Since opening its doors in 1933, the Seattle Art Museum has entertained and educated visitors with special programs, exhibitions, and an impressive permanent collection that has grown to some 23,000 pieces. While SAM sees close to one million visitors annually across its three sites, the emerald city institution is committed to identifying new audiences and opportunities for outreach.
"SAM has been very invested in seeing what role museums can play in student learning in and through the arts," says Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs at SAM/ and adjunct curator. "We continue to be interested in the work that we can do to address student learning in informal and formal ways."
This mission led to the development of the "Art Goes to School" program, which – thanks in part to funding from an IMLS Museums for America grant – has created a range of programs designed to keep K–12 students continually learning in and through the arts. With an emphasis on local, economically disadvantaged schools (defined as schools with 40% or more students on a free or reduced cost meal program), the program promotes collaboration, partnership, professional development and the involvement of teachers.
A main goal of the program is for SAM to be a resource for underserved segments of the public. "Greater Seattle is an interesting place because it is a region with a great deal of wealth," says Jackson-Dumont. "Some of the most innovative companies in the world are headquartered here – Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Microsoft. Yet in our public schools, creativity and innovation are not central to teaching and learning."
Research to Inform Action
The first step was researching the needs of the educators and the students they serve. Over the past five years, Jackson-Dumont and her colleagues have focused research on examining data on a more granular level – "Not just collecting data to report, but to impact our work," she explains. "That’s been a big shift for us. We wanted to find out who was coming to the museum and who wasn’t coming. Did these numbers align with lower-performing schools?"
"For example there were some schools that came to our Picasso exhibition that had never been to the museum before. What was it about that show that was so enticing for them?" she wonders aloud. "Equity in access to creative arts learning is important to us."
Jackson-Dumont and her team also attended school board meetings and community organization meetings. "We discovered we could increase the capacity of serving these schools if we targeted them specifically."
The research data illuminated the need for new art outreach suitcases, which became an essential component of the "Art Goes to School" project. Based on the museum’s permanent collection, these traveling containers offer students the chance to touch, feel, and experience art in their very own classrooms. Although designed for schools that are geographically more remote, any institution can check them out. "We had a prison borrow them once," explains Jackson-Dumont.
"We looked at the most popular suitcases and the ones that weren’t used as often," she says. "The idea was to rejuvenate and resuscitate the materials where needed."
The IMLS grant funds allowed SAM to revamp the suitcases. "They allowed us to explore a new path into something that hadn’t been explored before," says Jackson-Dumont. "They opened up a door for us to make these connections across cultures – which really mimics a vision that we live by now."
The new outreach suitcases include "Ways of Seeing: Australian and Oceanic Art Outreach Suitcase," "Places, Spaces and Faces: Modern and Contemporary Sculpture," "Trading Traditions: History, Culture, and Exchange in the Philippines," "Art of Identity, Expression and Adornment: African Art," and "Arts of Asia: Stories Across Time and Place." An additional set of SAM’s most popular suitcase – "Values to Live By: Northwest Coast Native American Art and Culture" – was also created.
"The suitcases were checked out 115 times, reaching over 8,000 students over one year," says Jackson-Dumont. "In specific schools, we have a trained point teacher who rotates the suitcases among other teachers, which fosters greater collaboration. The teachers are playing an active role in being ambassadors for the outreach suitcases."
Working with Educators
With the help of the IMLS grant, SAM also succeeded in creating a Facebook page to share successful arts integration lesson plans among teachers.
"This is a group of people who needed a community all their own, so we originally thought about creating a microsite," explains Jackson-Dumont. "But once we received the grant application, everyone was getting into Facebook. We really rethought our social media presence."
The Facebook page was preferable to a microsite because "it wasn’t yet another site people had to visit and remember yet another password for, and it was low maintenance for the museum," says Jackson-Dumont. "Plus, we can push ideas out there and connect to other resources."
"Art Goes to School" also provides professional development opportunities to increase the number of teachers teaching in and through the arts. "We realized that we wanted to focus more on impact than frequency," says Jackson-Dumont. "By actually offering fewer workshops, we create more of an event atmosphere. We’ve learned that audiences really thrive in environments where there is a balance between the social and the intellectually rigorous."
Successes and Challenges
The "Art Goes to School" project has proven to be a star pupil among SAM’s special programs. During the grant period, the project grew the museum’s capacity to serve 25 percent more students during the school day (from 24,000 to more than 30,000) – particularly those from economically disadvantaged schools – with art experiences both at the museum and in the classroom. More docents and teaching artists were also hired and a new educator position was added.
With success come new challenges. "The demand has really increased," says Jackson-Dumont. "We have to train more docents. We have to train more educators for multi-session workshops in the schools. We need greater resources.
"Unfortunately, we need two things that funders don’t find ‘sexy’ – support staff positions and marketing," says Jackson-Dumont. "We need marketing campaigns for this work like we do for exhibitions. Imagine if a bus went by and it advertised student learning, or it said get out to a cultural institution because your child will be more civically engaged because of it."
Despite these obstacles, Jackson-Dumont sees examples of how "Art Goes to School" is creating positive outcomes every day. "SAM has a partnership with Chief Sealth High School in Seattle," she explains. "The school had seen several challenges over the years, but the administration and school community was committed to a positive transformation. . With new leadership, great teachers, and partnerships, the school has continued to grow."
Jackson-Dumont and her colleagues met with the school’s principal and began training teachers to integrate art into their curricula. "We did lots of coaching through museum educators and teaching artists," she says.
Arts education became part of the core curriculum at Chief Sealth. During one project, students learned about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and were shown propaganda posters and films. "They learned about the role that artists played in this moment in history," says Jackson-Dumont. "Students made propaganda posters for three Seattle organizations, and one of the organizations has adopted one of the students’ posters as part of its marketing campaign."
The partnership continues at the school. Chief Sealth’s principal has since gone to a new school district, and he has already called SAM to find out how he can replicate the program there.
"This is such a good example of doing deep work that’s built on partnership and collaboration," says Jackson-Dumont. "It’s not about taking over or pushing our work; it’s about integrating. It’s about art as a vehicle for change."
Photo caption: Some/One, 2001, Do Ho Suh, Korean, works in America, born 1962, Stainless steel military dog-tags, nickel plated copper sheets, steel structure, glass fiber reinforced resin, rubber sheets, 81 x 126 in. (205.7 x 320 cm), Seattle Art Museum, Barney A. Ebsworth Collection, 2002.43, © Do Ho Suh