Opening up the Art Institute: to reach a student, teach a teacher | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Opening up the Art Institute: to reach a student, teach a teacher 

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The reporter stands before a large, abstract painting by Jackson Pollock in the Art Institute and tries to make sense out of modern art.

"It, uh, has a lot of colors," he stammers, uncertain even just what all the colors are.

"Well, that's a start," says Antonia Contro, an employee of the Art Institute and his guide for the day. "I think you will better understand it if you write a poem."

So, Contro leads him through a simple exercise, which in a matter of seconds produces a four-line epic that endeavors to cut to the essence of Pollock's painting: "Color/flying in the air/as the day is ending/peace."

"There you go, see," says Contro, politely smiling. "It proves that modern art can be accessible to everyone."

It is a point of view Contro preaches incessantly about all of the work in the gallery. For Contro, an accomplished painter in her own right, is the Art Institute's director of teacher services in the Department of Museum Education.

That means she helps oversee efforts to accommodate the 80,000 grade and high school students who visit the Art Institute each year from schools all over the metropolitan area.

No doubt some of the kids have a sophisticated appreciation of art. Most, however, are probably more interested in the lunch that will follow in the Art Institute's cafeteria. There is an attitude--as Contro well knows--that the Art Institute, like most any museum, is off limits. Or, as Nelson Algren wrote in his prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make:

"The masses who do the city's labor . . . think there's something fishy about someone giving them a museum for nothing and free admission on Saturday afternoons. They sense somebody got a bargain, and they are so right. The city's arts are built upon the uneasy consciences that milked the city of millions on the grain exchange, in traction and utilities and sausage-stuffing and then bought conscience-ease with a minute fraction of the profits. A museum for a traction system, an opera building for a utilities empire. Therefore the arts themselves here, like the acres of Lorado Taft's deadly handiwork, are largely statuary. Mere monuments to the luckier brokers of the past. So the people shy away from their gifts, they're never sure quite why."

"Oh yes, there is an attitude that the Art Institute is remote, or elitist," says Contro. "Part of it is our own doing. We give an ambivalent message. 'Come in, use us, we're here,' on the one hand. And then, on the other hand, you've got to get by this foreboding building on Michigan Avenue.

"The way to tackle that problem is to work with the schools. Our best connection is the teachers. They're our line to the kids. I can't say enough about school teachers, especially the city's public school teachers. Sometimes, like during the last strike, the system seems out to crush them. They work so hard, and it seems nobody cares. But we get a great response from public school teachers. They keep taking our courses, even though no one's paying them for the effort."

Together with Esther Grisham and Maria Thereza Sanford, her colleagues, Contro has set up over a dozen training programs that relate geometry, social studies, language arts, and biblical studies to the Institute's collection. The latest endeavor is the bilingual program (lectures are in Spanish and English), which is aimed at teachers in predominantly Hispanic schools.

"The bilingual program is the brainchild of Kent Lydecker, the executive director of museum education, and Richard Townsend, curator of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas," says Contro. "It has three parts, each meeting once a week for four months. It's a marvelous opportunity. We have slides, lectures, a gallery tour, and we feature some of the city's most knowledgeable art historians, like Robert Loescher, who is chairman of art history at the School of the Art Institute.

"The first seminar for the bilingual program is pre-Columbian art, which is art from the Americas that predates the arrival of Columbus. This February we'll have a course on the art of Spain. We'll study El Greco, Picasso, Dali, among others. The third course will deal with postcolonial art of the Americas. The point is that we have a tremendous Hispanic population out there that should be connected to this wonderful art of their ancestors."

The teaching program's larger philosophy, says Contro, is to "show teachers how to use art objects to teach a piece of their curricula. You might say "Oh, there's no relation.' But there is. Art objects have properties that will illuminate aspects of culture that books and slides won't do. We call it object-based learning. It absolutely opens up the Art Institute to kids."

To relate art to geometry, for example, a teacher can show students how artists such as Mondrian have employed "grids, compasses, rulers, anatomical formulas, [and] mathematical equations," to quote the "Teachers' Planning Guide," written by Contro's predecessor, Kathleen Walsh, with assistance from Contro. "In the galleries: view and discuss paintings that reflect artists' use of measurement. . . . Is the use of measurement obvious? Why or why not? How does it contribute to the work? Tour the galleries, looking for 'hidden' measuring devices in compositions: triangles, circles, ovals, etc."

Demonstrating how a class can learn from artworks, Contro points out a group of 32 seventh and eighth graders from the west side's Lathrop School taking a tour of the museum.

"Only one of the children has ever been to the Art Institute before," says the teacher accompanying the class. "Another student said he thinks he might have been here before. But he can't remember for sure."

It is doubtful that any of the students will soon forget this visit. They stand in the hallway that houses pre-Columbian artifacts and artworks, gawking in amazement at the battle armaments on display.

"That's the neat stuff, the armor," says Earl Grissom, a seventh grader who wears a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. "You learn things, too. Like, we learned that they get buried in that stuff. If you died, you'd get buried in your best suit, right? But they get buried in that stuff."

"I like it 'cause it's pretty, and it's so quiet in here," says Rahsaan Wanton, an eighth grader.

Their assignment, Wanton explains, is to draw some of the artwork. He has drawn a remarkable likeness of a vase on display in a showcase at the front of the room.

"Everybody in the class is an OK drawer, even though we never took [an art] class before," says Lamar Shedwick, a sixth grader. "That's why we took this class. We could have taken either this class, drama, or game room, where you play checkers and stuff. I picked art. You can play games anytime, but I want to learn how to do arts and crafts."

He stops talking as Sanford begins her lecture. The work before you, she explains, was prepared by people who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago all over South and Central America. From their art, we can learn how they lived and how their civilization has shaped ours, she says, leading the students from booth to booth.

"Here is a cat," Sanford says, pointing to one vessel. "They adorned many of their artworks with cats because the cats killed the mice that ate their wheat. They loved the cats.

"Over here are the Mayans. Everybody thought that the Mayans were a nice, peace-loving people. But through the art we see another side. They could be mean, bloody people."

The students press toward the glass case to get a better view.

"They played this ball game, as you can see here on this vase," Sanford continues. "But it was not like football. The person who lost was killed."

"So you better not lose," one student remarks.

"That's right," Sanford replies. "You could not lose."

As the students walk away, they promise they will return to the Art Institute with their families.

Sanford and Contro, however, are a bit disappointed. Yes, the tour had been an eye-opener for the kids. And some may, indeed, return. But to really come to life, a tour needs more preparation than this teacher gave it.

"The teacher who came was very nice and helpful, but she had not taken our course," says Sanford. "The principal had taken the course, and it was the principal who should have been on the tour. But she did not show up for some reason. That's too bad. Because she wasn't here to relate the objects to the kids.

"You should see how it can work. The teacher gets the kids all revved up for their big trip to the Art Institute. It becomes a really big deal. The kids will have been studying the pre-Columbian culture, and they have been waiting to see what they have studied. They want to experience it. You can't hold them back. They're so excited. They get off the bus and run to the gate shouting "Let's go, let's go.' It's wonderful."

One teacher who'd taken Contro's training session devoted several days of preparation to the tour.

"I heard about the course in pre-Columbian art from a friend," explains Ricardo Zavala, a sixth-grade teacher at the Morrill School on the southwest side. "It was a lot of work, but in the end I have to admit it paid off. I learned a lot."

Zavala lectured to the students, telling them what he had learned almost as he was learning it. And on the eve of his tour he wrote a five-page study sheet for his class.

"It was sort of a workbook to get them involved with the art," says Zavala. "I said, 'OK, the goddess in this piece, what does her hair look like?' And the kids say 'Corn. Her hair looks like corn. She must be the goddess of corn.'

"It got them real interested in the art. Man, they were so excited. We got there at 10:15, and we didn't finish until 11:50. The whole time, they were in the exhibition room, looking at the works, making notes, describing things. After that, they weren't even that excited about going to the cafeteria."

Tales like Zavala's warm Contro's heart.

"It's an example of opening up art to people," Contro says. "My favorite is when I take teachers into the modern art rooms. It has art to which people react aggressively. They don't like it. They want me to justify it. They say 'Well of course my five-year-old could do it.'

"My approach is to circumvent, for the moment, a discussion of art history. I could tell them the philosophical background of the artist. I could tell them how technically difficult the work is.

"Instead, I have them write a poem, just like you did. It's simple. The first line of the poem is the first word that pops into your head when you see the painting. The second line is an action phrase that relates to the painting. The third line is a simile or metaphor--you know, what is the painting like? And the fourth line is based on another word the painting brings to mind.

"We call it a diamante because the poem ends up shaped like a diamond. It's a simple process, but it works wonders. You have experienced the painting. You have access to it. It's what we're trying to do with our whole program."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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