getty embarked upon a major national reform effort in art education. Starting in 1987, the trust established seven regional institutes in California, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. (The Getty no longer supports the Minnesota institute.) The goal: to disseminate this new approach to art instruction one teacher at a time.

Every summer, hundreds of classroom teachers, art specialists, and principals attend the professional- development institutes, which are held in museums and universities. Some pay their own way, but most participate at the request of administrators who have embraced the tenets of DBAE. More than 12,000 teachers have taken part in the summer institutes since they were created.

In the classroom, DBAE can take many forms. Ethel Tracy, a 2nd grade teacher at the 92nd Street School in Los Angeles, uses work by black artists in a unit on the migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north during the 19th and 20th centuries. Art teacher Debra Barrett-Hayes of Florida State University High School in Tallahassee devised the lesson "Mona Lisa: What's Behind Her Smile?" in which she uses the famous painting as a launching point to study the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.

Art-making, too, is part of the DBAE program, but it is taught in conjunction with the other disciplines of art. For example, Evelyn Pender teaches printmaking to her students at Kate Sullivan Elementary School in Tallahassee, but first they study work by Japanese artists Hokusai and Utamaro and American artist Mary Cassatt.

"When you walk into a DBAE school," Duke says, "you are immediately bombarded visually with artwork all over the halls, and it's not artwork that looks alike. It's artwork that really shows that kids have a creative sense about it. You'll see different media. You'll see reproductions of artwork hanging in the classrooms. You'll see students writing about their work, and, in the older grades, you'll see students writing research papers about work by famous artists. You'll see teachers using art in interdisciplinary and integrated ways with other subjects, seamlessly, in reading lessons and spelling lessons and math lessons and science lessons."

After the workshops, the staff at Kenwood Elementary School rewrote its entire K-5 curriculum to integrate art into every subject area, from math and science to reading and spelling.

From the start, the new approach had its critics, mostly art specialists who thought that DBAE would take the fun out of art. "Opponents claimed that DBAE would 'intellectualize' art education and that students would spend all the scarce class hours available for art talking and writing about it instead of producing it," writes Stephen Mark Dobbs in Learning in and Through Art: A Guide to Discipline-Based Art Education. Some classroom teachers have long resisted teaching anything about art simply because they're art amateurs, says Marty Skomal, director of Prairie Visions. "They say, 'I can't draw. If I'm going to teach an art class, I have to hold something up to these kids that they're going to appreciate. And I can't do a watercolor or a sketch or a charcoal or whatever.' "

But DBAE now enjoys widespread popularity, particularly in the states with Getty-sponsored regional institutes. In Nebraska, more than 1,300 teachers have attended the Omaha institute since it began in 1988. As a result, discipline-based art education has taken hold in many schools throughout the state.

Art education, it seems, is an idea whose time has come. At least 35 states have adopted curriculum frameworks that include comprehensive arts instruction. In 1997, the Annenberg Challenge, which has embraced DBAE as part of its overall reform strategy, pledged $15 million to help implement the approach in 36 "Arts Partner" schools. (Kenwood Elementary School in Kearney is one of them.) Faculty members from the 36 schools are trained in DBAE at one of the six Getty regional institutes.

"We're a long way from claiming victory," says Duke, who recently retired after 17 years with the Getty. "But we're also a long way from where we were in this field 15 years ago."

If the results of a recent study are any indication, there's much work still to be done. In November, the U.S. Department of Education released the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1997 Arts Report Card, the country's first extensive test of arts education in 20 years. More than 6,000 8th graders at 268 public and private schools around the country were tested in music, theater, and visual arts. The results of the assessment, which was partially funded by the Getty, were not good.

For example, students were asked to interpret "Pittsburgh Memories," a collage by artist Romare Bearden. Most students tested could not adequately answer questions about the work, and just 6 percent of the stu- dents could create "effective" or "adequate" collages of their own.

"Unfortunately," Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said at a press conference marking the release of the report card, "this study clearly shows that most students are not now engaged in meaningful, sustained instruction or production of the arts, and that's a troubling fact."

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who has long stressed the importance of national standards in the arts, added, "As a nation, we are falling far short in the opportunities we provide to our students for quality arts instruction. This neglect of arts education is simply inexcusable."

Seven teachers are seated around a table in the Joslyn's spectacular fountain court, near the museum's main entrance. Led by faculty member Arlen Meyer, an art specialist from St. Johns Lutheran School in Seward, the teachers are engaged in a typical Prairie Visions exercise: selecting art for a hypothetical school.

Here's the scenario: A group dubbed the National Endowment for Good Active Reflective Thought, or NEGART, has awarded the school $10,000 to purchase great works of art. The field has been narrowed to 10 works, including "Woman With a Cat" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "The Library" by Jacob Lawrence, "Field" by Vincent van Gogh, "Young Corn" by Grant Wood, and "Sioux Sun Dance" by Oscar Howe. But van Gogh's painting alone costs $10,000--such a deal!--so the teachers must make some critical decisions about what to choose.

"I think we should pick something that will stretch the children's imaginations," says one participant.

"I want something that will raise a particular issue," offers another.

"I think it would be important to have something historical in nature," says a third teacher. "And I would want it to be connected to the curriculum."

Critics of the new approach argue that it will take the fun out of art.

Meyer, a Prairie Visions veteran wearing blue jeans and a striped T-shirt, says, "I suspect we're never going to get one work to do all of this." Then he adds his own criteria: "As an art teacher, I would like something that can be clearly defined as expressive or formal because I would like for my students to do a critical analysis of the work in some way."

After about 30 minutes of high-level discussion, the teachers reach an agreement. They want art with "broad appeal." They want something the kids can "connect" with. And they want at least one work by a regional artist. So the teachers reject the Renoir and the van Gogh in favor of three lesser-known works: Wood's "Young Corn" ($5,000), Howe's "Sioux Sun Dance" ($2,000), and Lawrence's "The Library" ($3,000).

Teachers are nothing if not practical; why spend $10,000 for one painting when you can get three for the same price?

B efore he first came to Prairie Visions in the summer of 1997, high school history teacher Dave Richard knew nothing--"nothing at all," he emphasizes--about art. "I'd never been to a museum or a gallery before," he says. "I was really non-art."

Two years ago, the Annenberg Challenge gave Richard's high school in Columbus a grant to incorporate DBAE into the curriculum. Jean Detlefsen, the school's art specialist, asked Richard and other Columbus teachers to attend Prairie Visions.

"I came in with a bit of a negative attitude," Richard admits. "I thought, I've got all this stuff to teach--how am I going to put art in there? But I came to realize that art is a reflection of culture, so if you're going to teach history and culture, then art's just another vehicle to get that across. Very simply, I thought, Hey, I can use this. But Prairie Visions has shown me how to use it."

Last spring, Getty officials asked Richard to return to the institute this summer as a sort of junior faculty member. "I'm finding the review is really good," he says. "And I'm learning a lot of new things. It changes from year to year."

A 34-year-old Iowa native, Richard is now something of an art buff, and he visits museums whenever he can. "I look at things more critically now," he says. "It's not just a five-second glance and then I move on. I try to look into the meaning of the work. I still have a hard time with a lot of abstract art--a painting still has to look like something for me to enjoy it. But one thing that Prairie Visions has taught me is that just because I don't enjoy a work of art doesn't take away from its artistic quality."

Richard speaks fondly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where he came across "Washington Crossing the Delaware," by Emanuel Leutze. What struck him most about the painting was its massive dimensions, "something like 24-feet long by 11-feet high." It's the kind of detail that he might never have gleaned from the tiny black-and-white reproductions typical of textbooks.

"Now," Richard says, "when I use the painting in my American history class, I tell my students how big it is, and I ask them if that puts a different perspective on the subject. Obviously, it's a depiction of a historical event, but why the size? What does it mean? And that gets them thinking about the importance of the American Revolution and the importance of George Washington as the most famous national hero of the time, and maybe of our entire history."

When the 1998 Prairie Visions institute concluded, the faculty members of Kenwood Elementary School drove home to Kearney, took a few days off, and then went back to work. "We spent a week rewriting the curriculum," says principal Pat Zeimet.

Now, three months into the school year, Kenwood is well on its way to becoming a complete DBAE school. The entire K-5 curriculum--including math, science, reading, even spelling--has been infused with art. "The walls are covered with students' artwork," Zeimet reports, "and it's not just the artsy-crafty stuff. It's at a much higher level than that. We've also got reproductions of masterpieces all around the building, and each one has a set of questions next to it."

For a 4th grade unit on the human body, Lynn Lebsack's students studied Georgia O'Keeffe's famous paintings of animal bones and then did their own drawings, "kind of in the Georgia O'Keeffe style," the teacher says. She's currently putting together a unit on the Oregon Trail that will incorporate paintings by Nebraskan artists, and she's planning a field trip to Kearney's Museum of Nebraska Art.

"We're hoping to see improved achievement levels," Zeimet says, "and we're hoping to produce more higher-level thinkers and problem solvers."

The 250 students at Kenwood are indeed learning the value of art--and in more ways than one.

Recently, 2nd grade teacher Barb Naber showed her students a slide of Georgia O'Keeffe's painting "Ranchos Church." "Would you buy this art?" she asked the class. One girl replied, "Oh, no. It's not colorful enough." But when Naber told the students the identity of the artist, a savvy boy pronounced, "Oh, I'd definitely buy it. It would be a really good investment."

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 35

Published in Print: January 1, 1999, as Art School
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