Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: [email protected]
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Feb. 14, 2001 — Williams College Museum of Art is considered one of the finest college museums in the country and its teaching doesn’t stop with undergraduates. Through a series of active community outreach programs, the museum has established itself as one of the most accessible instructional centers for the general public in the Berkshires.
For that, the museum, in large part, has Barbara Robertson to thank. Since coming to WCMA 11 years ago, Robertson, the director of education, has overseen and expanded the museum’s range of community offerings. She runs the museum’s unique and influential museum associates program, sets up workshops for area teachers, helps plan the museum’s annual Family Day, and works on “Kidspace” with representatives of the Clark Art Institute and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA).
The cornerstone of WCMA’s community outreach is the museum associates program. It’s like a docent program, Robertson says, in that its members lead area students and groups on tours of the museum’s exhibits.
But it comes with an important twist: the associates aren’t museum employees or professional guides. They’re Williams students. Every year, the program takes applications from interested undergraduates who have completed the college’s popular “Introduction to Western Art” survey course, and every year a crop of between 30 and 40 students (and two community members) becomes the heart of the associates’ program.
According to Robertson, the student involvement keeps the program fresh and appealing. “This is much more exciting for area schools,” she says. “The fact that the student guides are in school and learning makes them much better teachers.”
Students bring to their tours what they’ve learned in class and what they learn in weekly two-hour meetings, during which museum staff and college faculty discuss current exhibits. Eugene Johnson, a professor of art history, traditionally opens the meeting series every year with a tour of the museum’s architectural history; curators often show up to give students firsthand accounts of the processes of creation and installation.
The students are also briefed on WCMA’s unique thematic tours, which connect material from often very different exhibits with unifying themes. This semester’s grade-school tour, “Strange Places,” explores landscape imagery in American modernist, surrealist, and somewhat more traditional works. The tour designed for high-school groups, “Think Again,” asks students to examine iconography. Both grade-school and high-school tours culminate in activity sessions that give students a chance to experience the concepts hands-on.
Over the last school year, WCMA hosted more than 4,500 students on some 213 tours for schoolchildren in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Connecticut, and more than 3,800 adults attended the museum on special tours.
Robertson credits the student associates with much of the program’s success, and points out that its uniqueness is also an asset. “A few other college museums have museum associates-like programs,” she says, citing Smith College, “but they don’t have as many tours and so many programs.”
But if the museum associates are what makes the educational programming, WCMA’s other activities cement its role as a community educator. Chief among them is Family Day, a 12-year tradition that education coordinator Julia Morgan-Leamon now organizes.
On Family Day, the museum cedes itself to area children with a host of art-making activities, workshops, and performances. The event focuses on “regular things with a twist,” as Morgan-Leamon puts it. And area families — many of them faculty and staff — have responded. Family Day averages an attendance between 700 and 1,000. This year’s Family Day, which took place on Saturday, Feb. 10, celebrated the museum’s much-publicized 75th anniversary.
Behind-the-scenes work is also an important part of WCMA’s mission to educate the community. Robertson arranges between two and seven workshops every year for area art teachers. The workshops give teachers a closer look at the museum’s exhibits and offer new teaching strategies. At the most recent session, a group of 23 spoke with Will Schade; an area artist whose room of works based on the story of Noah’s ark was a staple on the “Strange Places” tour.
The workshops are “key,” Robertson says. “If we’re trying to help kids learn about the arts, it helps if the teachers can learn more context.”
Last, but certainly not least, in terms of developmental possibilities, is “Kidspace,” the museum’s collaboration with the Clark and MASS MoCA. Housed in a 2,400-square foot gallery within MASS MoCA, the program curates special exhibits designed for children. Last year, it kicked off with “Swimming in the Gene Pool,” an exhibit of artist Christy Rupp’s magnified, sculpted viruses and genetically engineered insects. The exhibit attracted over 8,000 visitors.
“Kidspace” is more than just an exhibit hall, though. Coordinators work closely with North Adams schools to schedule tours, workshops, and summer art classes: “all the things we do here in a microcosm version,” according to Robertson. As WCMA celebrates its 75th year, the museum continues to include in its mission meeting the needs of young members of the Purple Valley.