From One Studio to Another

A Tradition of Research and Evaluation at The Museum of Modern Art

This series of posts celebrates the 80th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art’s formal commitment to museum education. Jackie Armstrong is an associate educator in MoMA’s Department of Education.

Drawing in The People’s Studio. Photo: Beatriz Meseguer

When I first arrived at The Museum of Modern Art, in 2012, evaluation and assessment were processes the Department of Education regarded highly and had built into their everyday operation. My colleagues were open to experimenting, willing to test and tweak programs and resources, and responsive to the data gathered from participants and visitors. Since 2012 there has been more demand for (and interest in) qualitative visitor research from departments across the Museum, and we have expanded who participates in these research and evaluation efforts. On a regular basis, for example, an Audience Advocates committee made up staff from Digital Media, Education, Visitor Engagement, Membership, Information Management, and Graphic Design meets to discuss and test digital resources (website, app, digital signage, etc.) as part of the design process. I’ve come to more fully understand what a vibrant history visitor research and evaluation has at MoMA. It makes sense that evaluation is part of the culture here, as it is embedded in the Museum’s earliest days.

A poster for the War Veterans’ Art Center, c. 1941–45

In reading over archival materials one of the findings that struck the biggest chord for me was information about the War Veterans’ Art Center, which was the inspiration of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in co-operation with MoMA founding trustee Stephen C. Clark. For its time the Center was considered “one of the most significant experiments in creative education.” The venture began on June 12, 1944, on 56th Street, with a small group of men. This was the trial period of the program while plans were developed for more comprehensive programming and a larger space. The War Veterans’ Art Center officially opened in October 1944 and remained through June 1948, serving a total of 1,485 veterans over the course of its run.

The programs shifted as the needs and interests of the veterans changed. Particularly in the Center’s first year, veterans sought to either learn new skills or get a refresher on existing ones to help them re-enter the work force. For staff, this endeavor presented new challenges. All of the veterans were injured in some way (mentally, physically, spiritually) and needed more than skills training. Instructors realized that veterans needed to be approached as individuals and that work needed to be done to help them feel secure and successful. Veterans who took classes at the Center wrote letters attesting to the impact it had on their lives: “The Center has served two-fold purpose of cultural and artistic technical advancement for me, not to mention its therapeutic advantages during a difficult period of adjustment.” One staff member remarked, “It has been thrilling for us to witness withdrawn and inhibited individuals become confident and social members of a community. There is no instance in our recollection where an individual who has completed course has not felt enriched in his total personality.”

Victor D’Amico and Major General Norman T. Kirk, Surgeon General of the United States, viewing a model made by a war veteran at the exhibition opening for “Art for War Veterans.” Photo: William Leftwich

The need for this type of offering was very clear to Victor D’Amico, MoMA’s first Director of Education. He felt the logical next step would be to establish the People’s Art Center, based on the War Veterans’ Art Center’s philosophy and methods but open to populations beyond veterans. These programs were thoughtfully planned, tested, and evaluated; MoMA wanted to offer quality experiences and was interested in hearing from participants and responding to them. MoMA’s early interest in helping visitors and participants make deep connections and create meaning (rather than just absorbing information) is a common thread between the Department of Education’s early days and today.

The goal of creating a sense of community and enriching the lives of participants is something educational programs at MoMA still work to achieve. Among the areas where this is most tangibly felt are MoMA Studio and other pop-up learning spaces I’ve evaluated over the past several years. When I was reading over reports and letters about the War Veterans’ Art Center and the People’s Art Center, I immediately thought of how the current-day studios at MoMA have especially been an important gathering place for people, often with individuals coming together to form a community.

For each MoMA Studio “season” (Print, Common Senses, Exchange Cafe, Sound in Space, Beyond the Cut-Out, etc.) we have gathered data used using a variety of strategies: observations, timing and tracking, on-site interviews, post-visit surveys, facilitator logs and reflections, response walls, and tagboards, to name a few. What we have learned is very similar to what was realized early on in MoMA’s history of educational research and evaluation: people need to feel welcome and be seen as individuals in order to fully engage in an experience. Meeting people where they are is important. Helping people make connections to their own lives and giving them opportunities to explore their own creative impulses can deepen their overall experience. Offering multiple ways in — from discussions to reflective and hands-on activities — to art or an artist’s process opens up their minds to what they are seeing and experiencing. People stay longer, lose themselves in an experience, and go deeper when these conditions are met.

Paper Construction Workshop in the People’s Studio: Design, Experiment, Build. Photo: Beatriz Meseguer

The People’s Studio: Design, Experiment, Build was open from June 1 to October 12, 2017, and it drew heavy inspiration from the Museum’s roots in terms of offering a space for creative exploration. 98% of drop-in visitors we interviewed reported that their experience in the People’s Studio positively impacted their overall visit to the Museum. One visitor commented that they felt “more closely connected to the Museum by creating within it not just observing what others have created.” Another visitor appreciated “getting to be hands-on and touch things, engagement and hands-on education…. [It’s] nice when observing to switch from visual and auditory learning to kinesthetic learning, stimulating for people to make something, makes learning more thought-provoking.” Over the course of those months we watched as people came together over activities, got lost in creative moments while drawing, recharged between visits to the galleries, participated in artist- and educator-led workshops, and, in some cases, became regulars in the Studio. The Studio wasn’t just a place but a much-needed experience. In writing a report for the People’s Studio: Design, Experiment, Build and collecting data for the current People’s Studio (related to the exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?), I’m reminded of the deep roots this institution has in research and evaluation, and also its desire to truly connect people with art, with one another, and with themselves.

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