Teaching with Contemporary Art

2023 Art21 Educators Summer Institute

September 26, 2023

2023 Summer Institute Educators at Marela Zacarías’ studio.

When I think of this year’s Art21 Educators Summer Institute, words like “revitalizing,” “generous,” “playful,” and “magic” come to mind. Working with teachers in cultural settings for over a decade, I’ve neither seen nor heard of another program that creates the same level of engagement and connection between educators or between educators and an organization. 

How does that happen? Art21 Educators kicks off with a Summer Institute in New York City. Interested participants submit a robust application, including a video about themselves. Selected applicants come to New York City for a week in July.

In addition to new cohort members, alumni of Art21 Educators attend sessions. This year’s group was our largest yet, made up of 45 educators from 22 states and 4 countries. The mix of new members and alumni fosters this revitalizing, magical energy. 

2023 Summer Institute Educators. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Even if alumni are not formal mentors to new educators, they offer informal mentorship throughout the week. Offering ideas on how to teach contemporary art to Kindergarten or eleventh-grade students, articles or books to read, best practices for spray painting, artists to consider for standard units, resources from museums or cultural organizations, and more. 

Watching and listening to this generous exchange of knowledge is perhaps the most revitalizing aspect for me. Many arts and culture organizations act as the sole bearers of knowledge. While hearing from a subject matter expert can be useful, educators are equally experts about working with students. Educators know so much and need forums to exchange that brilliance. 

Listening to feedback from prior Summer Institutes, Art21 Educators alumni volunteer to present sessions to each other. This year’s topics ranged from working with text to improvisation to a TASK Party. This generous exchange of ideas between alumni and new cohort members encourages community and, this year, fostered play, joy, and pure fun. 

TASK Party with Summer Institute Educators. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

A key tenant of Art21’s work is the artist’s voice. Jaimie Warren and Emily Flores of Whoop Dee Doo gave a heartwarming, joyful, and multi-sensory artist talk. After detailing recent projects and future plans for expansion, they led a playful game, including costumes, props, lighting, and prizes. While the New York Close Up films on Jaimie Warren are bright and energizing, nothing compares to being in person and experiencing the work firsthand. 

Workshop with Jaimie Warren of Whoop Dee Doo. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

The group visited the studio of Marela Zacarías later in the week. Zacarías shared the process of her pieces, a window into the making of Chalchiuhtlicue at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and her time working as an art educator. Much has been said about the magic of visiting an artist’s studio—and it’s all true. Seeing pieces in process, the artist’s personal decorations, and hearing the warmth and humor of an artist talking about their life and work is an unforgettable, precious experience. 

Sarah Sze was featured in a recent Extended Play film. While the artist couldn’t join, colleagues at the Guggenheim Museum allowed our group another once-in-a-lifetime event. They allowed us to experience Sze’s Timelapse before the museum opened to the public. I find an empty museum to hold a certain ethereal magic, without the cautious dance around strangers to get closer to a piece or eavesdropping on their conversations. Silence (or close to it), art, and room to move around freely is a rare treat. Walking around that lauded space with only fellow Art21 Educators is a memory I’ll cherish. 

Sarah Sze’s exhibition, Timelapse, at the Guggenheim Museum.

There were many more large and small moments that made up the incredible week, but each year I am struck by the generosity of these educators and how they welcome, encourage, inspire, and push each other to higher heights for their students. After that week in-person, new cohort members meet virtually with their mentor groups. The conversations about what happened during the week will continue as the school year progresses. Witnessing how generous they are with each other, guest speakers and artists, and Art21 staff is a blessing I count long after participants travel home.  

The application for the 2024-2025 year of Art21 Educators will open in January 2024.