Art Works Add to Classroom Pedagogy

April 30, 2007 -- A picture is worth a thousand words. Art history professors long ago embraced this precept and adopted the slide lecture as a hallmark of their profession, allowing students to travel through time and space to see great works of art. But these days, more and more students at the University of Virginia are taking the next step, replacing slides with opportunities to experience works of art in person.

By bringing this firsthand experience with art into the lives of students, the University of Virginia Art Museum plays an integral role in the intellectual discourse on Grounds. With more than 10,000 objects in a collection that encompasses a wide range of historic periods and cultures — as well as the exhibition of traveling shows — professors from art history to religion to education are calling upon art works to add another dimension to their pedagogy.

"We work very hard at positioning the museum as an integral academic resource for the University through innovative, often interdisciplinary, programs based in the visual arts," said museum director Jill Hartz.  "This includes providing on-site and online access to our collections and selecting exhibitions that support the teaching program, not just in art and art history, but throughout Arts & Sciences as well as the other schools of the University."

Over the years the art museum has developed relationships with faculty from all areas of the University. Creative writing classes visit the museum for inspiration, foreign language classes visit to practice their conversational skills and medical students have used the museum to help them recognize disease from historical drawings and paintings. 

Other, more formal relationships have also developed. This semester alone, three U.Va. professors curated exhibits that not only appealed to the general public, they played a large role in expanding visual perception in classroom work for both their undergraduate and graduate students.

"Fernand Léger: Contrasts of Forms," curated by Léger expert and McIntire Department of Art associate professor Matthew Affron, provided a valuable opportunity for graduate students in a seminar class on cubism to experience a moment in time when Léger explored the rise of cubism and the beginning of abstract art.

The exhibition shows how Léger worked through a number of complicated aesthetic questions in the course of making a single series of paintings and drawings.  To look at our particular selection from that series and talk about it teaches us things that we could not realize in the classroom, Affron said.

For art history doctoral student Melissa Ragain, whose field is contemporary art of the 1960s and 1970s, the exhibit provided a background for understanding the questions posed by later 20th-century artists. "The fact that the show concentrates on work produced by Léger in a short period of time provides a window into some of the formal problems Léger was working through at the moment,” she said. “Seeing such similar works side-by-side throws their differences into relief and reveals the conscious choices concerning line, form and color that might go unnoticed if viewed separately."

Although works by other cubist and abstract artists were viewed in slide format in the classroom, Ragain applauded the opportunity to see works first hand. "Slides and other reproductions tend to flatten the tactile qualities of these works, and since much of their interest lies in the negotiation of the two-dimensional image and three-dimensional object, seeing the paintings in person gets us closer to understanding Léger's own artistic intentions."

Rebecca Anne Rosenbaum, a doctoral student in French who is interested in the relationship between image and text in the 20th century and in the influence of cubist theory on both poets and artists, said the exhibit made the ideas more "real." "It has been very helpful to discuss cubist theory in class, then walk over to the museum to see firsthand how this theory applies to the actual paintings."  

Dan Ehnbom, associate professor of South Asian art and director of the Center for South Asian Studies, curated the exhibit "Intensity of Observation and Infinite Significance: Indian Paintings at the University of Virginia Art Museum.” For him there is no question of the benefit of experiencing original works of art. "You cannot interpret photographs unless you have had some real contact with works of art so that you can understand their physicality," he said.

Teaching assistants in his survey course on Indian art took students to the museum to hear them talk about the paintings. They also attended the special Weedon Foundation-sponsored gallery talks by Ehnbom and a visiting lecturer. These experiences made the students more aware of what they were looking at, said Ehnbom, who noticed a group of students clustered around one picture after his talk. "The goal is to make them look and make them think."

Students in religious studies professor Benjamin Ray's classes in African religion learned firsthand the artists' skills and cultural meanings from the exhibit "Images of Women in African Traditional Arts."

Ray states his views on student interaction with the art very simply: "Seeing the art is essential."
Ray curates an exhibit about every three years and has developed three virtual exhibits for the museum — efforts he uses to give the students examples of how to approach their assigned project: the creation of an exhibition catalog.

The exhibit, in combination with the museum's virtual collection and online collections from other museums, form the body or works from which the students can choose to create their own exhibition and related catalogs.

"Even though it's a liberal arts course, it's an outcome-based class where each student forms their own exhibit around a common set of guidelines," Ray said. And they need to do this in terms of scholarly standards, he added.

The class is limited to about 20 third- and fourth-year students in African-American studies, religion and art history. They research their chosen objects and draw on what they learned in class and from the numerous books of African art available in the library to create the labels that describe the works and their artistic quality and features, as well as explain these features in terms of particular social, moral, and religious ideas and actions.

"They need to be able to put the objects they have chosen in relationships to others [they have chosen] and explain it to the man on the street," Ray said. "That's hard when you are dealing with another culture."

Ray has used this technique for the past 11 years and said that students learn a hands-on skill they can take with them when they leave the University. Graduates have gone on to work at the education division of Southby's auction house, been accepted to internships at the Smithsonian and gone on to other museum work.

When there is not a current African art exhibit on view, Ray asks the staff to pull a set of objects out of storage for special class visits to the museum.

"They can see the works in the round. How they're made and hold them to get a sense of their weight and heft as well as their artistic detail and composition," Ray said.   

Curry School associate professor John Bunch has taken advantage of these special viewing opportunities to enhance his classes in beginning and advanced photography and museum education, as well as his University Seminar that focuses on journal keeping, using sketching and photography as ways of reflecting and understanding.

As part of the students' discovery activities for the class, Bunch visits the museum with the students and asks them to select a work of art on display. "They stay with a particular piece of artwork as a vehicle for reflections," Bunch said. Their journal entries convey what that piece of art means to their life, as if it they had it hanging in their homes, he added.

For the photography classes, regular exhibit visits are augmented by special presentations of selected photographs from the museum's extensive collection are shown to the class and discussed by the museum's curator of works on paper, Stephen Margulies.

An overview of the museum's education projects, with their focus on educational programs in the community and local schools, is integral to Bunch's Museums and Education course. Offered to both undergraduates and graduates, students are given an insider's tour of how the museum designs its education programs. They learn about the kinds of questions museum educators pose to K-12 students as they tour an exhibit that will expand their understanding of art and the world, with special emphasis on the Standards of Learning.

In the year ahead, the museum will provide other exhibits that will invite classes in a range of disciplines to experience close encounters with art. "William Christenberry: Site/Possession" and "The Dresser Trunk Project" in the fall, along with "Legacy of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art" in spring 2008, will offer multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary curricular opportunities to engage faculty from art history, American studies, English, history, sociology, architecture, music, studio art, the Carter G. Woodson Institute of Afro-American and African Studies and others in exploring ways in which our southern legacy has contributed to our American identities.