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At This Museum, Education Staff Prove More Vital Than Ever During Pandemic

While museums across the country have chosen to lay off or furlough educators, at the Asian Art Museum the education department is busily at work.

Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion rendering (2020) (© Asian Art Museum and wHY)

SAN FRANCISCO — In her role as director of interpretation at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Deborah Clearwaters oversees the education department — which does the traditional things museum education departments do, including hosting school groups and putting on public programs.

But interpretation is broader and more of an emerging field, Clearwaters explained over the phone last week. She and her team do things like review wall label copy and discuss how to make it clearer, researching how much people will read on their feet. They work with the curators on how best to convey the stories in the exhibition, recently creating a projection of a map for the exhibition Lost at Sea: Art Recovered from Shipwrecks.

They are still planning for future shows, Clearwaters said, as well as getting content to teachers who work with students from kindergarten through college, even though the museum’s doors are closed, and school groups can’t tour the galleries. So, unlike other institutions, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, the Asian Art Museum hasn’t laid off any staff members (full-time, part-time, or contractual), including those in education.

May 8 was to kick off a three-day celebration of the museum’s expansion project, which adds an exhibition pavilion and an art terrace. A capital campaign raised $103 million in private giving and expanded the endowment by $30 million — but the museum, like almost every other major institution, says it is still hurting after being closed for two months.

In spite of that, leadership has still chosen to ramp up digital content, offering art activities, cooking demos, and looks behind the scenes of the museum. Engagement on social media platforms has increased by more than 50%, with Instagram activity soaring 744% since shelter-in-place took effect in mid-March.

Some museums have suggested that education departments can’t do their work remotely, but educators at the Asian Art Museum show otherwise. Margert Yee, manager of school and teacher programs, says they’ve been extraordinarily busy getting packets out to the 5,000 teachers on their email list for May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The packets have biographies of artists such as Bernice Bing and Ruth Asawa. All four of the Japanese American artists featured, including Asawa, were interned during World War II.

“They still created art despite the racism they faced and given all the anti-Asian racism now with the health crisis, we can use this to help Asian American students feel pride as well as educate all students,” Yee said. “It’s a way to give teachers materials on artists who are often overlooked when it comes to art history.”

According to Yee, schoolteachers have expressed the need to keep students engaged and give them something to do with their hands, and in response, the education staff has included art activities in the packets. They also highlight curriculum for teachers, such as a video from their popular storytelling program, or a talk that Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu did on works from ancient China, and they are working on slideshows of tours — with pauses for activities.

“Ideally, we’d all be in the galleries looking closely at the artwork,” Yee said. “But we’ve been focused on onsite tours, so people can get excited about art another way, and hopefully it will keep them connected until we can all come back.”

Ensemble Mik Nawooj (image by Pat Mazzera)

The education department recently hosted a webinar with the San Francisco Unified School District, “Hip Hop to Hamilton: Making Art Work,” with Hamilton’s music director, Lily Ling, and the founder of Hip Hop for Change, Khafre Jay. They talked about what students pursuing careers in the arts could do even as the pandemic has shut down most performances and art shows. Yee says the conversation was thought-provoking and relevant.

“It was a message of hope that the arts are what keep us all going. Arts make you a more well-rounded person and whatever profession you go into, art will make you more empathetic,” Yee said. “Also, it was a really powerful way to show solidarity between African Americans and Asian Americans when people of color have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. The speakers talked about how we can all support each other, and it’s a great message for students to hear.”

Art Speak interns (image courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Clearwaters says they are doing what they can to support young people, including keeping their paid teen internship program, Art Speak, which has an Instagram account where they post how-to activities, like making collages or zines. They’re also putting on online evening events in May, including recently hosting an ensemble that mixes hip-hop and classical music. Future programming includes a poetry workshop, a class led by a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan, and a panel in which three Bay Area-based, Asian American women artists — Jas Charanjiva, Chanel Miller, and Jenifer K Wofford — will talk about their practices.

Digital mockup of “Pattern Recognition” (2019) by Jenifer K Wofford, digital image (image courtesy Jenifer K Wofford)

Wofford’s mural “Pattern Recognition” will be on the outside of the museum this summer. It has patterns from Asian design traditions and the names of nine Asian American artists. The Tenderloin neighborhood surrounding the museum has a large number of immigrants from different Asian countries, and Wofford hopes the patterns will be familiar to people in the neighborhood and make them feel more a part of the museum.

Jenifer Wofford, in her studio with “Pattern Recognition” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

The head of contemporary art at the museum, Abby Chen, will moderate the conversation.

“It’s in recognition of Bay Area Asian American artists who are largely unknown, like Jade Snow Wong. It’s about time we put them front and center, and the Asian [Art Museum] should be the one doing it,” Chen said. “The artwork will be on the wall for people in the Tenderloin to see this colorful, energetic piece bringing history forward to blend it with present. Using director Xu’s words, it’s turning the museum inside out.”

The museum is a site of cultural production for the community, Chen thinks. That is one of the reasons she feels it’s so important to keep education staff, whom she sees as intertwined with the curatorial staff and vital for engaging audiences.

“I view the education department in a prominent role and position in art institutions and blending with the curatorial more seamlessly,” Chen said. “Taking action now is way more important than talking about it. We need to embody that vision.”

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