From Creation to Curation: Education at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum

Given the complexity of the arts sector, its different facets often seem to operate in different spheres, with artists using one set of methods while curators and those interpreting their work employ their own conventions. Particularly in a youth program, it might seem daunting to try to integrate the approaches and practices of creation and curation, but the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), located in Cape Cod’s Provincetown, has been successfully taking a holistic approach to art education through the Lenore Ross Curating Program for decades. PAAM’s unique youth curating program and its other educational offerings have been recognized nationally but maintain a distinctly local identity, serving as an entry point to the region’s rich artistic history for students who may not be aware of this history or of the possibilities that engaging with art can open.

IMG_5055 Photo Credit Courtesy of PAAM

Lynn Stanley, PAAM’s Curator of Education, describes the curating program’s methods and goals as multi-faceted, explaining, “Participants are asked to engage with works of art in a variety of ways – through dialogue/discussion; creative writing; interpretive art-making; and with older students and teachers – providing a historical context through art history lectures; considering how exhibitions are created, and how their work and collection work should be displayed.” Students are able to select works from the museum’s collection, create their own artwork and writing in conversation with these works, and display both the collection pieces and their creations in an exhibition format, providing a uniquely well-rounded experience of the museum environment. To Stanley, this deep engagement with works of art has an enormous range of benefits. She notes, “By engaging on multiple levels, and through various disciplines, program participants learn firsthand how much a work of art has to offer over an extended period of time. And there’s nothing like the feeling of developing a kind of intimacy with a work—it keeps giving back to you.  It reveals itself to you.  Knowing that can transform how you approach works of art, literature, anything that requires thinking critically and imaginatively.” She also comments on the numerous methods of accessing art that this holistic approach to education offers for students who may initially lack enthusiasm for art, a major strength of the program’s methodology.

Interestingly, the multi-disciplinary approach PAAM applies to students’ experiences of art and the museum is also reflected in the diversity of educators who participate in the program. PAAM encourages educators across disciplines – from history to science – to involve their students in the program, and the museum even incorporates school administrators into its programming. For many of these teachers, the context of the art museum may take them out of their comfort zone; this challenge and the opportunity to engage with colleagues in new ways through the PAAM program enables educators, not just students, to think in new ways and experiment with methods of helping students access their own subjects. Teachers also are able to see new sides of their students’ creativity and character, as students who may be difficult to reach in a classroom setting engage differently within the context of the curating program.

For students, the program offers an opportunity to explore new modes of creating and interacting with art. Stanley remarks on the possibilities this experience can open, saying, “I’ve seen student work that rivals the work he or she has chosen to interpret, and I’ve seen the excitement and joy of students as they share their work in a museum gallery with their family and friends.  One student had never made a print before experimenting with monoprint-making at PAAM. She went on to study printmaking in college.” On a deeper level, the program offers a point of entry to the universal nature of art, from creation to interpretation. As Stanley notes, art speaks to deep human impulses, and the process encompassed in the curating program “reaffirms the vital importance of the arts to provide a lens, and a way of understanding life’s complexities.” By allowing students, educators, and the broader Provincetown community to access this lens through a variety of pathways, PAAM’s youth curating program provides a unique model for art education that draws on the power of the creative process in all its facets.

Laura Mitchell is the Plinth editor and contributor for the New England region and an M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. She is on twitter @lb_mitch.