In the Night Studio
A Conversation with Shellyne Rodriguez about Making Space in Museums
This series of posts celebrates the 80th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art’s formal commitment to museum education. Calder Zwicky is assistant director of Teen and Community Partnerships in MoMA’s Department of Education.
Last summer, we collaborated with artist Shellyne Rodriguez on the creation of MoMA’s new Night Studio program — a free, six-week art course for NYC residents currently in the process of passing the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion, formerly the GED) and receiving their High School Equivalency Diplomas. Two years prior to that, we collaborated with artist Mark Joshua Epstein on the creation of Open Art Space, the Museum’s first ever drop-in art program dedicated to serving LGBTQ-identified teens and their allies. And this philosophy of reaching out to new groups of previously underrepresented audiences isn’t new here; over the past 80 years, MoMA’s Department of Education has found ways of connecting our collection and resources to a variety of audiences not previously served by mainstream museum education. Our departmental history includes engagements with a variety of New Yorkers who were, at the time, considered “new” communities to create programs with, including groundbreaking initiatives dedicated to serving high school students (1937), children and families (1942), veterans (1944), adults with Alzheimer’s (2005), and many others, regardless of their prior engagement with the arts. Through these initiatives and a multitude of other community-based partnerships (serving organizations working with incarcerated youth, alternatively-sentenced adults, homelessness initiatives, HIV/AIDS health services, and more) MoMA has continued to be an important entry point for New York City audiences that have been, and who generally remain, woefully underserved by museums.
I connected with Shellyne Rodriguez over email to discuss the planning and teaching philosophies behind the creation of this summer’s Night Studio pilot, her own experiences as a young GED student, her pathway toward a degree in the arts, the importance of listening to the needs of our audiences, and where we might take these programs in the future.
Calder Zwicky: Can you talk a little bit about your own high school experiences and the circumstances that led to you getting your GED when you were a teen?
Shellyne Rodriguez: I wasn’t the least bit interested in high school. I had been dealing with a lot of trauma and instability at home and so being in a setting with my peers was the only place I was able to feel free. Focusing in the classroom was just not a priority. The only area where I cared to make an effort was in art. Ever since I was a child I had the ability to draw. But I didn’t get into the High School of Art and Design because of my poor grades, and I was angry about it. At my assigned high school, I was denied the chance to be in the art program, and was thrown into the business program, to learn “typewriting.” Needless to say, I stopped going.
In our earliest conversations about creating this program I feel like you really pushed for the need to support this audience’s creativity and artistry, because maybe no one else in their lives was doing that right now. Was there anyone supporting your creativity at this age?
My interest in art never waned. I was a graffiti artist, so I continued with that. I slowly became more interested in illustration than in doing graphic lettering. In graffiti language, we would say that I was less interested in handstyles and burners and more into characters. Its important to mention that during this time in my life, I was a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, which was partially a street gang, and partially dedicated to the preservation of hip-hop culture. There were elder women in the Nation that kept me creative and gave me outlets. I was one of the first students in the Sista II Sista radical grassroots political education program for girls.
I took the leap into college from my GED because my girlfriend at the time quite literally held my hand the whole time and walked me through the process. I never fathomed it was a possibility for me. I didn’t know how people did that. I enrolled into SVA, who at the time had a matriculated night school program for working-class students trying to earn a degree. I worked during the day doing shipping and receiving, and went to school at night.
This was interrupted for the cost of the program being too much, and the aftermath of 9/11. I finished my bachelors 10 years later.
I think your organic, genuine connection to this audience — having gone through similar things when you were younger yourself — is one of the main reasons you were able to create such an intensely positive environment here and craft such an amazingly successful course this summer. You weren’t sitting around guessing what the audience’s needs might be; you were able to call upon your own experiences when you were a young adult and working towards the very same goal. But even with all of that personal experience, there must have been some things about the group that surprised you or that you genuinely weren’t expecting. Any examples?
Our inaugural class was made up of a lot of newly emigrated young people going through the TASC system, who just needed to pass this hurdle to be able to then move on to college. The attainability of pursuing the arts or, in some cases, access to the university, felt the same, but the experience was different.
I also didn’t anticipate how serious they would take this class, which I am thankful for. The students really understood that this was something unique and they treated it that way. Students travelled from as far as Yonkers to attend Night Studio.
The syllabus you put together was serious too: nude figure drawing in the galleries, collaborative sculpture projects, portfolio reviews, meetings with curators, tours of exhibitions. Can you share a bit about how you organized the six weeks? What you hoped to accomplish, and how you wanted to get it all done?
Yes. I wanted to treat the six weeks like a crash course, an art intensive. I wanted it to feel like the first semester of art school, foundation classes. I also wanted the students to know that we were taking them serious as artists. This meant supplying them with materials to aid them in this immersive experience — Portfolio cases, a drawing pad, a sketchbook, a pencil case with kneaded erasers. Students were given homework every week, and each lesson was centered around a new medium. Students learned the color wheel, drawing techniques, engaged with Surrealism, mix media, and bookmaking.
Each class began with dinner, and we spent our first 30 minutes discussing our week, current events, etc. We also spent time in the galleries looking. Students learned two ways of discussing work, formally and through narrative. My ultimate goal was to try to create a community amongst these people who had gathered on their Wednesday summer nights to be artists. Conversations about art school after gaining the high school equivalency diploma were prevalent, and Night Studio fostered these desires though advice and portfolio reviews, but I also pushed for collective building. Staying in touch and organizing their own art communities, as a way of opening up the possibilities of being artists. I envision Night Studio alumni forming their own art scenes and entering the conversation through the back door.
We met with folks from District 79 prior to you creating your syllabus, in order to hear more about the TASC and what the needs of their students were in 2017, and worked with some of their principals to help spread the word about the course as well. I’m curious about how you see Night Studio in relation to the [Department of Education] or your students’ more formal modes of testing and education. Is it in addition to their current studies, or do you see it as something completely outside of that structure altogether? What’s your current relationship with NYC’s school system?
The Department of Education has and continues to be an institution that fails poor and working-class people; predominantly people of color, and it shouldn’t have to. My experience has been that individual teachers make all of the difference in the world. They are allies in hostile territories. Some have supervisors who instruct them to avoid teaching poetry and literature as a way to teach reading comprehension, and to instead focus on teaching employee manuals. Students are not expected to engage with the arts in their curriculum for TASC, which inevitably leaves the potential artists behind. This fact created the impetus for Night Studio, a program for the artists failed by the DOE, to reconnect and be supported with the resources available at the museum — a way to connect to the arts, and to an artist community.
Finally, where do you see Night Studio going in the future? What would you do with your group the next time around, and what would you be most excited to share or work on with this audience?
I anticipate this program continuing to churn out alumni. I envision alumni group shows. I imagine collectives and collaborations forming. I imagine an army of artists entering the arts conversation not through the highly professionalized conveyor belt currently in place. Artists with a whole new experience…the possibilities are endless.