Starting the Conversation

Curiosity, openness, and dialogue are the most important tools for engaging with works of art. Instead of questioning whether an artwork is good or bad, the study of contemporary art requires an open-ended methodology and an inquiry-based approach. By asking probing questions that encourage students to see and understand—rather than assume—you can explore works of art in a generative fashion. Consider a work of art as an opportunity to discover meanings, rather than to find a correct answer or interpretation.

One of the cornerstones of the ART21 philosophy is to allow artists to describe their work and process in their own words. This encourages viewers to find their own innate ability to consider, react, and respond to visual art. Looking at contemporary art—indeed, all works of art—is an opportunity for investigation and exploration, a provocation to consider new ideas and divergent perspectives, a chance to learn something new, and an invitation to develop a personal sense of meaning and understanding.


Before focusing on a particular question, it may help to begin with a general brainstorm about art being made today, to find out what ideas your students already have. Try to solicit as many different adjectives, ideas, questions, or prejudices as you can, to get a sense of what your students already know and topics or misconceptions that might be useful to explore further.

Use the following questions and related media as a way to initiate dialogue about contemporary art and specific ideas related to where art is seen, how it is made, and who makes it. Related images and video segments should inspire a variety of responses and provoke new ways of thinking about possible answers.

Why is art important?

What makes something a work of art?

What is the role of the artist?

Who decides what a work of art means?

What are the most important skills an artist can have?

What materials and tools do artists use to create art today?

What distinguishes visual art from other forms of visual communication?

Where do artists find inspiration?

What is the difference between working alone and collaborating with others?

In addition to museums and galleries, what are other venues for exhibiting art?

What are the subjects, issues, and themes important to artists working today?

What role does beauty play in contemporary art?

Does contemporary art have a purpose, a role, or a responsibility?


Discussing art, using video and text, to go deeper

Viewing art through video or reproductions offers a different context for interpretation and exploring meaning. ART21 videos and online resources provide a way to support and deepen direct experiences with artworks, either in a museum or gallery context. The use of video and other contextual resources provides additional layers of information as well as opportunities to engage students in discussion. In tandem with facilitating an introductory discussion about contemporary art, artistic practice, and the role of the artist, it's important to think about how individual works of art and video narratives can be explored and mined to address specific topics, themes, or essential questions.


Object-based learning strategies are a common way to prompt students to investigate works of art in the context of a museum, gallery exhibition, or even from image reproductions. This approach often relies on a simple set of strategies that attempt to focus students' observation skills, develop an interpretation based on visual evidence, and—through their interpretations—connect to social or international topics, themes, or ideas.

  • Describe the artwork's formal qualities—such as color, composition, style, scale, mood, media, and materials. What do you see? What materials did the artist use? (form)
    After students provide their answers, summarize all their points, using their language when appropriate.
  • Consider the concept—the ideas, choices, and process that contribute to what the work is about. What choices or decisions did the artist make, to create this work (such as selection of materials, installation decisions, color or image choices)? Why do you think the artist made those choices? What personal references do you make to this work? What does this work remind you of? Consider the relationship of this work of art to your own ideas, experiences, opinions, and assumptions. What visual, literary, and/or historical references do you see in the work? What can this work of art tell you about the artist, yourself, and/or the world around you? (theme)
    Ask students to support their interpretations based on the formal qualities of the work that they identified in the previous question. Summarize and re-present the students' ideas.
  • Discuss the context of the work. After asking students to observe the work and comment on what they see, use the questions below to engage students with the possible intentions and motivations of the artist, as well as personal or social connections they make to the work.

Excerpt: Janine Antoni in "Loss & Desire"

Consider how the artist's voice (using video segments or quotes) can support a deeper investigation of the concepts and themes introduced through the work. Consider how students can explore the intentions or motivations of the artist, and how these agree with or diverge from personal interpretations.

  • What new information about the work do you now have?
  • How does this new information contribute to or change your original ideas about the work?
  • What additional questions do you have? How could you pursue answers to these questions?

The following prompts model some of these strategies. Each focuses on an artist, a specific artwork, or introduces a thematic approach.

ARTWORK: "Some/One" by Do-Ho Suh

THEMATIC: Inventing/Constructing Histories