My name is Sofía de Juan, I am from Madrid, Spain, and I simply can’t imagine my life without art. It was this passion for art that made me become an Artist, and it was the need to share that passion that made me a Museum Educator.
Last Fall I interned at the New New Yorkers Program. I came to this city of opportunities like many other new New Yorkers: with a suitcase full of hopes, dreams, and some fears. Now, five months later, I would like to re-open this suitcase, to share with you. It is full of presents and ephemera that I collected from this experience.
THE PARTICIPANTS: The superheroes of Corona and Flushing
“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.“ –Peter Parker
During my first months in NY everything was a big challenge: the language, the culture, the subway… Even going to the grocery store was a huge adventure, and often I found myself hesitating between excitement and fear. Fortunately, I got involved in a project where I could share my experiences with other new New Yorkers: superhero’s that face the same challenges every day. Each of them, as a newcomer like me, keeps a story full of farewells, adaptation, homesickness and solitude in a city where everyday can feel like a marathon. Maybe because of that, each of us keeps stories full of hope, fight and daily renewal.
Like the superheroes of fiction, some of the ones I met live incognito in their own neighborhood. During the week they work in an office, the corner deli, at a school, or in the supermarket. But once inside the Museum they reveal their “true identities” through art. They expose their amazing background and talent during workshops and activities that they themselves helped concoct collectively.
With generosity, hard work and lots of humor, each of them has taught me that being happy and drawing meaning out of your life is a choice—a brave choice—and once you try it, an ordinary life is no longer an option.
THE MUSEUM: This is not (just) a Museum
“Think what you like, but think.” –Fernando Savater
I always thought that the museum should be a place for people, a suitable space where the opportunities for a critical education in values, reflection, personal development, and social coexistence are abundant and make the public feel welcome. Many of the typical preconceptions about museums intimidate the public, and this can lead to a feeling of disconnection from culture in general.
The Queens Museum of Art showed to me what it feels like to be part of a cultural institution that is not limited by its walls, but rather, gets close to the surrounding communities. Every day we worked constantly at engaging the public to make them feel the Museum is an exciting place where you can develop a personal relationship with the arts. QMA’s habits and instincts have been developed to the point where they can’t help but to encourage people to visit for exhibitions, art related activities, or to even borrow the space. Their Education Department functions like an organic system of knowledge construction. They have transcended their assigned and expected functions because the process of learning, not teaching, is the driving force behind their programs.
THE PROGRAM: Who is the teacher and who is the student?
“Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” –Sir Winston Churchill.
Working with adults is always a stimulating task, but specially if you are surrounded by professionals that understand the participant-visitor as an active agent in the Museum. We understood that it is the student who decides what he/she wants to learn. Professionals provide advice and tools to ensure the knowledge is accessible. The team asks the participants what subjects they feel attracted to, and then they work on areas specific to these interests (e.g. artists working in a specific field, or material, suitable spaces, etc.) We were not just teachers, we understood our goal beyond the transmission of knowledge, we saw it as a rumination. As in the Freirian tradition, student and teacher roles were not static. Our education system was based on self-responsibility, motivation and making the best out of the participant and his own experience as a mediator or educator.
THE EXPERIENCE: Synergies
“Culture implies the two deepest paradoxes of ethics: what you save is what you lose; and what you give is what you gain.”—Antonio Machado
When I had to think about my experience in the New New Yorkers program there was one word that keep coming up to my mind: synergy. Synergy comes from the greek word for cooperation, συνεργία, and is described as “the action of two or more causes whose effect is greater than the sum of the individual effects”.
During my months as an intern I grew as a professional by gaining hands-on work experience, but also by listening to contrasting points of view. And I have learned a lot from the new models of education that were putting into practice, but I also have learned the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy, how Mexican food should taste, what “the most beautiful Pakistani song ‘ever’” sounds like, and many other things that go beyond the scope of this post. All of it, thanks to this co-working/co-existing adventure, surrounded by lots of New Yorkers (old and new ones), in a creative environment where you can breathe the cooperation as if it was fresh air, as a powerful source. What happens there is bigger, greater, than any of the efforts that we could made by ourselves, living our creative process at home, or in the studio, because it is always shared.
Teachers that learn from their students, students that learn from their teachers, and from each other, different cultures, languages and approaches to art; I found myself in a dynamo that made the Museum an evolving organism, a place where the public can feel the arts as an experience, one that has to be lived in an exact place and moment, not at home.
So here is my advice: engage talented people in the arts, provide them with tools to express themselves and share that expression, and encourage them to reflect, and as Wolverine would say... “you are growing a great deal of power.”