Curator of Telfair Museums on the importance of arts education in schools

Harry DeLorme Jr.

“She’s a Louise Nevelson!”

The excited scream came from a third-grade student as she walked into a gallery at Telfair Museums, where I work, and pointed to a sculpture.

This episode, now many years in the past, remains etched in my memory as an art museum educator who has long sought to use art as a medium to teach virtually any subject. In class, the enthusiastic student had studied the work of Nevelson, an important 20th-century sculptor who recycled discarded objects into beautiful monochrome sculptures. In his work there are lessons about what we throw away and what we value in our society.

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This excitement and wonder that I have observed when students walk into a museum and encounter works of art is an important force to harness. Art can be used not only to teach students about the history and process of art, but a multitude of subjects ranging from social studies to STEM.

Additionally, close observation and discussion of artwork in a gallery or classroom can develop important language and critical thinking skills, and even improve social interactions. Perhaps most relevant to our current moment, the study of art and the physical making of art can play a therapeutic role for students and schools emerging from two of the toughest years in memory.

Numerous studies have demonstrated how arts education enriches students’ educational experience and develops skills that are transferable to other curriculum areas, including English language arts. Books are just a form of text, and like great literature, works of art can be read and interpreted.

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The skills needed to read images are important in a predominantly visual society.

In our teaching at Telfair, we have long emphasized active participation – observation, discussion and artistic creation – rather than lectures, incorporating methods such as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Piloted many years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I first encountered it, the VTS has been adopted by museums and schools around the world and has even been used to train staff medical in order to improve its powers of observation.

Studies have shown the benefits of VTS, from improved test scores to more equitable classrooms in which all students feel respected when participating in a lively discussion about the pictures, noting the evidence in the work during observations.

A group of students from Savannah practice VTS learning at the Jepson Center.

STEM – a focus on science, technology, engineering and math – can also be enhanced through the integration of the arts, hence the addition of “A” to create STEAM.

Art, like science, requires imagination, visualization and often experimentation. Several local schools have received state certification in STEM or STEAM, and others have incorporated STEAM threads or hosted STEAM parties, which are beginning to return in the wake of the pandemic. It was a joy in March 2022 to see 150 fifth graders in the museum to attend STEAM talks from artists exhibiting at this year’s PULSE Art + Technology Festival at the Jepson Center.

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The excitement was palpable and the students treated the artists like rock stars as they asked about technology-based art projects, from robotic bird wings to infinity video mirrors and sound sculptures. This experience underscored for me how important it is for students to have the opportunity to directly ask technology innovators how and why they do what they do to better understand the creativity behind technology.

Beyond its usefulness in teaching subjects across the curriculum, creating art is more relevant than ever because it can play an important role in healing. The contemplative, creative, experimental, and problem-solving aspects of artistic creation can provide students with opportunities to slow down, focus, defuse stress, and take pride in their productions.

Through Telfair’s many community outreach sessions, I have seen firsthand the empowering and therapeutic effect that creating art can have on the lives of people of all ages and walks of life, from young students to seniors, veterans, stroke survivors and the incarcerated.

We all have experiences that we do our best to manage, and self-expression is a powerful tool that allows us to have some control, tell our stories, or simply engage in the meditative experience of doing marks on paper.

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The Savannah area is blessed with numerous arts organizations with strong education programs, a school system that has incorporated arts education for a century, and a dedicated corps of arts educators currently teaching in Savannah’s public and private schools.

We have an opportunity in the Savannah area to build on our successes from the Savannah Arts Academy and other public and private schools in our community and help young people come out of the confusing and stressful times we went through in giving them the opportunity to contemplate and discuss art in an environment that is non-judgmental, respects each student, and provides every opportunity for personal expression and growth.

Harry DeLorme Jr. is Director of Education and Senior Curator of Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.

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