Transcription of the episode “Adjoa Jones de Almeida of the Brooklyn Museum on art as experience”

Amy H-L: 00:15 Hi, I’m Amy Halpern-Laff

Jon M: 00:17 And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools that help students to develop both commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.

Amy H-L: 00:29 Our guest today is Adjoa Jones de Almeida, Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum. She’s worked as a high school teacher and helped to create Sista II Sista (SIIS), a women’s collective dedicated to supporting young women of color in developing personal and collective power. Adjoa contributed to the award-winning anthology, “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” At the Brooklyn Museum, she served as Museum Educator, School Partnerships Coordinator, and Museum Education Fellowship Coordinator prior to becoming Director of Education. Adjoa Jones de Almeida was the 2017 92Y Women in Power Catherine Hannah Barron Fellow. Welcome, Adjoa.

Adjoa J: 01:19 Thank you.

Jon M: 01:21 Our organization, Ethics in Education Network, is inspired by the work of John Dewey. When we interview guests, they often start their answers by saying, “it’s been a long time since I read Dewey.” When a couple of us visited you in your office, you reached right up to your copy of Dewey’s Art as Experience. What’s the significance of art to Dewey and how has he influenced your work?

Adjoa J: 01:44 I find a lot of connections between Dewey and some of my other heroes and sheroes, especially around their reflections around this intersection between art and social justice. One of my favorite books by Dewey is, as you mentioned, “Art as Experience.” And I’m particularly drawn to the word “as” in that title. And so I think that, it blows my mind that he wrote this when he did. I think that it’s, thinking about art as a process or as a verb is something that I’m continuously reflecting on. And it’s really what inspires a lot of my work and the work of my team and colleagues here in the education division at the Brooklyn Museum. So one of the things that I find really striking about his reflections is the way in which he challenges us to think beyond this idea of art as an object, as something that you put on a wall or something that you look at in front of you on a pedestal. And instead he pushes us to reflect on how art is really an experience. So anything can be art, right. You can have, I can grab this calculator in front of me and put it on a wall or on a pedestal and decide that it is art. And what makes, what makes it art is not anything intrinsic to the object. What makes it art is the attention and the reflection and the interaction that I choose to have with this object. And that’s why he refers to art as a verb. I think for me and, and I think for a lot of educators that live and work at this intersection between education, art and social justice or community organizing, when you think about art as an experience or as pedagogy, then all of a sudden you can start to think about all the ways in which we can utilize the artistic process to actually transform our society or some of the oppressive structures that we’re constantly hitting our heads against and the social structures that we live in. So really thinking about how that happens and how you train people to create experiences that feel artistic and what the key elements of that experience are are some of the things that I am really fascinated by and that I think a lot about in my work .

Amy H-L: 04:47 Adjoa, in a blog you wrote for a website, you mentioned that Paolo Freire, who wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” has also influenced you. Can you tell us about that?

Adjoa J: 04:56 Yeah. So as you may know, Paolo Freire was a popular educator in Brazil, who worked during much of the period of the military regime in Brazil and who was really interested in rethinking how you do adult education. So he worked a lot with teaching people how to read and write and part of what he, and I have to say that he drew on a lot of work that many folks had been doing and continue to do at the grass root levels and communities that have been pushed to the margins of the formal public school structures in Brazil. But he was, I think his genius was being able to articulate it in a way that was really heard across a spectrum of classes and stakeholders and to really link the ideas that were coming from popular educators throughout Brazil, working deliberately against the military regime, with many other sectors of society and with many other disciplines. And he was, you know, beyond being an academic, he also came out of the liberation theology movement, which was the radical wing of the Catholic Church, and was also making connection to the arts. And you know, Augusto Boal, who passed away some years ago and was a radical theater person, developed a whole system of what he called “Theater of the Oppressed” based on some of the ideas of Paolo Freire. So I say that to say he drew from a lot of influences and I think his genius was the way in which he’s been able to then in return, connect, and energize so many other people’s thinking around how social transformation happens. And one of the things that he talked a lot about is shifting the perspective of education where I deposit knowledge in you, then I give you a test at the end of the year and extract, you know, the information that I inserted in you, which he calls a kind of a “banking model of education” to recognizing the transformative potential of a true educational process, which transforms as it happens and where you can’t always even predict where it’s going to end up. And part of what he said is that teaching, for example, people how to read, is really just a perfunctory kind of walking through the motions unless you are infusing that process with the lived experience of the person. So for many years, when folks were learning how to read and write, you’d have these imported didactic books of, you know, Mary and Jane walked up the hill to fetch a pail of water, things that had nothing to do with the experience that was being lived by that adult. And what he started to experiment with and connect with was actually having people learn the mechanics of reading and writing through a real reflection of their lived identities and their lived experiences in favelas, you know, trying to get water for their houses because there was no plumbing, you know, and how much more meaningful the learning and acquisition of language and writing and all these skills, how meaningful and quickly and invaluable that was when it’s actually embedded in your lived experience. And I’ll say that there’s also been a lot of critiques to some of the ways that he employed language, which I know that Paolo Freire would love the fact that people are still critically reflecting on even what he shared and what he wrote. And one of those critiques is the way in which in his books he talks a lot about the pedagogy of the oppressed, and there’s this way in which this monolith of the oppressed people at the bottoms of the structuralist society, the capitalist societies. And you know, and while it’s useful to understand who is at a bottom of structural systems of oppression, there is a way in which if you’re not careful, you can reproduce a very simplistic reading or assessment of who they are and what is exactly your relationship to the oppressed. So I offered that just to say that what’s brilliant about his writings is that they invite a constant process of problematizing, even the very ideas that excite us in his writings.

Jon M: 10:01 So as I’m listening to what you’re saying, the key things that come through are ideas of interactivity. That in fact, when you say, you know, when you’re talking about Dewey, that art is not a thing. But as you said, it’s a verb because it’s how, if I’m understanding, right, it’s how the observer or participant, whatever, interacts with whatever the piece of art may be to create an experience which is jointly created by the artifact and by the person who’s observing it or in music, listening to it and so forth. And that any kinds of learning come from infusion and interaction with a person’s lived experience, which actually reminds me of like Lev Vygotsky’s idea that learning takes place in the zone of, I’m blanking on the word, but it’s right where your experience interacts with the new things that you’re, that you’re learning. And you’re talking about arts education as a vehicle for personal and collective transformation. So can you talk a little bit about both what you mean by that, but also what this artistic experience looks like and how a teacher for example, can help somebody shape an experience, an artistic experience?

Adjoa J: 11:54 Yeah. Well I’ll take one step back in trying to answer your most of the multiple facets of your, of your question.

Jon M: 12:06 Zone of proximity that I was thinking of for Vygotsky.

Adjoa J: 12:08 Okay. The other really, that Dewey says is, he says that art can be, shouldn’t be, can’t really be relegated to the realm of museums and galleries even though it often is. And he talks about how that kind of compartmentalization of art is really linked to capitalism, to nationalism, to colonialism, to imperialism. And those are the forces that have relegated this idea of the arts as something that is contained within museums or galleries or walls. And I think he has this critique really early on when not a lot of other folks, when there still these ideas of like museums as temples of high art and that this high art is here to be imparted to the masses, to impart culture to the masses. And at a very early period, he’s already problematizing that and saying that’s total BS. In fact, art is everywhere. You know, when you go to the movies, when you listen to a song, when you have a really great conversation with a friend, you know, we, we impose these artificial parameters to make for whatever agenda because of whatever agenda we may be representing. But what he’s really interested in is the aesthetic experience, this feeling that comes from being moved in this certain kind of way. And there’s all kinds of places where that happens and in all kinds of interactions that lead to that feeling that that might be described as an aesthetic experience. And it really has nothing to do with museums or galleries per se although people like to pretend that it does. I think that’s really critical and that’s actually really important for us in understanding how the arts can be activated for transformative learning experiences. So, so to your question about what that looks like concretely, you know, generally you think about interaction with the arts, both with people making art, right, like the art making experience. And that’s a fascinating universe, right. The way that that pushes you to think about control, letting go of control, trying to impose your will in a particular process, the way that that pushes people to think about mistakes and perceptions of mistakes and perceptions of coincidences and opportunities and creativity and inspiration, right. All of these things emerge through the art making process. Um, so that’s a whole universe and I think that anyone with experience facilitating art education in a studio context knows the emotional journey, the real emotional growth that students are taken through when there’s a real investment in that kind of a practice. And then what, there’s another kind of way that people think about art education, which is reflecting, looking, talking, listening about art, right. So there’s a painting, there’s a sculpture, there’s a film, and for a long time the idea has been that you have someone who owns the knowledge, right, the valid knowledge about that object and that knowledge is imparted in audiences. So really a banking model similar to what Freire talks about as a banking model. And I think that where museum education or more popular education perspective of how that can work is that instead we can see that as an artistic process in and of itself. So you may not be making a painting or sculpture in a studio, but you may be facilitating an experience in a gallery. And part of what that’s about, that’s also tapping into creativity and it’s tapping into the ability to do collective thinking and collective meaning-making through deep listening, through slowing down and deeply looking or sensing or hearing, depending on what your, your physical senses allow you to do and to actually hear and build and disagree and agree and kind of [inaudible] collectively to an interaction with this object. It also gives you a rush. It’s also a deeply creative kind of a process. And it also pushes boundaries on our learning in some very interesting ways, similar and different from the studio kind of art-making process.

Amy H-L: 17:34 Adjoa, isn’t it in a sense, at least traditionally, a privilege to be able to experience art in that way? I mean, there has to be some, some freedom, some obviously exposure. Um, the experiences you’re talking about seem really important for everyone, but isn’t it in reality, relegated to mostly to people of privilege?

Adjoa J: 18:05 When you say are in that way? What way do you mean?

Amy H-L: 18:09 Art as an experience, being able to walk through the world and appreciate the aesthetics and the emotional resonance of objects?

Adjoa J: 18:24 Well, I would have to say, I mean, I would say no. If you’re thinking about it from a popular culture perspective, like for myself as someone, you know, from an African diasphoric background, with roots in both Brazil and down South, my first aesthetic artistic experiences were everyday experiences connected to music, to dance, to spirituality. Um, that was my everyday. No one was necessarily using the words “aesthetic experience.” But I think that actually most folks who have been resisting and demanding and claiming their humanity through different modes of resistance have utilized culture and the arts embedded in that as really meaningful strategies. I think the thing that happens is that the parallel to that, there’s this whole way in which this idea of the arts has been divided into this kind of higher arts realm and popular arts realm, right. And for a long time, only a certain kind of art, uh, was seen as being worthy of occupying, uh, these kind of towered spaces, while other art wasn’t even always necessarily claimed as art or is popular art or is craft or is something else. And those things were not actually seen as being connected. Um, so I think that, you know, most human beings have the experience very early on of the arts. But I agree with you that, that it has become, uh, an experience of privilege to systematically have arts education as a part of your formal education. You know, and there’s this, there’s this idea or is this sense that when a school is struggling or when students aren’t meeting, you know, the, the average needed for a certain sequence of testing or what have you that you have to get down to the quote unquote basics. And the first thing to go out the window is the arts teacher or the arts program. And all of a sudden if you still have an art class, it’s relegated to a cart that is visiting multiple classrooms. And the thinking behind that often, or the way that’s framed this, because somehow that’s secondary and what these communities really need is, you know, math and ELA, um, without understanding that that logic is really a backwards kind of logic that actually, you know, the folks that have been systematically this franchise are the ones that most should be censoring the practice of redefining narratives of a creative practice of agency, you know, in a creative expression.

Jon M: 21:56 So, in thinking about the ways in which sort of those definitions of high art and folk art or craft, you know, have been used to reinforce class and gender and race distinctions and who gets to be considered an artist and where does that work, you know, the art pieces, get displayed and so forth. Um, and I know that many museums have recognized that to survive that they need to expand their audiences to be more welcoming to young families of color and to low income families. And also that this may mean redefining some of what they look at as art for being in the museum. Um, how is the Brooklyn Museum dealing with these different questions?

Adjoa J: 22:47 Yeah, I think that the Brooklyn Museum for for a long time has been interested in redefining concepts of high art. Actually, it goes back, it’s an interesting history. And I’ll say that and at the same time I’m recognizing that we’re in a particular moment where museums in general are being critically looked at and having some internal critical reflections around their role institutionally and what it means to be a museum. That being said, the Brooklyn Museum was one of the first institutions with a fairly encyclopedic collection to present African art as art. And that as ethnography, you know, which was interesting for an institution, you know, with roots from in 1823 is its origins and this particular building in the late 1800s, to be having those conversations around what is quote unquote art, what is just ethnographic material. And to allow for some internal debate around that. And not to say that that does not come with a lot of issues that we could and problems and blinders in terms of who was at the table during that time to have those conversations. But it does signal a history that to some extent has been consistently interested in dialogue and critical reflection around concepts of high art versus popular art. Um, that being said, I think the other thing that is interesting about the Brooklyn Museum, around this question in particular, is the fact that it holds one of the only feminist art centers, the Sackler, a center for feminist art within the museum walls. And the way in which that lens, a feminist lens, has been activated to look at all of its collections, um, including the permanent collection. So for example, you know, having a curator from our feminist arts center in dialogue with curators from ancient Egypt, um, and the thinking that generates to allow for an exhibit that’s exploring gender fluidity in ancient Egypt, you know, or the way in which having this historic center within the museum has allowed for conversations to emerge that now have led us to be the first museum with programming that’s specific to LGBTQ teens and young people. And that’s training them as public programmers for other LGBTQ youth. So I think that because it’s such an eclectic place that has an interesting history and it also is really claimed by the local geographic community that has been, that the museum is embedded in, it’s allowed for some really interesting conversations that are continuously kind of pushing the thinking around what gets to have, you know, what exhibitions can look like. So having an exhibition on, you know, sneakers, or fashion or aspects of popular culture. While some may kind of see that kind of quote unquote pandering, which is a term that I’ve heard people use at times to describe some of the impulses or exhibitions that we’ve displayed, I also that’s something. We both have ancient Egypt and we have various fashion shows and we have soul of a nation and we have a feminist center and we have historic houses. And so, you know, what that allows for is some really interesting conversations and some really interesting questions to arise that from an education perspective are great, you know, and, and can fuel what we see as our mission and vision around the possibilities of dialogue.

Amy H-L: 27:42 Adjoa, what do you see as the role of museums, in particular within the realm of arts education for children and young people?

Adjoa J: 27:55 I think that, so there’s a couple things in that. One is the ways in which museums connect, intersect and support work being done in schools. And then outside of the realm of schools, there’s the ways in which museums connect with this idea of informal education and the ways in which we support families and more broadly communities to engage. So a lot of our early childhood programming is really centered on not just the child but also the interaction between the adults that surround that child with them. So a lot of it is intergenerational and we are really interested in helping families in whatever configuration that may look like, to think about best practices for engaging younger audiences in ways that you know are informal or not necessarily structured by the institution of schools. And I think that’s really interesting. And concretely, I think there’s a lot of questions also around access and in all the ways that one can understand access, both in terms of how we think about and engage multiple audiences with physical disabilities and cognitive disabilities and also language, how we think about the languages that are employed or not employed within the museum and also class. So for the programs that we offer families and camps and, and, you know, babies stroller tours and you know, all the multiple programming that we do, there’s a real need to continuously think about how, especially for those programs that are paid and not free, how do we continually think about providing resources for, increased scholarships and also opportunities that, that are free, to ensure that the question of accessibility is always being foregrounded.

Jon M: 30:20 So you mentioned, one of the roles, in addition to the informal and the various things that the museum does, is working with public school teachers. What do you see as the best ways for museums and schools to work together? And I know that you have projects where you offer support to arts teachers within the schools. What are some of the things that you’ve been doing and what do you see as the effects of these?

Adjoa J: 30:49 Yeah, I think that, you know, one of the most important things that I think museums or that we strive to do in our work with teachers. One is to make sure that we are creating a space where teachers can be recharged and refueled in their passion for the work. You know, I think that as a former school teacher myself, there’s a way that you can get so beaten down in the grind of the day to day million and one, you know, responsibilities and pressures and demands that are put on, on teachers, that there’s always this risk that you can face around feeling like you’re walking through the motions. And that having time and space to circle back to the vision that I believe bring is why most, you know, true dedicated teachers come into their practice wanting to see manifest. And so I think that, for example, the program that we have for our teachers, art exchange, really came from listening to teachers and what teachers, art teachers in particular were saying that they needed. There’s almost, there’s very few opportunities out there for our teachers to reflect on their practice and to reconnect with themselves as artists. And students can sense that, right. Just students and young people sense when the adults around them are stressed or under pressure, and it’s hard to activate inspiration in our students when we don’t have the space to activate that for ourselves. So that was really the impetus for the art exchange program that we continue to implement for art teachers today. And I think that in general, beyond art teachers, when we employ a school partnership with local schools, the first thing that we do is we connect with teachers around their goals and vision for upcoming units and then really go through a kind of a brainstorming, energizing conversation where we’re exploring with them artworks in the museum collections that are up, special exhibitions that are up and finding threads between those and their goals for a particular unit that they want to explore with students. Um, and then designing with them a sequence of experiences that might be purely in the galleries, might be both in the galleries and in the studios that will enrich, reinspire, reenergize the learning process for both teachers and definitely for students.

Amy H-L: 34:01 Adjoa, do you work mainly with arts teachers or also with, say, science and history teachers?

Adjoa J: 34:09 Yeah, no, we work mainly with the non-arts teachers. I mean if you look at just numbers and actually who comes into the museum, arts teachers are a minority of that and definitely in terms of what we call guided gallery groups and self-guided groups, that one-shot kind of school groups that come through the museum, which is a significant number of the audiences that we serve. Those are ELA teachers, lots of social studies teachers. I would say probably they dominate, if we look at just numerically who are most teachers coming to our galleries are mainly social studies teachers, but also math and science. We talk a lot in the work that we do with teachers, both the professional development work that we do with teachers in our school partnerships, we’re continuously reminding folks of the possibilities that arts integration brings for activating learning across subject matters. Actually, some of the most interesting partnerships and collaborations that I’ve seen have been with science teachers and math teachers because there’s this way in which, you know, especially math and to some extent science, but numbers in particular historically have been so, and this is the problem with the capitalist structures that we’re in, right, they’ve been so divorced from the idea of ethics, the idea of principles or moral or philosophy, even though, you know, mathematics emerged from philosophy at a certain point, math education became just about profit and being able to calculate profit or loss. And so, you know, just as an example, what integration with the arts can do is to reinfuse those original foundations of the subject matters that are much deeper than we allow them to be. And I think that what that does is it helps young people to really expand their ability for critical thinking across the board, not just within the context of a social studies unit on, you know, reasons for a war, but also in terms of how we define the concept of numbers and how we understand mathematical processes, you know, so I think that there’s a huge potential there for across subject matter.

Jon M: 36:56 Wow, that’s really exciting. Is there anything else that you’d like to mention that we haven’t asked about or talked about?

Adjoa J: 37:01 I think we covered a lot of ground. I’m really appreciative for this opportunity to connect with you all. You know that I’m a big fan of the work that you guys do and I’m always so stimulated by the conversations that you guys are inspiring and propelling and yeah, I hope we continue to find ways to connect.

Amy H-L: 37:21 Thank you so much. Adjoa Jones de Almeida, Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum.

Jon M: 37:28 Thank you, listeners, for joining us. Check out prior episodes and articles on our site, You can find an article by Adjoa on the website and we have a new article on how college and career counselors can help students consider the ethical impact of their choices. We’re on Facebook and Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram. Till next week.

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