An Unprecedented Teaching Moment:
The Birmingham Museum of Art offers college professors an education they can share with their students
This summer the Birmingham Museum of Art reached out to hundreds, if not thousands of undergraduate art students across the country - by becoming the first museum in the U.S. selected to host a hands-on workshop for college art and art history professors.
The goal of the workshops, entitled Teaching Pre-Modern European Art in Context, is to strengthen the teaching of art history in smaller colleges and universities around the country. The BMA sessions, led by Chief Curator and Curator of European Art Jeannine O'Grody, in conjunction with professors from several local universities, took place July 26-30. Next year, the workshop moves to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and then, in 2012, to the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Organized by the Council of Independent Colleges, the seminars are funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation The institutions selected to host the seminars all have extensive collections of European art donated by the Kress Foundation. The BMA, which has a remarkable Kress Collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculpture and decorative arts dating from the late 13th century to about 1750, focused its seminar on Workshop Practices of Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy.
The CIC, said President Richard Ekman, concentrates on areas of common need among the 600 colleges and universities it represents, and these seminars arose from a trend he found disturbing. “I began to be concerned at the way art history was faring at small colleges,” he said. He wanted to find a way, “to bring works of art alive” for faculty and students.
For Kress, with its emphasis on the arts of Europe, the seminars are partly the answer to a question, said Max Marmor, president of the Kress Foundation. “How do we interest bright young people in the fields we work in?” he said, acknowledging that difficulties of language and the age of the works sometimes create barriers. When CIC President Richard Ekman began looking for appropriate institutions to host these seminars, “it didn’t take long to recommend Birmingham,” Marmor said.
Art historians and other instructors who teach art history came to the BMA from 19 colleges and universities across the country. As a rule, the institutions represented are often located in areas where the professors and their students have limited access to substantial art museums. The instruction these professors received will be transmitted through their teaching to untold numbers of undergraduate students at their institutions.
Included in the seminar were a number of scholarly readings – aided by access to the BMA's extensive collection of books in the Clarence B. Hanson, Jr. Library – and lectures by O'Grody, Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., from Birmingham-Southern College; Joyce de Vries, Ph.D., of Auburn University; Dan Lesnick, Ph.D. Emeritus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham; and Katherine McIver, Ph.D., of UAB.
Lectures included "Introduction to Late Medieval and Renaissance Workshop Practices" (Smith), "Patronage and Artistic Production in Early Modern Italy" (deVries), "Early Renaissance Religious Devotion and Art" (Lesnick); "Art, Politics, and Style" (Smith), and "Art for The Renaissance Home" (McIver).
O'Grody directed four gallery sessions, where the seminar participants enjoyed a rare privilege of delving unusually deeply into the BMA's collection of Renaissance art. Paintings were unframed and examined under strong light with magnifying glasses. Participants gave detailed presentations about the significance of the works to art history, to culture, and to scholarship, while O’Grody added comments on conservation history and on issues related to museological practice.
“What I saw, which was remarkable,” said CIC’s Ekman, “was almost everybody participated, making connections with their own hands.”
“Given our commitment to using the BMA’s collection for object-based teaching and learning, we were excited to pioneer a new program to create museum-based learning experiences for undergraduates with limited access to major art museums,” O'Grody said.
In addition to the seminar sessions at the Museum, participants paid visits to local art collectors to further their conversations and exposure to significant works of art. Those visits “expand the discourse of collecting and installation beyond the museum walls,” O'Grody said.
In fact, an outgrowth of the seminar, organizers hope, will be to increase interaction between those who participated. “I do hope we will stay in touch,” wrote Katherine Durham Oldmixon, Ph.D., MFA, the Associate Professor of English at Huston-Tillotson University – who also teaches art history. “You were all so welcoming to me,” she said.
“I can’t imagine how many ways I will use what I gained from the seminar,” she wrote.The CIC will set up an electronic bulletin board so that the participants can continue to share the ways they are transmitting to their classrooms what they learned at the seminar.
The seminars also afford an opportunity for the institutions involved to build relationships that transcend geography. “I hope that one thing is an ongoing relationship with the Birmingham Museum,” Ekman said.
Hosting the seminar required a major commitment of time from O'Grody, and the BMA, but she insists that it was well worth the effort. “Museums so often focus on educational programming for K-12 students and for adults in general, but this is the first program specifically for college professors,” she said. “Our seminar brings a fresh approach to the classroom that combines the resources of the BMA with the professional experience of area scholars and collectors who share our commitment to education via direct, meaningful interactions with works of art,” O’Grody said, adding that the twenty professors gained “experience that will benefit the next generation of museum goers, scholars, and patrons of the arts.”