fbpx Spotlight on Education | The Studio Museum in Harlem

Spotlight on Education


Education Director Shanta Lawson traces the remarkable history of education at the Museum, starting with artist, educator, and cofounder, Betty Blayton Taylor.

Photo: Scott Rudd

Over the last fifty years, The Studio Museum in Harlem has offered a number of school, youth, and family programs for people with specific needs by creating platforms for dynamic educational experiences that encourage critical thought with and through art. In the Museum’s formative years, artist, educator, and cofounder Betty Blayton Taylor noted, with her fellow cofounders, that students had to travel outside of their communities to visit an art museum. Her commitment to making a space for youth in Harlem to have their own neighborhood museum was a critical part of the Museum’s founding in 1968. This remarkable programmatic vision created a legacy and demonstrated the importance of educational programs that speak to various needs and interests across communities at the Studio Museum.

Within the first few years of its founding, the Museum established the cooperative school program, which placed professional artists in schools in New York City Geographic School Districts 5 and 6. The Museum maintains this long-standing commitment to local schools by pairing teaching artists with classroom teachers in partnerships that transform classrooms into art-making studios, and enhance curricula through visual, art-based projects. 

In 2000, Sandra Jackson-Dumont took the helm of Education and Public Programs and ushered in new models of innovative programming that activated artists’ work throughout the whole building—galleries, workshops, lobby spaces, courtyard, even the Museum Store—with dynamic modes of engagement and interaction between people, makers, and artwork. In 2001, she founded Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between History, Community and Photography, an intensive eight-month program for high school students for which the Museum’s VanDerZee archives, works in exhibitions, and the permanent collection serve as catalysts for discussions about students’ ideas, perspectives, and questions.

Expanding the Walls positions youth at the center of cross-generational engagement in the Museum by including collaborative photo sessions and workshops with seniors, discussions about art with their peers during gallery tours, and photo-walking tours with young children. Each year, Expanding the Walls culminates with an exhibition of participant work curated alongside photographs by James VanDerZee—a testament to how museums can exist as spaces for amplifying young people’s voices in the world. It has become our banner education program, and sets the pace for how young people can build skills through rigorous engagement with art. This program challenges us to think deeply about how we define community, and how the Studio Museum exists as a place that fosters, in Jackson-Dumont’s venerable words, “a community of thinkers.”

Alongside Expanding the Walls, teen programs such as Words in Motion provide opportunities for teens to work with artists and learn skills for creative expression across disciplines, including DJ-ing, art making, poetry, and spoken word. In Art Looks and Studio Works, artists meet with young people interested in learning more about studio practice, art-making techniques, and portfolio development.

Family programs such as Family Fun and Target Free Sundays: Hands On, create space for children and their families to connect and engage with one another through looking at art and participating in the creative process together. In 2007, the Museum piloted Lil’ Studio, meeting the need for more creative exploration, art making, and storytelling time for preschool-age children and their parents and caregivers. An early partnership with Cool Culture, an organization that provides free access to cultural organizations for historically marginalized families and their young children, extends our reach to early childhood communities through Family Day programs such as family-friendly tours and parent workshops.

Programs designed for pre-K–12 teachers and educators working in nontraditional school spaces transform the galleries and art-making workshops into labs for investigating methods for incorporating art and artists of African descent into classroom curricula. Educators and practicing artists continue to lead professional development workshops that activate the collection and exhibitions through art making, writing, performance-based projects that model strategies for integrating art as a vital element of innovative teaching practice.

Arts & Minds, a program centered on meaningful experiences with art in museums for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and their caregivers, has opened new conversations about accessibility to the Museum for people with disabilities and specific needs.

The Museum’s long-standing commitment to fostering the careers of emerging curators, educators, and arts professionals dates back to its early years. High school and college students have worked closely with staff mentors on meaningful projects and programs. Paid internship and fellowship positions across departments have helped inform students’ and graduates’ next academic and professional steps, provided exposure to people of color working in the museum field, and contributed to participants’ understanding of the arts and cultural sector. Our own Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden speaks fondly of her internship in the 1980s with then Director Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell as a catalyst for her career as a curator and leading figure in the field. New initiatives, including the Museum Education Practicum, continue to provide points of access for emerging and midcareer arts professionals across disciplines.

Stepping into the wake of this incredible legacy of educational engagement, I started my first job at the Studio Museum as a museum educator sixteen years ago. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of holding six different roles in the Education Department, including Coordinator of School and Family Programs, Internship Program Coordinator, Department Manager, and, most recently, Education Director. At the core of each position has been developing creative approaches to fostering connections with art and artists. I will never forget my first gallery tour of The Color Yellow: Beauford Delaney (2002) with a whopping thirty-eight seven- and eight-year-old Harlem summer campers. With a hard gulp and rolled sleeves, I tackled the important challenge of creating space for students to question, respond, experiment, explore, discover, imagine, and walk away with new ideas and perspectives from which to view the world around them. 

In our fiftieth year, I reflect again on Blayton Taylor’s revolutionary commitment to making space in museums for students in Harlem, and on the legacy of education programming that makes our Museum accessible and engaging for all learners. As we look toward a future in our new building, the Museum’s education staff has set the course for investigating new ways to activate opportunities for learning, connection, and leadership through meaningful engagement with art.

— Shanta Lawson

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