A Conversational Interview with Jennelyn Tumalad, current Project Coordinator of Education at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, CA.
You focused your Master’s thesis at Pratt Institute on “Socially Engaged Art and Educators in the Museum” and have worked within many institutions, specifically within the educational programming and public programs departments. How have museums and institutions perceived your “socially engaged art practices”, specially related to your different projects like “College Night” at the Getty and others?
Socially engaged practices to me, are practices in which programmers/educators/artists are responsive to the needs of a community and work with them to create resources, programs, experiences, and opportunities they feel they most need. This is not unlike museum programming, especially for education departments. Museums identify as public educational institutions that serve their community. I started creating parallels between the two practices–museum education and socially engaged art–while I was working as an educator in museums in NYC and studying art history, focusing on contemporary art movements such as activist art, art and social practice, and socially engaged art). I chose this due to seeing a lot of parallels with the work that I was doing as a freelance educator.
As far as how museums have perceived my socially engaged art practices… I think it’s important to acknowledge the difference between supporting change and radical ideas, and actually committing to the time, energy, persistence, and self-work that actually goes into making long-term systemic change.
I think the most directly related project I’ve developed in hopes to really trying to incorporate socially engaged practices into museum programming is one that I’m about to implement this January. When I say “socially engaged practices,” I’m referring to ways in which socially engaged artists involve the communities they work with. My program structure uses “YPAR” Youth-led participatory action research. In the original curriculum that I developed, the participating youth in this program are active agents in identifying problems within their community and coming to answers they felt would help “solve” these issues. I pitched this program and had incredibly positive feedback about it being “youth-led” and that students would feel empowered and become active agents in this program, but ultimately the core of this program ended up changing a lot from original inception of the idea to actual implementation.
How do you see socially engaged art functioning within an institution?
It’s hard, you know, because museums exist within the art world, which in and of itself likes to exist outside of the real world, but ultimately the art world is within the real world, which has its own systemic injustices. I think what is really dark about the art world is that it likes to portray that it’s different. And it’s not. And I think that’s one thing it needs to own up to and stop performing. Many art spaces profit on being viewed as an activist and progressive space, but the reality is that many institutions are ultimately funded by the 1%. That’s something that I’ve had to come to terms with when working within museum spaces.
The goals that museum educators have are a lot of the same goals that socially engaged artists have. Pablo Helguera’s piece, Librería Donceles, was a travelling spanish-language bookstore and community space that hosted programming that was responsive to the spanish speaking community of each city it occupied; a project like this is exactly what museum education and public programming seeks to accomplish. It creates and strengthens the local community, it connects people closer to art and ideas, it develops empathy and critical thinking about the world around you. It is not surprising that Pablo Helguera is both a socially engaged artist and the Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art.
Another example of the blurry line between artist and educator is a teacher’s resource guide from the Guggenheim’s education department for their exhibition, “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” that helps teachers and visitors with different ways of navigating the gallery space. It was entirely comprised of conceptual art and felt like an instructional fluxus piece. I said to myself, “this is literally art. What is the difference here?”
While attending the NAEA conference a few years ago, I attended an a presentation from an art education PhD candidate on the topic of how K-12 art educators can lose their identity of being an artist once they start teaching. It made me realize that many art educators have such a traditional view of what art is. And it’s really not in line with where art history is in the moment at all. It’s very confusing. It made me think, “So we expect everyone who teaches foundational k-12 art education to have a really traditional viewpoint of what art is, such as drawing a still life, one point perspective, or essentially that art is how accurately you can draw something, or even that art can only be an object. And drawing it accurately…”
What you are saying makes total sense.
And yet everyone who teaches at the college level are all practicing artists. They all know art history in its entire scope. This guy was talking about his research to a bunch of very traditional K-12 art educators. He said that art educators normally define artists as those producing artwork and showing at a gallery. They see art as only making a product. He asserts that art educators would continue to identify as artists if they start to expand their viewpoint of what art is, which has been something that’s been happening, since the 60s or earlier (remember anti-art and Dada?). And everyone’s mind was blown: “wait what, art and social practice?”
Ultimately, socially engaged artists and educators within institutions can learn a lot from each other. Educators can become inspired to think more about their practice in a creative way and allow themselves to see that the work that they do is artistic in itself when approached with purpose and creativity. But, socially engaged artists can strongly benefit from some of the very practical methods educators implement in their discipline: things like measuring impact, applying standards to their work, and developing pedagogical strategy.
Continuing with the perception of institutions on socially engaged art… How have any of your socially engaged art practices within institutions changed their perception in a new way?
I think it’s important to think about who is making up an institutions’ perception. If it’s the people funding the museum or the higher powers of the institution, I wish I knew! I’m still quite young in my career, and have only been able to “sit at the table” with director’s and decision makers a handful of times. I think it goes back to being patient for change and back to the ideas I mentioned before that long-term systemic change takes time. So it’s important to see small wins and remember that those small shifts can build up to create the change you want to see.
For example, the longest I’ve worked on administrative staff at a museum was at the J. Paul Getty Museum for 2 years in varying capacities (moving from Graduate Intern to a Program Coordinator in those two years, always focusing on college audiences and public artist programs). I worked tirelessly to incorporate a College Advisory Board to help plan their annual college night. In this board, I involved as diverse a range of students that my one man operation could recruit. I built out a program where we met weekly to discuss and think critically about what College Night meant to them and their community and how we could make it a program that truly represented the diversity of interests, needs, and work happening in college audiences in LA County. This involvement and collaboration caused the attendance to skyrocket compared to the previous year: the number of participants rose from 1600 to 2600 in attendance. It was as simple as involving the community, valuing their perspective, and nurturing the relationship so that they all felt a stake and desire to see this event be successful. From that experience, the College Advisory Board’s involvement continued, it allowed for the museum to provide travel stipends for future College Advisory Board members, and increased the event’s program budget for the next fiscal year.
Again, museums are really quick to say, “Yes! Let’s do it,” when they hear about programs and initiatives that mention social justice, equity, or incorporate any of the strategies that are informed by socially engaged art. They want to quickly flip a switch to say, “yeah, we are equitable, we serve the local community, and we are diverse.” To get to this point, it takes real patience and systemic change, and having every single stakeholder that’s a part of the program actually being committed to the work of making that change.
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