For decades, the Walters Art Museum has been a leader in arts education in the region. We welcome over 25,000 school children each year to have meaningful interactions with art.
Many mornings at the Walters Art Museum begin with a clamor of young voices ringing throughout the galleries as students from across the region arrive to tour the museum. On a Tuesday morning in February, kindergarteners from Maree G. Farring Elementary-Middle in Baltimore City’s Brooklyn neighborhood gathered in the Sculpture Court to start their experience. Museum docent Lenore Baier took them to the fourth floor and began handing out objects—animal plush toys, patches of faux fur, and squares of marble—to give them tangible examples of the shapes, colors, and textures they were seeing in the artwork. Most of the group followed her lead, but in the 4th floor lobby, a painting distracted several of the students.
A large and visually striking painting, The Edicts of Charles V by Jean August Hendrik Leys depicts a town square in Antwerp crowded with people who are listening to an officiant relay proclamations from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The gathered students whispered to one another about the people in the painting and what they may have been talking about. Baier took notice and engaged them in questions.
“What do you think is happening in that painting?” she asked.
“I think they’re arguing,” one student said. “They’re planning something,” another replied, and yet another offered their interpretation that, “They’re having a party.”
The answers were as diverse as the students and showed an astounding connection with art vastly removed from their everyday experiences. Amanda Kodeck, Ruth R. Marder Director of Education and Public Programming, said those connections are among the ultimate goals of each of these school tours.
“At the end of any student’s visit to the Walters, I don’t care if they learned one hundred facts, I want them to walk out having had one new idea. When that happens, it’s a success story,” said Kodeck. “We’ve moved away from regurgitating facts and towards inspiring ideas.”
Every year, over 25,000 school children visit the Walters. For some, not only is this their first time visiting the Walters but any museum. Students from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Frederick County, Howard County, Anne Arundel County and districts around the state, including over 6,000 Title I students from underserved local communities, participate in these programs for free. The Walters is one of a small number of city institutions that offers free admission and provides roughly $47,000 in bus subsidies to over 5,000 title I students each year.
“School programs fulfill one of the most important parts of the Walters strategic vision—to engage diverse audiences and create new connections to the art and culture of our shared past,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director. “Our education coordinators and programming directors do an important and incredible job of both bringing to life our world-class collections and inspiring the love of art in students from different locations and backgrounds.”
The Walters school programs experience consists of three parts: a classroom pre-visit, guided museum tour, and a follow-up session with an art-making activity. During the classroom visit, a Walters’ Education Coordinator familiarizes students with the museum and encourages them to observe, analyze, and describe works of art. A week later, students come to the museum for a one-hour guided tour to interact with the artwork they studied in the classroom. After the tour, students visit studio spaces, where they make art using a variety of media including drawing, printmaking, collage, and ceramic techniques that directly relates to the themes of their tour. The art making allows students to have a hands-on experience which reinforces the lessons taught on the tour and in the classroom.
Establishing connections between students and art has long been a mission at the Walters. Educational programming at the museum began in 1939 when the Board of Trustees appointed a Supervisor of Educational Activities with the mission of activating the collections and making Baltimoreans more art-conscious. Soon after, the focus of museum education expanded to include direct engagement with local schools and students to supplement their classroom instruction. In 1946, Theodore Low became the museum’s first Director of Education and Programming and expanded the museum’s educational offerings to include two television series and a popular lecture series. Low believed that education was one of the primary responsibilities of any museum and once wrote, “The purpose of museums is education in all its varied aspects from the most scholarly research to the simple arousal of curiosity.”
Today, that commitment to education continues with a curriculum enhanced for 21st century schools.
Last year, the Walters was a pilot site in a groundbreaking National Arts Education Association impact study measuring the effects of single-visit art museum programs, such as field trips, on students in grades 4 through 6. The study found that museum school programming, even in a single visit, positively affected students in multi-dimensional ways. Students given access to museum education programs develop creative thinking, increase emotive recall, and accept multiple perspectives and interpretations.
“The results of this study help validate the work of museums as important to student learning and skill development,” said Amanda Kodeck. “You really see the impact when you’re in the galleries and see the excitement come to life.”
As arts education continues to decline nationwide in public school curriculum, school programming through the Walters increasingly provides arts integration, which the impact study highlighted as crucial for students. Education programs at the Walters use art as experience-learning materials that supplement classroom instruction in a variety of methods.
“One of the unique qualities of the Walters program is that it is interdisciplinary. The Ancient Engineers program, for example, incorporates art, engineering, and science concepts and processes. It highlights the technological innovation and knowledge of ancient civilizations, and explains how those civilizations have influenced our lives today,” said Susan Dorsey, Education Coordinator.
School programming at the Walters would not be possible without the work of Walters’ docents and volunteer partners who make incredible contributions of their time, energy, and talents to provide educational experiences to every student who visits the museum.
“Each tour that comes through the museum takes a whole team from across the Walters. Volunteers and staff work together to provide an enriching experience for every visitor,” said Kodeck. “It exemplifies how creating art experiences for all is at the core of what we do.”