Studio in a School
It was 1976 and New York City careened from one fiscal crisis to another. Upon opening The New York Times one morning, Agnes Gund, one of New York’s most beloved and generous philanthropists, learned that art classes in the city’s public elementary schools would be cut due to yet another budgetary shortfall. Her immediate—and characteristic—response was to do something about it. Art had always been central to her life and she firmly believed that it should be integral to the lives of others, in particular those for whom it was rarely an option. In a recent telephone interview, she recalled asking herself, “How could children not have art?” Art classes, Gund noted, are also a place where students who were “not as confident in other courses could find alternative means to express themselves, to develop confidence.”
It was a belief at odds with ideas about education at the time, at least in the public sector, which considered visual arts—as well as music and dance—expendable, when the curricula inclined more toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) rather than the more ebullient STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), as we might say today. The idea that art and making art was critical for a child’s development, especially in the early years, was certainly not new. It was the fundamental thesis of progressive mid-19th century educators such as Friedrich Fröbel, the founder of kindergarten, and later championed by Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and Erik Erikson, among others. As children, we become visually literate before we grapple with language, an ability that should be burnished, not neglected. It fosters imaginative thinking which, in turn, is key to unlocking better futures.
Gund consulted her friend Patricia Hewitt, who was knowledgeable about creating and running non-profit organizations. Together, they drew up a pilot program to make visual arts education in public schools viable, one that would not have its existence constantly threatened. “We wanted to help the children, and we also wanted to help artists. It was during the crisis, and they needed help too,” Gund said, her focus on artists unwavering. “We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” and Studio in a School was born.
And what is Studio in a School? It’s a non-profit organization that brings visual arts education to public schools and community centers from pre-K to the 12th grade across the five boroughs. And how is Studio in a School different from other primary school-centered arts programs? Notably, it recruits practicing, professionally trained artists to instruct both schoolteachers and their students, helping them discover new and more effective ways to engage with their subject matter through visual arts. In a telephone exchange, Gail Gregg, a former Studio board co-treasurer and president, explained that having classroom teachers accompany their classes to Studio art sessions not only helps teachers observe new attributes in their students but also exposes them to new ways of incorporating art into their class plans. Special-subject teachers also often collaborate with Studio artists. In one school, for instance, science and Studio teachers developed a curriculum in which they took students to the Museum of Natural History for a unit on bird life. After lectures by the science teacher, the Studio artist would lead the children in drawing the birds they learned about. The project culminated in an exhibition of the children’s work on the ground floor of the museum, attended by teachers, students, and their families. “Watching the parents proudly pose with their children in front of their drawings at this iconic museum was something I’ll never forget,” Gregg remembers.
Studio in a School Association (SIAS) is now the parent organization of a national venture and consists of Studio in a School NYC (Studio NYC) for programs in city schools and Studio Institute (Studio), which was launched in 2016. Studio Institute works with schools across the country, its programs based on the original model but tailored to the specific needs of the individual communities, institutions, and students with whom it partners. It provides professional training programs for school districts, partnership programs with cultural and community organizations, arts internships, and distributes current research in arts education. It includes a teen apprenticeship program for high school students to learn the basics of art instruction for jobs as paid instructors in summer camps. There are also intensive studio programs for teens who are preparing to continue studies in art and art education. Studio Institute also offers closely mentored arts internships for college undergraduates in paid positions at cultural institutions that involve them in actual projects. The model started in Studio NYC is now emulated in Boston, Cleveland, Memphis, Newark, Philadelphia and Providence. In the four years of Studio Institute’s existence, the results in these satellite cities have been encouraging. In two Title 1 Cleveland public schools for instance, an increase in the number of art classes has been implemented. In Newark, New Jersey, there has been an increase in early childhood instruction and teacher training in three separate venues.
The organization’s budget for fiscal year 2020 is $8.2 M (Studio NYC: $5.4 M; Studio Institute: $2.8 M). It has the support of a raft of benefactors from the corporate, governmental, and private sectors (for instance, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, George Gund Foundation, Clark Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and NYC Department of Education). More than half of SIAS’s budget comes from individual and board contributions, corporations, and foundation and government grants. Fundraising events, services, and endowment and board directed funds make up the remainder.
Studio in a School’s board of directors—its expertise ranging from practicing artists to museum professionals, art historians, gallerists, educators, philanthropists, financiers, journalists, lawyers, activists and more—is actively engaged with the organization through committees that focus on the diverse aspects of the organization. The board members include many who have been involved for decades in addition to Gund, such as Hewitt, Thomas Cahill, Dorothy Lichtenstein, and Kathryn McAuliffe. It also includes quite a number of artists, among them Tony Bechara, Jennifer Cecere, Mary Mattingly and (full disclosure) Phong Bui, the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail. The current chair, Vivian Pan, associated with Hamlin Capital Management for much of her career, was appointed in 2018.
“The core program for Studio NYC and Studio Institute is the same, with an artist at its center,” Thomas Cahill said, summing it up. Cahill is now the president of Studio Institute, but before that, since 1977, he was the executive director of Studio in a School. In a telephone interview to discuss SIAS, he told me, “It’s not about what’s created in the class, in the studio, but rather about exposing the kids very early on to different kinds of art experiences to stimulate their thinking.” He explained that the objective was not to make them artists, although some do become practicing artists, but to instill curiosity in the children, to teach them to ask questions and be able to discuss their projects clearly, and in their own words. The programs emphasize individuality, helping students find and trust their own voices, to revel in their own uniqueness. “If children are taught that things are made through a process and with an idea in mind, they would understand the world differently.”
Gund recalled visiting a school with Hewitt in the early days of SIAS. The two admired painted murals on the wall, astonished by the skill of the children. But they soon discovered that the murals had been drawn by the teachers there, rather than the kids, who had just colored them in. That kind of predetermined methodology was not what Gund and Hewitt had in mind for SIAS programs, and was soon remedied. Another way to make a mural that was much more SIAS-style was described by Gregg. At the Adolph S. Ochs elementary school in Hell’s Kitchen, in the late 1990s, Studio artist Vicki Behm worked with math and science teachers in creating a giant mosaic mural on the side of the building. In collaboration with the science teacher, students studied plant life, which they translated into drawings. With the help of the math teacher, they scaled up their drawings for the mural’s template. Geometry came into play as they learned to translate drawings into two inch-square tile compositions. For the final part of the project, students chose plants and trees for a pocket garden under the mural, then planted and maintained their garden. She noted that another way Studio’s program differed from other elementary school art instruction was how art history was incorporated into the lessons. A Studio artist might ask students to paint or draw self-portraits but would begin by showing them self-portraits painted by master artists, encouraging the children to analyze them, observing how they differed and what emotions they projected. When their own portraits were completed, they would be displayed and the students invited to discuss their work in the same ways.
Cahill himself started out as an artist, studying at the School of Visual Arts, but decided to go into arts education, earning an MA in arts and humanities education. He confessed, with a laugh, that in the beginning, his notions about what kids should see when he took them to look at, say, Egyptian sculptures in the Brooklyn Museum, were more formalist, art historical. But they saw something very different, relating to the work in a more personal way, filtered through the lens of their lives and what they knew. “It was a revelation to me and made me realize that I could learn from them as much as they could learn from me. And I brought that revelation with me to Studio in a School.”
The artists were (and continue to be) catalysts. They sparked reactions that inevitably varied, as did the results of their endeavors. As the organization and its programs evolved, monthly meetings with the participating artists to share ideas and solve problems shaped SIAS. Cahill said that their dedication was extraordinary and had an immediate impact—on the students, the curriculum, and the teachers. “The emphasis is always on the production of work informed by the children’s own ideas,” he reiterated. “Children think like artists, and that should be encouraged. Art is instrumental, valuable, it’s not a hobby, not incidental.” Though we may recognize this now, in 1977 the thinking wasn’t that way yet, Cahill reminded me. “And the city was suffering economically so this program was a tremendous gift.”
Six artists came to work with Studio in a School the first year and then nine the following and, then 12, 20, 36, growing steadily. It began with three schools—two in the Bronx, one in Manhattan. As of 2019, there are now 193 sites, 90% of them Title 1, in marginalized and low-income neighborhoods citywide. It serves over 32,000 students, many who are in the most vulnerable segment of our population, and its artists work with nearly 2,000 teachers. “It’s an extended partnership,” Cahill said, “a collaboration.”
There is a program team that works with the artists in professional training. Program managers determine placements of the artists in cooperation with school principals, matching their expertise and their studio practice with the schools’ needs. These needs are discussed in smaller meetings with the artist prior to their immersion in a school. While the programs are adapted to the individual schools, what remains the same in all of them is the abundance of art materials available so that students can experiment freely without fear there will be a shortage of supplies. “Aggie makes sure of that,” Cahill said.
Depending on each school and its level of need and commitment, some artists might teach one day a week while others four. Schools that want a studio program must provide a dedicated room. Studio in a School will absorb most of the initial costs—maybe 85 percent—but over time, the school will increase its contributions until it is covering most of the expenses and hires an art teacher. Schools that lack the facilities to do that can establish shorter residency programs and age-specific initiatives such as early childhood programs that can be taught in whatever classroom is available. “What we are offering are resources that are not available in the community, in the school and in the family,” explained Cahill.
In 2004, when the city was thinking about creating an art curriculum for public schools, Cahill co-chaired a committee to create the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Visual Arts. It was a framework from pre-K to 12th grade that outlines what kids might be expected to achieve, beginning with the basics and ramping up to nearly professional status by the end of the senior year. There is a chart that shows level by level the implementation of different mediums, the introductions of concepts, and ways to include community art resources. The students are primed to make connections through art to other disciplines. They are taught to see how their community connects to a larger cultural context. They are made to understand that art isn’t decorative, that it can often be challenging and provocative, which is part of its role. Each community has its cultural resources, especially in a city like New York, and kids are shown how to take advantage of them. “It would be shameful not to,” says Cahill. “We set out to be a resource for New York City, and in turn, we should take advantage of the riches the city has to offer. We are responsive to the needs of the city, and now that pre-K learning is a focus, our programs are supporting that initiative.”
What matters most is the rigor that comes from art training, such as in the high school apprenticeships that SIAS facilitates in hopes that the participating students will want to give back to the community. Teens that work in apprenticeships “give back” as interns through their work in city summer camps, teaching art to younger kids. They learn to plan, organize, and develop programs under the guidance of an artist and college art student mentors. They see how art can fit into their lives; some even come back as teachers years later. Another program, called Arts Intern, introduces college students to professional opportunities in museums. Offered paid summer internships, the students work on actual projects, not just clerical chores. “We need to encourage people to understand the rigor that’s involved in the visual arts and how essential they are, and that it’s personally enriching, enabling you to make a different life.” Cahill said.
Continuing, he said, “artists who are interested in discovering the kids’ creativity and what they can do, who let the kids lead and who enjoy their spontaneity and cultivate their sense of play, do best here.” Some of the artists who taught at Studio early in their careers, such as Maren Hassinger, Pepón Osorio, and Elana Herzog have gone on to thriving careers as artists and educators at the university level. Valerie Hammond, who is at Studio NYC as well as elsewhere, balances both teaching and a flourishing, full-time practice. Many well-known artists have also visited through invitation to Studio’s Open Studio program, which started in 2012. It takes place in a number of schools around the city and has included Jeff Koons, Glenn Ligon, Mark di Suvero, Julie Mehretu, Ursula von Rydingsvard, William Wegman, Fred Wilson and others who do presentations in classrooms with the students and Studio’s artist instructors. “We are truly fortunate to have their support for the program,” Cahill said, with enthusiasm.
Gund recalled a question one astonished child asked during a visit: You can really make a living as an artist? On other occasions, artists sometimes just drop in on classroom lessons, as Kiki Smith does, invited by the artists who are teaching.
SIAS also offers exhibitions to its students since showing and discussing their work with viewers is an important part of the reality of being an artist. It partners with the New York City Department of Education to organize an annual competition, now in its 13th year, called P.S. Art that highlights student artworks in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in Studio’s gallery at 53rd Street, off Madison Avenue and open to the public, a number of exhibitions of student artwork are presented throughout the year. Most recently, in 2019, Studio Institute interns, eight high school students studying art and art history in an ongoing partnership with Madison Square Park Conservancy, were trained to be docents for Martin Puryear’s exhibition at the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. In addition, the interns held workshops, art classes and lessons for the children at the Istituto Provinciale per l’Infanzia Santa Maria della Pietà, a residential community in Venice founded in the early 14th century for children and mothers. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and chief curator of the Conservancy, praised the interns, calling them “outstanding.”
SIAS has also had a profound impact on the hundreds of artists of diverse backgrounds who have participated over the years. I recently spoke to three of them by phone and a fourth, Elana Herzog, by email. Maren Hassinger taught for SIAS in its early years. Based in Harlem, she is a multimedia artist best known for her spare, organic and socially provocative sculptures. Director emerita of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, her recent, much acclaimed exhibition, Maren Hassinger: Monuments, was organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem and on view at Marcus Garvey Park from June 16, 2018- June 10, 2019. Hassinger came to New York from Los Angeles in the early 1980s and was a resident at the Studio Museum in 1984. When that was over, wanting to stay in New York, she needed a job. An artist she knew told her about Studio in a School. She sent in her resume and was hired. She was assigned to elementary school art classes and during her tenure there, was sent to a number of inner city schools. Some were quite far away, requiring a subway ride, bus and then a long walk to get to. Hassinger told me that there was,
one school near Kennedy Airport. It was a neighborhood decimated by AIDS. All the parents were dying, and the children knew it and behaved so badly. It was all the teacher could do to get them to quiet down a little. Their world was falling apart. It was pandemonium. I remember it so vividly. There was the teacher, a seat, a little bit of quiet and once a week I came in and gave them art supplies. It was probably the most stable thing they had in their lives. So any opportunity for children to think about doing something creative is important. That was largely missing in schools then, in those kinds of schools in particular. It was an opportunity for those children to have a recess from pressure and academic rote and the negative things in life and be able to express themselves. The idea was a very good idea—at a very bad time. Those children needed to be paid attention to, to have something brought out of their pain.
Pepón Osorio taught at SIAS for a few years in the early 1980s until his practice became too much to juggle with teaching. Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived in New York and its environs for decades, and has been praised for extravagant, challenging, multimedia installations extracted from his experiences as a social worker in marginalized communities. Currently, his sculpture Angel: The Shoe Shiner (1993) is in the exhibition “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, up through January 2021.
Remembering his SIAS days, he said,
I always had a passion for teaching so that was my training ground as an artist—to teach. I lived in the Bronx, not far from PS 1, where I taught. I have always been interested in posing questions, political questions, and in how they are answered. One question I often ask is why do people accept the system as it is? I’m still asking these questions.
He told me that he was reluctant to work in a large public school system like that of New York City but was happy to work for an independent organization like Studio in a School. It was a way to connect without being part of the system. “Things are more complicated these days,” he said. “Back then, although artists worked with certified teachers, they didn’t need to be certified to teach in public schools.”
Through SIAS, Osorio worked independently and in collaboration with the teachers at PS 1. He recalled his experience,
I got to do what I wanted, which was to interest students in challenging aesthetic forms, to experiment and to discover what was relevant to them. I work slowly so it took four or five sessions to finish projects; they were very elaborate, paralleling my own work. I wanted to show the students that making art is a process, not a prescription. The teachers appreciated it and I admired their strength and tenacity and passion under conditions that were often difficult. And the students were the center of it. They are part of the invisible people, the people who interest me. I want to make art for them, to return art to them.
Elana Herzog joined Studio in a School in 1989 and stayed for six years. A New York-based artist, she is much admired for site-specific works that evoke great chunky fragments of architecture or landscape ingeniously coaxed out of fabric, thread, and other assorted materials. Her materialist inclinations informed her teaching at SIAS where she was assigned to the “long term program” in two elementary schools, one in upper Manhattan, the other in the Bronx and in the “short term program” in a couple in high schools, including one in Staten Island. Since then, in addition to her studio practice, she has taught and lectured at art institutions across the country.
Herzog said she studied early childhood education as an undergraduate, and SIAS revived her interest in it, premised on her deep conviction that what was taught in those formative years was of paramount importance. She agreed with the goals of its visual arts program “to enhance self-esteem and develop critical thinking skills in children by encouraging independent child-directed making and thinking,” and to stress that there were “no right answers” in art.
“Structuring the curriculum and giving students some basic tools with which to make things forced me to be extremely concrete in my thinking and planning,” she continued. That helped rid her of unnecessary theoretical baggage and become extremely concrete herself. “We used found and recycled materials and made lots of papier-mâché masks and puppets and played with textures in two-dimensional work, in collage.” Best of all, she discovered printmaking, which she hadn’t studied before and enjoyed as much as the students did. “I had been an electrician before I started teaching at SIAS, which meant that I was a mechanic, as opposed to an artisan. And that has always informed the way I make things—direct, verging on crude. I think I encouraged my students to be inventive and direct, without an emphasis on craftsmanship.”
What she didn’t expect, however, was how much she would learn from her students, a give-and-take felt by everyone involved with Studio. “Their fascination and delight in looking was thrilling,” she said, summoning up her own feelings as a child, and, not only that, they made “amazing things.” It was a pivotal moment for Herzog. Inspired by their infectious delight, she began to trust her own intuitive processes more, allowing herself to savor her own pleasures in being an artist, to practice what she preached.
Valerie Hammond has the distinction of being with Studio NYC since 1984, a record. She also teaches studio courses at Columbia University and New York University and finds the varying levels not very different and wholly invigorating. Hammond, a California transplant long based in New York, has a multidisciplinary practice with a profound interest in materials and process and is a master printmaker of fey, ethereal imagery. She takes seriously Studio’s directive that the kids have “an authentic experience” with an artist, one that was reciprocal, in which the artist is guided by their response. “Because of that,” she said, “I actually do some of my larger work in class. What I am working on parallels what they are working on and that stimulates great discussions. Right now, I’m working on my constellations and they are working on their projects, so everything is blue and starry.”
The program in which Hammond has taught for the past 25 years is located at The Neighborhood School in the East Village.
It started out as a Title 1 school, but it isn’t anymore as the neighborhood changed. It’s still diverse and very hands-on, with a progressive philosophy. I went to school in a small town in California with no art, so I know what it’s like not to have it. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. The program is so important for the kids, and it’s important for me. It informs my work. My longevity is unusual, but it was the one job I could do and still have my own art practice. There is a blueprint for classes now but the artists in the program go far beyond that. They put so much into it and by the time the kids leave, they are amazingly articulate about art, about looking at it, talking about it. I live in the neighborhood and have taught successive generations of students; Aggie’s grandchildren have attended this school. I’m in touch with a number of my former students and I run into others and that’s wonderful. One of them came back as an intern and is now at the Rhode Island School of Design as an undergraduate. Another is at Bennington, another recently earned an MFA from Columbia and another a BFA with honors from Williams College.
Hammond said she has so many memorable moments teaching at Studio but one thought threads through all of them: how art changes lives. She sees it “before me, especially for children who may have trouble in other areas of study. I think if I want to say anything it is the way that this art program opens the curtains to the world around them.”
Studio in a School NYC has recently appointed a new president, Alison Scott-Williams, who started March 9, in the midst of the uncertainties and difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, another and perhaps the most unsettling crisis the nation’s education system has yet faced. She comes from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) where she served as vice-president for arts education since 2015. Before that, she was associate vice-president for diversity and campus life at the Julliard School in Manhattan and director of programs and admission at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago. With several advanced degrees in arts and education, she has also been an opera singer. It is a profile that seems well-suited to Studio’s emphasis on artists in which their top administrators, such as Scott-Williams and Cahill, are not only educators but also trained in the creative arts. Gund said that Scott-Williams was her first choice from the beginning. “She has all that it takes to be in that position. It was also my desire to have a woman and a black woman as the new president. It makes sense.”
In a telephone interview early in April, Scott-Williams said what she plans to do in her first days on the job is to listen to the Studio team, go out and visit schools, and talk to principals to hear about the strengths and weaknesses of the current programs and how these programs support their schools and communities (although some of those plans have inevitably changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic). She said,
To be a responsible leader and steward, it is my job to listen, observe, and think about how to deepen and expand our outreach since the field of visual arts is expanding and with it, the role it will play in the world. A blueprint was instituted more than 15 years ago (the one Cahill was instrumental in formulating) that showed what sequential art training looks like. It was very much needed and became a game-shifter. It offered professional guidance to our teaching artists and to the teachers in the schools. It shows that such training inspires critical thinking, and teaches the kids to express themselves, to show us their thoughts, kids who often come from underserved environments, who don’t have a voice. It makes for better students.
In the age of technology, she continued, when everything is on the computer, on video, there is a great need to know more about how people learn, to better understand,
who are visual learners, and what social and emotional intelligence is. There should be a high premium put on creativity and it should be instilled early. There are all kinds of measurements of success and one of my goals is to outline our measurements of success at Studio which is ultimately based on individual creativity. This is the kind of conversation I will be having with school principals, and that’s wonderful. 20 years ago, this conversation would not have been possible. It would have been why should art be included in the school curricula, now it’s how. And Studio in a School was certainly part of that change.
As an update to that interview, after New York City schools closed on March 16, Scott-Williams informed me that Studio in a School shifted to a distance-learning model on March 31, launching Studio in Your Home on its website. “It offers a wide range of family-friendly activities such as sketching, drawing, and collage created by Studio artist instructors that can be done at home with materials on hand and has already received well over 3,000 visits. We are also shifting our annual events to a digital platform,” she said. In addition, SIAS has established a new partnership with The Fine Art Program and Collection at Montefiore Einstein in the Bronx, called Studios in the Bronx that presented an exhibition by Bronx students that opened in February and will be on view until May, located in the lobby of Montefiore’s Hutchinson Medical Center. “This is a time,” Scott-Williams said, “when we need more joy and celebration of youth in our NYC lives than ever.”