Story and photos by SOPHIA JEON
Art museums in general not only perform the basic functions of collecting, exhibiting, researching, and preserving artworks, but also open them up to the public through active educational programs, thus playing an important role as a cultural institution.
As art education in modern society has become an essential component to develop human sensibility and thinking ability, the communication of artistic language within the society is ultimately reaching the educational goal pursued by the museums.
Several staff members with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts confidently spoke about the educational outreach they have done to help UMFA become a beneficial leader in shaping the place of artistic communication in the local society.
According to the website, UMFA’s mission is “to inspire critical dialogue and illuminate the role of art in our lives.”
To fulfill the mission, staff have conducted a variety of educational activities for members of different age groups. Annie Burbidge Ream, the co-director of K-12 and family programs, first introduced the institution’s historical programs for the younger generation.
“Two of our longest running programs here at the museum in K-12 and family programs are ‘pARTners’ and ‘Third Saturday,’” Ream said.
pARTners is a program for all fourth-grade students in the Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City school districts. They visit the museum twice a year and participate in a variety of integrated art works.
Despite the pandemic, UMFA has continued the program as a virtual tour, and this is the 38th year to run it.
Third Saturday is a family-based program held on the third Saturday of each month, where everyone can enter the museum for free, browse the galleries and participate in different projects. “It’s meant to be for not just kids making art but the whole family and whatever you see as a family whether it’s your friends or others,” Ream said.
“Our goal is for students to know that they are creative,” Ream said. “It’s important for people to know their creativity as a life skill. We also hope that our programs make students be good critical thinkers so that they can look at the work of art and ask questions.”
Because UMFA is not only the state’s fine arts museum, but is also an institution affiliated with and located on the University of Utah campus, it offers a variety of educational projects to engage with the students and faculty at the U.
Ashley Farmer, the co-director of adult and university programs, described a visual art project she is working on with medical and nursing students at the U. “It is a program where students in small groups look at the same piece of art for about 20 minutes or more for just one painting,” Farmer said in a Zoom interview. “That is for encouraging slow and close looking when they read medical imagery like diagnostic images, EKGs, X-rays, and such.”
In many fields, the visual arts play an important role in conducting research and work. Among them, this program, which tries to relate the medical professions’ process of analyzing the visual evidence to the arts, is a unique way of artistic communication.
UMFA has also focused on different wellness programs that apply the visual arts to everyday life. “We have a yoga program partnering with PEAK Health and Fitness on our campus. … The instructor Jendar Marie Morales incorporates art into a practice and discussion about yoga, which is amazing to connect yoga practice to art images,” Farmer said.
Another wellness program is the mindfulness class by Charlotte Bell, the author and instructor of meditation. “She uses art images as a method of contemplation and conversation, which connect mindfulness practice to art,” Farmer said.
Art is also linked to music. Mindy Wilson, the director of marketing and communications, said about UMFA’s Sight & Sound that “it’s always been about bringing live music into the galleries to enhance the viewer’s experience on looking at art. … The idea is not that you sit, listen, and watch the musicians, but you walk around to look at the art while you are listening to the music.”
Among the exhibitions currently ongoing at the UMFA is “Space Maker,” a show of works by faculty artists from the Department of Art and Art History at the U. “That’s a wonderful example of our creative shows that recognize the specific talent of the artists who teach on our campus,” Wilson said in a Zoom interview.
“2020: From Here on Out” is another ongoing exhibition, featuring murals by artists responding to the global pandemic and racial injustice. “Murals are so good in conveying messages. That’s been really important especially over the past year and a half,” Wilson said.
Virginia Catherall, the curator of education, family programs, visitor experience, and community outreach, expressed her anticipation for the upcoming project called UMFA in the Wild, which will start again in person in the summer of 2022.
“It’s a really fun community program to link nature in art. … I collaborate with state parks in the area and do art with people who are in there. We draw, watercolor, or print anything around us. … Giving the idea of how nature and art intertwined, you can get inspiration from nature to create art,” Catherall said in a Zoom interview.
“There will be an exhibit called ‘Confluence’ that explores water and all the different perspectives of water,” Catherall said. “We work with the natural history museum on campus to give scientific environmental perspective to that project. We also work with a professor on campus who is recording and documenting indigenous lands, waterways, and mountains.”
The UMFA’s way of educational communication, which introduces the value of art integrated with various fields to the public in an intimate way, makes it grow into a successful institution.
UMFA hopes to connect with more people in the community and bring them to the museum.
“Our hope is that someone comes into the museum as a small child. I hope that they keep coming. Maybe the small children will grow up as students at the U, those who are in arts creative fields, or their families. We hope that by working with lots of different ages, we can get them into the museum,” Ream said.
Wilson, who handles communication for UMFA, said, “Bringing people in is also about hearing from them what they want. It is important to be more aware of what our visitors want and to be more open to shaping ourselves to fit into it.”
Even the pandemic cannot stop their enthusiasm as educators.
“Seeing something in person is really important. However, we can’t sacrifice people’s opportunities to learn just because we can’t get them into the museum,” Catherall said. “Being able to do this online or virtually has freed us from that constraint of only doing things in person.”