Newswise — There are few better opportunities for inspiring young students to explore their creative talents than by viewing fine art at a museum. The challenge is getting them there. The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University developed a solution: Bring the museum to the classroom.
"Writing and the Visual Arts," an educational program directed by the Zimmerli, began seven years ago through a partnership between the museum and Bishop George Ahr High School in Edison, New Jersey. Since then, more than 10 schools and approximately 170 teachers have participated, with Bishop Ahr and the Edison and Ewing school districts formally incorporating the program into each district’s curriculum.
Designed to instruct pre-K to high school educators on how art can transform students’ writing and improve literacy, the program explores the relationship between the visual arts and language. “It introduces the technique of ekphrasis, a vivid, written description of an artwork,” says Alexandra Neumann, a coordinator of educational and community programs at the museum. “We show them how art can be used to inspire fiction, poetry and descriptive writing in their classrooms, or how literature or poetry can be the basis for artwork.” Members of the National Writing Project at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education also meet with educators on ways to improve their students’ quality of writing.
Teresa Cardona, a senior at Bishop Ahr, credits the program with channeling her love for art into a possible career path. Discouraged because she was unable to fit an elective art course into her freshman schedule, Cardona participated in “Writing and the Visual Arts” during her lunch periods under the direction of instructor John Kronemeyer, who had worked with the Zimmerli's then-curator of education, Alfredo Franco, to develop the program. “I was given poems and sonnets by one of our English teachers and asked to interpret sections as works of art that would be included at a show at the Zimmerli,” she says. “It was exciting. I had always created art for myself, but this was the first time I thought about having it exhibited.” Since then, Cardona has shown 12 of her pieces at the museum.
Cardona is now a “ZAMbassador,” a student volunteer who assists with classes, camps and special events. “I loved art growing up and saw it being part of my life as an adult, but before ‘Writing and the Visual Arts,’ I was not sure how,” she says. “Now it’s clear: I want to be a curator.”
This summer, one of the pieces that Cardona created as a freshman takes the national stage, representing the Zimmerli education program in “Museums: pARTners in Learning,” a Washington, D.C., exhibition organized by the Association of Art Museum Directors that showcases successful education programs at university-based art museums. The Zimmerli works are all by Bishop Ahr students – Cardona’s 2012 graphite drawing of a girl and her stuffed bear joins a 2007 acrylic painting of a beach by Brittany Bamrick and a 2010-11 forest scene in hard charcoal by Julia Wieczorek – and can be seen at the U.S. Department of Education building through August 29.
“Art is a powerful tool for encouraging new ways of thinking across disciplines,” says Chris Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. “Museums like the Zimmerli play a unique role in complementing our schools’ educational resources and provide valuable access to arts education for students.”
Teachers interested in using “Writing and the Visual Arts” in their classroom start by taking a workshop, which counts toward professional development credit requirements. They receive slides of art from the Zimmerli’s permanent collection or a current exhibition, and depending on the type of class, the teachers will ask students to write an essay about one of the pieces or to create art based on poetry that the teacher selects.
Essays are submitted to the Zimmerli for a competition, and winners are invited to the museum for a reception and a reading of their work. Artwork created is exhibited at the museum, and students are invited to an opening of the show where they can share the inspirations for their work. The museum hosts about three receptions a year.
“Many of these students have never stepped foot in an art museum before,” says Bonnie Wilson, who works with Neumann in educational and community programming. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to have, being recognized by their peers as their first museum experience.”