Cindy Meyers Foley
Cindy Meyers Foley
Director of Education
Columbus Museum of Art

Can We Really “Study” the Visual Arts?

Cindy Foley, the director of education at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, shares a unique perspective on what the visual arts can do for students—and why our kids need quality arts experiences now more than ever. For more on how the visual arts can help kids, read this article [link] by renowned experts in the science of learning and the arts, Drs. Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland.

Why study the visual arts? Seems like a simple enough question, but it isn’t.

First, I wonder about our question… “study the arts.” My husband is an artist. He doesn’t study the arts, he lives his life through a particular lens, constantly questioning, never really knowing. He plays with ideas and materials and then, at a certain point, he realizes he needs to devour resources in order to make sense of his questions, his ideas, and his play. These resources materialize in new techniques and skills or disciplinary research that furthers his curiosity. This pursuit feeds his next questions, webbing and connecting with previous questions, which then lead to his next ideas.

All kids need opportunities to think like artists. The art classroom should be the Center for Creativity in every school, a space where students have the freedom to imagine, experiment, play, and generate their own question web. In the 2009 Qualities of Quality Art Education report from Project Zero, art educators said that art education should foster broad dispositions and skills, especially the capacity to think creatively and the capacity to make connections.

Our children are not receiving the kind of art education that promotes deep, curious, thinking. Art education, like other disciplines, has been harmed by reform initiatives that have stripped creative thinking from the art room.

Creating isn’t necessarily creative. When a Claude Monet exhibition was on display, we taught our students about Monet, demonstrating his techniques and allowing them to experiment with those techniques. Sounds good, right?  Well, we had a sad realization. While we were exposing these kids to art, we were not pushing them to think like artists, question their world like Monet, challenge the popular and safe thinking of their time, like Monet did.

Or take the LEGO® kit. You practice perseverance, following directions, and self-correction—all good things to learn, but this isn’t creativity. Not until the carefully built LEGO star ship is accidently broken does it become creative possibility. When the child wonders why no one has ever created a LEGO toilet for the LEGO mini figurines and then carefully observes the household toilet, envisions how it might translate into small bricks, tries and fails at several versions, then shares and reflects on his LEGO toilet with his siblings—then, and only then, he has engaged in creative thinking.

Much of our formal art education is outdated.  We should never just teach foundational skills such as color theory and perspective for their own sake. We must teach students to think for themselves. Art educators should begin by asking students what they are passionate about, what they wonder about, and what they care deeply about. This is what we now do at the Columbus Museum of Art. We honor children’s ideas and act as artist mentors and coaches to help them realize their ideas.

Children today desperately need art education. The art room should be the heart of imaginative, critical, and creative thinking in our schools. Our job is to fiercely advocate for quality opportunities for our kids to think and be artists.

What can parents do? Realize that play is art. Embrace the benefits of boredom—a precursor to creative thinking. Provide a “studio” space with easily accessible materials and work space. Provide objects of wonder—books , wooden bird eggs, knitted pompoms, a retired wasp nest, clothes pins, glittery crayons. Provide coaching—when an idea isn’t working, teach your children a skill that might help them realize their concept (from how to properly drill two pieces of wood together to make a club house for your 9-year-old to searching online for images of alligators with your 5-year-old who really wants to include one in her self-designed coloring book but isn’t quite sure how to draw one). Tolerate and accept mess, and realize that tidying is a great opportunity to find great new juxtapositions.

At a time when politicians, policy makers, and educators are hand wringing over how we can develop creative thinkers who can begin to address the problems of our time, we can do something about it. Young children naturally think like artists, and with our encouragement, advocacy, and steadfast belief, we will help them develop lifelong habits that will sustain them into adulthood. Our future counts on it.

Learn More

Center for Creative Art Teaching

Teaching for Artistic Behavior, Massachusetts College of Art

“Learning with Art21,” Art21, PBS

Olivia Gude, “Investigating the Culture of Curriculum, UIC Spiral Art Education (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Olivia Gude, “Rubric for a Quality Art Curriculum,” UIC Spiral Art Education (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Making Thinking Happen, Agency by Design

Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth Heneghan Ondaatje, et al., “A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era,” RAND

Fran Smith, “Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who’s Doing it Best,” Edutopia

Stephen Beal, “Turn STEM to STEAM: Why Science Needs the Arts,” The Huffington Post

Jamie Kasper, “H.E.A.T. in the Arts Classroom,” Arts Education Collaborative