Collective Solutions Bring A Visual Arts Partnership Home
Museum community engagement during the pandemic
By Yimarie Rivera, Associate Curator of Education for Outreach & Family Programs, Norton Museum of Art
For a moment, I reminisce back to March 2020, and imagine the Covid-19 pandemic never happened.
It is spring break, and even though schools are out of session the Norton Museum of Art prepares for a bustling week of field trips by a range of community organizations serving local schoolchildren. This year, students in the Museum’s community arts partnership program, Afterschool Arts Outreach, will be visiting, including a group from The Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County — one of eight partnerships the Museum has in Palm Beach County. I often call them “small but mighty” as they work miracles within the confines of their limited office spaces.
The Council will bring 25 children and accompanying grownups to visit the Museum and tour the special exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Five Decades from the Whitney’s Collection. Museum educators have put their creative touches on making this tour family-friendly and accessible in both English and Spanish. As soon as they arrive, they will be welcomed by Norton teaching artist Ingrid Sanchez. Ingrid will lead them to the Great Hall’s expansive space, share the exciting day’s schedule, and start the gallery tour. The group’s visit will include a stop in the art studio where both children and their family members will use a variety of materials to create their own unique work of art. After that, most students have worked up an appetite, and it is off to the Museum’s verdant sculpture garden for lunch.
This visit was what we were all anticipating earlier this year, and is what our partnership is accustomed to each spring. However, last March everything came to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic, and both the Museum and Farmworkers faced an unprecedented challenge . There were so many unknowns, but we knew we had to do our part to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. The Farmworkers had to close their student enrichment programs, including our partnership’s weekly art class held every Monday for over four years. The arts lessons based on creative youth development with carefully designed lesson-plans and art materials would have to stop. The Museum would close its doors to the public.
In a time of so much uncertainty and a large majority of the Farmworker’s constituents feeling the hardship of virtual learning and the “digital divide”, the collective whole would need to work together to generate a creative solution for our partnership.
“Once we realized we would be closed for more than just a couple of weeks, the Teaching Artists and I immediately started brainstorming on how we could serve our Afterschool Arts Outreach community. We quickly learned that although all centers were closed for the students, many of the community centers and sites were now serving meals to their families, some daily and some on a weekly basis. We thought that students could use art as an escape during this difficult time, away from a screen, with a hands-on project. And that’s how the art kit idea emerged,” says Nicole Henao, Outreach & Family Program Coordinator for the Norton.
With collective communication, the Farmworker Coordinating Council helped the Museum identify the most effective way to serve their students and families, with one of the ideas being the production of art kits by the Norton for families’ use at home. The kits would be shared with families during their weekly food distribution. Ingrid Sanchez and the additional Norton teaching artists rapidly shifted from their traditional teaching program to design something new and inclusive. Nicole recounts, “The art kits included art lessons prepared by our teaching artists, appropriate for K-12 students, in English and Spanish. The art lessons were inspired by works by art and artists from the Museum’s collection and included information on each artist and their artwork. Each art kit has all the art supplies needed for students to complete the lesson, and a coloring sheet inspired by a work of art from the Museum’s collection.”
Throughout the summer, Norton education staff conceptualized, wrote, translated, packaged, and delivered art kits so they would consistently arrive at our partner facilities every other week. Carlos Perez, Executive Director of the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County, described the new initiative positively, “The partnership with the Norton Museum of Art has engaged and challenged our students to create art in fun and creative ways. This program continues to expose our students to a whole new world through art. During this pandemic, the Museum has provided art kits for our students to take home. These kits provided our clients with tools to keep feeding their creativity. We are extremely grateful to have this partnership with the Norton Museum.”
It was equally as important to gather feedback from the families using the kits. Patricia Corredor, Education Coordinator at the Farmworker Coordinating Council, shared a story about how a family of four — a mother, father and their two children — all worked on a kit.
“Dad works full time and comes home very tired, and mom works two days a week. When they received the art kits, the children waited for their dad to do it with them. Mom was in the kitchen washing dishes and was curious why the kids and their dad were laughing hysterically, and then she joined the group. The mother revealed to Patricia:
“My children and my husband were laughing out loud and I just listened. The next night my kids were waiting for their dad to come home from work to continue working with them on the art kit. I was so curious that I finished early and joined them! It was very nice to have that moment all together. The kids were always asking when the next art kit would arrive! From now on we are going to do the art kits with the children on Sundays!”
“And that’s how art kits became the weekend activity for this family,” says Patricia.
The carefully crafted packets had become a portable Norton Museum of Art, entering students’ homes and creating a level of engagement that did not require a computer or internet access. Their home became the Museum’s Great Hall, the bedroom became the studio, and just like in the Museum, families came together to express their creativity and engage in the visual arts.
In the fall, the Norton’s Afterschool Arts Outreach partnership will again go through another transition, evolving to serve the Farmworker’s students through live virtual art instruction hosted by Ingrid as well as continuing to provide art kits every other week. She notices the impact the arts have on her students:
“I’ve been working with the Farmworker Coordinating Council as a Norton Teaching Artist for about two years. During my time with them I’ve witnessed a lot of growth when it comes to student engagement. As an art educator, I motivate students to think outside the box. Through the arts, students express themselves through color, texture and an array of materials. The program has been an outlet for them to express their creativity and find their voice. Through art, kids have improved their social and mental wellness. At the end of class, I see that kids are happy, better at communicating with each other, and proud of their daily accomplishments. Through the art practice, they express themselves, without fear of judgment, thinking about the possibility to wonder.”
Our partnership’s sustainability is due to our common purpose, one of trust and mutual responsibility, and a profound understanding that art has the power to transform lives — and unify families.
Click here for more information about Afterschool Arts Outreach or email Riveray@norton.org.