MoMA in Conference

This series of posts celebrates the 80th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art’s formal commitment to museum education. Pablo Helguera is director of Adult and Academic Programs in MoMA’s Department of Education.

Participants in MoMA’s The Curative Object conference arriving at the Art Barge, May 2014. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagón

A few years ago, during a conversation about the value of conferences, the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi told me an interesting anecdote. He and another colleague, Martin Seligman, had organized a gathering of renowned psychologists in Acumal, on the Riviera Maya of Mexico, renting a couple of homes owned by the Grateful Dead. As he described it, “We invited 20 of the most promising young psychologists to come there for free, and spend a week discussing how psychology could shed its clinical mantle. We spent a week in swimsuits and flip-flops discussing various ideas, and in between we would dive in the cenote behind the house, and swim with the fish.” This turned out to be a significant gathering for the field: from that experience was born the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), which organizes a conference every few years and at its last gathering, in Montreal, had 1,500 participants from seven countries.

This small anecdote only illustrates the way in which gatherings of professionals with like interests can become so beneficial to their field: the particular mixture of open (social) and structured formats of exchange in an inspiring environment allowed for great scholarship to emerge.

In the art world, and specifically here at The Museum of Modern Art, professional gatherings have always been key to the exploration and advancement of relevant ideas in our field. Toward the end of World War II, Victor D’Amico, MoMA’s first director of education, was instrumental in the creation of the Committee on Art Education, a group of artists and educators who gathered with the purpose of promoting a closer relationship between the work or artists and the public. Within a decade, the Committee had reached 500 members. Always sponsored and often hosted by MoMA, the Committee on Art Education became a national organization focused on exploring and promoting innovative thinking on the relationship between art and learning. Their gatherings included towering figures of 20th-century art, such as Walter Gropius, Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, Hale Woodruff, and Sue Fuller, among many others. The conferences were strongly supported by the Museum’s Board of Trustees, and they were often opened by leading figures of the board, such as Nelson Rockefeller. One of the notable conferences organized by this group took place in 1950 under the heading “Teaching in Action.” This conference departed from previous — and more traditional — efforts in that it tried to look at art education in real life, somewhat departing from purely theoretical discussions on education, and placing emphasis not just on making but also on evaluating teaching methods. What is perhaps more relevant is that the committee offered special sessions to the public, where some of these education ideas were put into action.

Seen now with the perspective of time, one of the contributions by D’Amico and his committee that is worth highlighting is the importance placed on education as a creative practice. In other words, modern (and now contemporary) art education has slowly shifted its focus away from transmitting content at different levels to a range of audiences and toward providing those audiences with the ability to see the world anew. As the American industrial designer George Nelson put it at one of these conferences, “Art is the most basic and most vital of all education. It is more important than technical information…. The importance of art education is that it trains us to see and to see things whole.” This philosophy is apparent in the work that D’Amico produced over the years through his People’s Art Center, where he gave great importance to fostering and nurturing artistic thinking and creativity, which he saw as the true basis for gaining an aesthetic sensibility.

Since those early years, we at the Museum have always been keenly aware of this illustrious legacy and tradition, and particularly the spirit of sociability and community that sparks ideas and creativity. In 2009, in preparation for the exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, we saw an opportunity to explore these specific topics. (The Bauhaus pioneered a successful school model that generated a unique community of artists and learners, which in turn would influence other school experiments in the 20th century, such as Black Mountain College). At the time — given the then-emerging topic of the “educational turn in curating” and the fact that many contemporary artists were employing educational models as part of their practice — we presented a gathering titled Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education. This forum was an attempt to review current artistic practices in the realm of education and explore the opportunities and questions those practices raised. As we planned the forum, we felt that it was important to offer formats that were experiential and experimental (not dissimilar to the “real life” experiments that D’Amico pursued in his own conferences half a century before). At some point in the conference the artist Mark Allen, from the Los Angeles collective Machine Project, conducted a workshop in which conference participants could build a small sound device, exemplifying the educational approach of his practice. Another important aspect of these annual gatherings, which became known as the Contemporary Art Forum, was the idea of breaking the event into a two-step process, consisting of a closed-door conference and a public event. This format allows the participants to discuss specific issues in more detail while helping them to think about how the problem could be articulated successfully to a broader public. And then, of course, there’s the party: At the end of the Transpedagogy conference, participants were invited to board a Colombian party bus that took them all on a trip through Manhattan to a concluding reception in Brooklyn.

Reception event for Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education, May 2009

Another example that merged the experiential and the discursive was our 2014 conference The Curative Object, planned in collaboration with artist Alison Smith, and in response to the MoMA retrospective of the work of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. The conference focused on the curative properties of engaging with and making objects. After a daylong series of theater presentations, the smaller group of participants got on a bus to The Art Barge, which Victor D’Amico created in 1960 in Montauk, Long Island, to offer a learning environment to people of all ages in an inspiring natural environment. The Art Barge, a refurbished World War I Army barge docked at the beach, is yet another example of D’Amico’s “conductive” spaces for learning.

For all of us who work in education at The Museum of Modern Art, and for many of our colleagues who have joined conferences of this nature, there is a shared recognition that providing this engaging social environment can be hugely inspiring and generative to all participants. Early education theory, including the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, proposes that environment is a third teacher. If one is to understand environment not simply as a physical but as a social space, we believe that conferences like these fulfill this purpose, and, we hope, help further the democratic and inclusive spirit that fueled D’Amico’s ideas. Certainly holding our gathering at The Art Barge, overlooking the beach, we all had the feeling that Victor himself would have approved.