Saturday, June 5, 2010

This is Impossible!

I heard a kid say that to his mom last night at the DIA drop-in workshop for watercolor postcards.

Every Friday, the DIA is open until 10pm.  During this time, there are live music performances (last night was ZoZo Afrobeat, which I heard was awesome), drop-in art-making workshops, cash bars throughout the museum (I'd be lying if I said this didn't make me a little nervous), lectures, and other small events inside the galleries.

My dad and I used to go almost every Friday when I was younger.  I saw (and met!) Richie Havens there when I was in high school.  It was groovy.

So last night, I stayed late at the museum (My advisor told me that I should spend the night at the museum to ensure that I acheive my 320 hour minimum...) to observe a Friday Night Live from the perspective of a program evaluator, rather than a visitor.

There were lots of people, and ZoZo Afrobeat seemed to be filling the Detroit Film Theatre Auditorium to the rafters.  It was a great night.

Then I decided to check out the drop-in workshop to see what their turnout was like, and what kind of projects everyone was making.  I was pleased to see a diverse group of families, young adults, and seniors all painting postcards.  I walked around and asked a few kids what they were painting.  Most gave me an answer; stars, mountains, etc.

But when I asked one third grade boy what he was painting he said, "I don't know..."  To which I replied, "That's ok, you don't have to know."  And I was surprised by his next outburst of "This is impossible!!"

That's when his mother pulled me aside and told me the poor kid had just had a "meltdown" a few minutes prior to my arrival.  He was so intimidated and frustrated by the lack of instruction for this (seemingly simple) project that he simply shut down.

His mom then told me that in his art classes in school, he is usually given very specific instructions.  The kids are told what to paint and how to paint it, without much room for creative variances.  I found this surprising and asked what school district he is in.  Quite frankly, I was expecting her to tell me he was in a Detroit Public School (DPS is not known for their fantastic art programs).  But no, he attends a Grosse Pointe school-- one of the best around, for that matter.

I was stunned.

Earlier that afternoon, I had visited the DIA gift shop, searching for childrens' books for a girlfriend's upcoming baby shower.  While there, I found this book for myself:

One of my big, final projects last semester was about how to talk about art with kids in a museum setting.  It was a historical project that looked at methods of teaching art criticism from the Picture Study Movement of the late 1800's, through The Feldman Model and finally the contemporary Visual Thinking Strategies.

So naturally, I was interested in this book and thought it was worth my 17 bucks.

I don't know much about teaching art to children-- I have but one semester's worth of knowledge and zero experience.  But I knew that this poor kid was struggling and that whatever method was being used in his school is not doing him any good.  Frankly, it sounds like he's in an art class from the turn of the century.  His mother even disclosed that while he enjoys art, he will often open up an art book and copy the pictured works, almost exactly.

I told her that while I don't think there is any real danger in allowing him to copy works in an effort to hone his technical skills, I do find it somewhat concerning that he found the presentation of a blank postcard and a palette of paint to be so upsetting. 

I then asked if this was their first time in an art class or drop-in workshop at the DIA.  She said yes and I suggested that this should not be the last.  From the research I've been doing for these program synopsis sheets, I learned a lot about the techniques used in the studio classes for kids.  They actually use a VTS method, which I found interesting as I could picture no way to use VTS in a studio setting-- until I read their descriptions. 

The classes are structured enough to prevent frustration fueled meltdowns, but are open enough to allow for a certain amount of creative expression.  I told this mom that if her kid has an interest in art, but is afraid of working without specific instruction, that the DIA Art Exploration Camps would be a good place to start.

While I felt badly that this poor kid was having such a rough time, it felt really good that I could be somewhat knowledgeable about his problem and helpful in suggesting a possible solution.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Check Mate

I feel as though I have been given a job that I don't deserve.

One of my intern tasks is to research all of the DIA's programs and do a short, one-page write up on each of them, expressing the program's value to the museum and community.  Essentially, I am presenting information about the programs (revenue, people served, frequency, target audiences, etc.) and then stating why the DIA should continue these programs and why you, the public, should support them.

Basically, I've been asked to determine which programs are of any value.

So I've been going through this list of 100 some programs and making up these little synopses or info-sheets.  I think I have 6 done so far.  Because there's a fair amount of research involved, it's not a terribly expedient process.

But anyway, today I was working on the synopsis for the Detroit City Chess Club, and I was astounded.  The kids in the DCCC have won all kinds of awards, scholarships and trophies for playing competitive chess.  There are over 200 kids, from 50 schools in the Detroit Metro area, but none of these schools will give the club any space to meet and play chess.  Super lame, DPS.  So the DIA stepped in and every Friday, gives the DCCC enough space for dozens of chess games.  It's really something to see.

I've walked past this event for the past several weeks, and I'm always impressed.  First of all, I think it's just plain cool to see twenty or so school kids playing chess among 400 year old suits of armor. 

Secondly, I am always amazed by how much these kids seem to genuinely enjoy the game of chess.  They're always smiling and laughing and cheering each other on.  Some of them get so excited that they can't stand to sit in a chair, and end up pacing around the tables while playing. 

The other great thing about this program is that it takes place on Friday nights.  The DIA is open to the public until 10pm on Fridays for a program called "Friday Night Live".  As a result, lots of people are walking by the DCCC set up, and many stop to play a game with the kids, or among themselves-- which the DCCC both welcomes and encourages.
So not only do we give the DCCC a place to play, but we also get the general public interacting with Detroit school kids and playing chess-- thus witnessing the DIA's civic engagement and developing a positive image of the DIA as an active member of the Detroit community.

There has been much debate in the museum world concerning the "function" or "purpose" of museums.  Should they really be turned into community centers?  Or should their mission center solely on the care of artworks?

I know that many of my peers shudder to think of the museum being transformed into a community center.  But I think it works here.  Detroit is something of a special case these days.  All of the city's organizations need to work together to make sure that their kids aren't falling through the cracks of this deeply cracked city.  I don't mean to be harsh on the City of Detroit.  I love Detroit, and I'm not afraid to say it.  While I see a lot of negatives in the DPS and other areas, I see as many positives in programs like those at the DIA that are actively supporting the city's students.

And if I haven't mentioned it yet, I need to do so now:  Chess is great.  It is a highly strategic game that develops critical thinking, and parents of chess club members have reported improvements in their kids' self-esteem and GPA. 

For an organization like the DIA, which so highly values critical thinking, a partnership with the DCCC seems like a no-brainer.  DCCC kids and their families are also frequently offered VTS tours of the collections-- another way of developing critical thinking skills in students. 

Thus, in my most humble intern opinion, I see the Detroit City Chess Club as being one of the most valuable programs at the DIA.

All of the photos came from the chess club's website,

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Somehow, when I pictured myself working in a museum, I always imagined myself in an office stacked with books and full of priceless artifacts.  Now here I am in a sea of grey cubicles.  The third floor of the DIA is not glamorous.  Even the director's office is just a modified cubicle with a door.

Most of the windows don't even look outside-- they're all interior windows (partly a result of the renovation) that look into interior courts or directly into other walls.  Which is why I was surprised to walk out of my cubicle corner and see this:

An unusual sight in the hallway...

Hey, I wasn't done with the comics yet!

Yes, that's right.  They put newspaper over our (interior) windows!  These windows weren't all that exciting to begin with, so it was disturbing that someone felt the need to cover them entirely.

You can see that they look out onto... nothing:

Our now papered windows, looking at a wall.

Odd and sad.

I haven't been at the DIA very long, but this was the first time I had seen something like this.  There had been rumblings throughout the week about a "VIP luncheon" that would be happening on Wednesday.  I figured there might be some connection... but what?

As it turned out, it was no big deal at all.  The "VIP" guest was only the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.  Who cares, right?

Needless to say, the entire museum had gone bananas.  All of the office windows were covered in paper (lest us common-folk lay eyes on the first lady), the museum was on lock-down, and there were more police officers than I had ever seen in one place.  It was something to behold. 

All day on Wednesday, if I wanted to go from my office to the Kresge Court (which I did want to do... about 6 times that day) I had to go outside of the building and walk along Woodward Ave., then re-enter the building from the other side.  I was just happy that it was a warm and sunny day.  If it had been raining, I think the Obamas' approval rating would have dropped significantly in the City of Detroit.

On one of my many walks around the building that day, I noticed something strange about the grand Woodward entrance-- it was open.

Mrs. Obama uses the front door.

As I mentioned in another post, the Woodward entrance is not functional, and thus remains gated at all times... unless, of course, the first lady is visiting. 

Mrs. Obama was speaking at Wayne State University that day to a group of students about things like education and leadership.  I am told it was a great speech, and I have no doubt that it was.  I, however, missed it while I was running laps around the museum.  After her speech, Mrs. Obama held a luncheon for 200 of these students and their celebrity mentors at the DIA.  The celebrity mentors included people like Spike Lee, Magic Johnson, and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (which one of these things is not like the other?).

For the duration of this event, I was either leaving tracks on the museum's lawn or I was stationed in the Kresge Court, administering a staff engagement survey.  While I found the survey to actually be somewhat interesting, the rest of the museum staff was more "engaged" with Mrs. Obama.  I hear that many were standing on chairs and climbing onto window ledges (apparently some were left paper-free) to catch a glimpse of the first lady.

A co-worker managed to get this photo as she was entering the building (not through the Woodward entrance, I might add).  Mrs. Obama would be that little pink blip near the center of the photo:

Exciting, right?

For as ridiculous as it seemed to demand that I walk outside of the building all day, I will say that normal museum operations appeared to be generally uninterrupted.  The museum remained open for its usual hours, and there was even a full schedule of school groups and tours.  I think that just goes to show how these large-scale institutions are able to act as well-oiled machines. 

However, I know that it is the excellent DIA staff, walking around with oil cans, that really keep things running smoothly.  I don't believe I have mentioned yet how impressed I am with the staff at the DIA.  Not only are they professional and extremely knowledgeable about pretty much everything-- but they are some of the most friendly people I have ever worked with.  In the few weeks that I have been interning, everyone has been happy to answer my questions, and quick to make me feel welcome.

That's probably why Michelle Obama wanted to have lunch with us.