I love how simple an introduction to art sounds. Oh, an introduction. To art. Sure, no big deal.

Really, where do you even start?? I get the feeling that many people think that introducing school groups to art is an easy task. While the amount of time, thought, and research that goes into an introductory experience certainly varies by educator, most aren’t just choosing objects arbitrarily. There are quite a few things to take into consideration when planning introductions, including multiple theoretical goals and practical issues that, if handled properly, won’t even come to the students’ attention.

To give you an idea of how many decisions must be made to develop an introduction to art experience, I’ll walk you through the process that I use:

The first thing I have to do is decide what exactly an introduction to art should be. To do that, I have to ask myself:

  • What do I want students to know when they leave?
  • How much variety should I try to include (in terms of medium, technique, time period, geographical area, culture, and artist) in order to give a balanced view of the variety of art possible?
  • Should I help students understand why “traditional” forms of art, like ancient Greek sculpture, are so interesting, or should I show items they might not be expecting, like a face made of high heeled shoes?

Another common misperception is that introducing people to art involves providing them with a lot of information about a series of specific works. The museum education field is moving away from a lecture-based model and into a more discussion-based model, which is one of the main reasons that I became involved in museum education. An inquiry-based experience (which means not only me asking the group questions to facilitate discussion, but creating an opportunity for them to ask questions and prompt discussion) aligns nicely with the tenets of the Montessori method that I was taught and trained in.

So along with choosing specific works based on their place in the art historical spectrum, I keep in mind the potential for discussion about important themes:

  • What are artists trying to do?
  • How does art relate to our life, and why is it important?
  • How do artists use visual techniques to communicate with viewers?

For example, there is an incredible statue of Ugolino from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Met. The expression, the bodies, the execution, and the story behind it all grab viewer’s attentions. Everyone can identify with the feeling of hunger, and can imagine the horror of being locked up and left to starve (I usually leave out the part about how he accepts his children’s offering of sustenance!) But even before we have puzzled out the story, participants are struck by the anguish in his face (it is often described as sad, or angry, or confused) and note the nakedness of the bodies – both of which seem obvious but are keys to the narrative. As we move on to the curled toes, the son’s imploring gesture, and the shackles, each discovery opens up new possibilities and unlocks the potential for deeper levels of understanding. After we piece together the story, we can talk about what the artist was hoping to accomplish by creating this piece. We talk about what it might be trying to say to us, and how that message relates to our own lives.

For me, the most important goal in an experience is to show visitors that looking at a work carefully really will make it open up. I always explain that we see hundreds of images every day, and it’s easy to glance at something and think you’ve seen it. But just taking a few minutes to examine a work more carefully can change your entire perception of a work. Questions start to come up, and even if no answers are provided, new information is revealed.

Visual literacy isn’t given much attention, but being able to objectively consider and question images is hugely important – especially in everyday life. As Charles Harrison points out, no one would be expected to understand a poem if it was read in a foreign language – so why do we assume that the ability to “not bump into objects” means that people know how to really examine something?  It takes time to get used to the process of really looking closely at something.

So a huge consideration is what objects will engage those unfamiliar with art and draw them in. Though all art is fun to look at, some is more challenging – for example, a Native American storage basket, while clearly finely made, might be a bit more difficult for the average visitor to engage with than something like a Japanese handscroll, which is similar to an illustrated book. One of my favorite works to use as a first stop in introductory tours is a French tapestry depicting the moment Artemis is turned into a stag by Diana. It’s large, tapestry is an important but unexpected medium, and the work clearly depicts figures making dramatic gestures in an unusual setting. Viewers are very familiar with narrative images, and that feeling of understanding and achievement allows them to enter into the image with a sense of confidence.

Finally, logistical considerations are essential components of the experience. I have to ask myself:

  • Is this object’s experience going to be engaging enough and valuable enough to make up for any difficulty in getting here?
  • Is the object clearly visible from a child’s height? Is there a glare on its surface if it’s viewed from a seated position?
  • Is the work in a high-traffic area, an echoey space, or a particularly cold room?

Museums are often an unfamiliar environment, and they can be overwhelming. Plus, sitting on a cold floor or constantly dodging other visitors can get very distracting. In order to focus on the works, visitors have to have their essential needs met.

It can be difficult to eliminate works based on these logistical issues. There is a great painting of Hercules fighting Achelous in the form of a bull that I would love to share with groups – it’s large, it’s dramatic, it’s intriguing, it has a great back story, and it’s a great example of narrative (smaller scenes from the story are shown in the background). It would provide the perfect opportunity to talk about themes like power, achievement, heroicism, identity, transformation, narrative, etc…  but. BUT. It’s on a different floor of the museum than I usually use, and you have to walk through the crowded great hall to get there, and we would sit with our backs to the room and the stream of traffic through it, and a large portion of the top half of the painting is obscured by a glare when it’s viewed from the floor. But really, any one of those reasons would be enough to eliminate it from my list. A child rattled by the stress of navigating through a crowd isn’t going to turn his or her full attention to the object when we arrive. A student who can’t see Hercules’ hands won’t be as likely to take an interest in his feat. And in the time it would take just to get there, we could be discussing an additional work of art.

So putting all of these things together to create one “introduction” to “art” is a huge challenge. I’m fortunate to be in an encyclopedic art museum with an amazing collection, but that also means that my options are essentially endless. Is there anything you think can’t be missed? Anything that really kills an experience for you? Anything else you think should be taken into consideration?