Contemporary Approaches to Teaching

Bringing contemporary art and artists into classroom and community learning

Carrie Mae Weems. "Mourning," 2008. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The work of contemporary artists provides not only new art and ideas to introduce into existing curriculum, but also new strategies and approaches for making art and facilitating the artistic process with students. Artists use their interest in the world of ideas to enter and draw from a wide range of fields and practices. Their work embraces not only visual media and strategies but often includes historical or archival research, writing, scientific inquiry, engineering, and reading, among other pursuits and methods. In this way, the work of contemporary artists supports learning in the art classroom as well as across subject areas. Employing a process of inquiry, artists and teachers alike can harness the power of human curiosity.

Martin Puryear. "Ladder for Booker T. Washington," 1996. Ash, 438 x 22 3/4 x 1 1/4 inches. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Collection of the artist. Photo by David Woo. © David Woo.

For the art teacher, artistic practice has expanded to reflect new tools, materials, source materials, working methods, and expectations for audience engagement. Some artists have stopped creating discrete, recognizable art objects—like paintings or sculpture—in the interest of creating more ephemeral events, experiences, performances, or even conversations. From an interdisciplinary perspective, these new practices and the results they yield diversify how we can learn from and teach with contemporary art. Art today often defies purely aesthetic aspirations and instead can serve as a site for conversation, critique, or the development of new knowledge. Artists use collaborative, performative, interdisciplinary, dialogical, and even pedagogical strategies to communicate with and engage audiences.

Tim Hawkinson. "Überorgan," 2000. Woven polyethylene, nylon, net, cardboard tubing, various mechanical components, dimensions variable. Installation view at Ace Gallery, New York, 2002. Collection of Ace Gallery. Courtesy Ace Gallery, Los Angeles.

Integrating contemporary art and themes into teaching requires a shift from predominantly technique-driven instruction to idea-driven instruction. Direct access to the voice of the artist and a process-oriented understanding of how art is made today is a rich complement to the experience of seeing an artwork in person.

"What is really important about our practice is criticality. We constantly want to question and have our work trigger a possibility of self-questioning and questioning about the world: 'What is the nature of this thing that's affecting me or that's around me? What is the nature of my actions upon others or the place where I am at this moment?' A lot of our projects are an opportunity to learn something about an area or an interest that we didn't know much about, whether it's abstract or philosophical or pragmatic. It's always a chance to learn more about something in the world, and to formulate some kind of a response."
—Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla

Judy Pfaff. "Gu, Choki, Pa," 1985. Steel, wood, plastic, organic materials, bamboo, lattice, signs, veneer paneling, Formica, steel grating, and paint, 20 x 40 (diameter) feet. Installation view: Spiral / Wacoal Art Center, Tokyo, Japan. © Judy Pfaff.


Why is contemporary art important for contemporary classrooms?

We encourage teachers to think about the process of learning about contemporary art as a long-term, ongoing project—perhaps as an investigation that does not have specific answers or an inevitable endpoint. Think about the questions and ideas you have—when you look at particular artists and their work—and anticipate how students might perceive or question particular images, objects, strategies, or working methods, based on what they know. Expect these questions, encourage new ones, and consider ways to actively involve students in new ways of looking, thinking, and creating, by setting up opportunities for dialogue and sharing multiple perspectives through video and multimedia resources. Consider the exploration of contemporary art—with its dynamic nature—as a process you are undertaking with your students, as opposed to just depositing into their laps the information you learn from your independent research.

  • Living artists serve as creative role models, who can inspire people of all ages to consider how ideas are developed, articulated, and realized in the contemporary world, and offer educators opportunities to support diverse learning styles.
  • Contemporary artists address both current events and historical ideas. These references help educators and students make connections across the curriculum and support interdisciplinary and critical thinking.
  • The integration of contemporary art into school and community learning environments enables educators to provoke curiosity and encourage dialogue about the world and the issues that affect student lives.
  • As artists continue to explore and employ new technologies and media, the work they create encourages media literacy in an increasingly media-saturated society.
  • Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger frameworks, such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.



Teaching Strategies

Use themes and big ideas driven by essential questions to frame your investigation

Many artists do not work in a single medium or technique and instead try to explore an idea, situation, or question through multiple media and visual strategies. Consider planning curriculum around a big idea, theme, or question first; then, decide what projects, skills, or materials will support meaningful investigation and expression. The big idea or theme should focus the investigation and create a unifying framework, in which you can include multiple resources, artworks, and artists. Teaching thematically also encourages a focus on an inquiry-based investigation that engages with works of art, as opposed to using artworks as illustrations.


Give students options: introduce multiple artists and media sources

Avoid mimicking the style or working methods of a single artist. Instead, introduce a range of artists who may have divergent ideas or approaches, and can offer multiple perspectives and working methods related to a chosen theme, idea, or question. Select the artists you bring to your classroom to include a combination of historic and contemporary voices, as well as perspectives from diverse cultures and worldviews.


Push beyond a media-driven curriculum

Increasingly, artists are making works that defy traditional media categories. Rarely referring to themselves as strictly painters or sculptors, artists utilize the most effective media, tools, and contexts for the ideas they want to express. Provide opportunities for students to gain skills in materials that emphasize their thinking about ideas across media. Allow them to gain familiarity with multiple ways of representing and thinking through a specific theme or concept.


Think and talk more; make less

Set up your ideas with conversation and introduce suggestive examples, compelling role models, and diverse methods that help students engage in meaningful art making. Have students brainstorm ideas and questions on paper instead of rushing to start on artworks. Encourage students to share their ideas and possible next steps with classmates and those outside the classroom. Help them think through multiple options before selecting a final idea to pursue. Engage them in discussions that challenge and develop their ideas, in anticipation of realizing a work of art.


Emphasize process over product

Rather than designing a curriculum with a final product or project in mind, consider different ways you can model how to develop and realize an idea. Plan backwards, to address larger learning goals that nurture critical-thinking and research skills, so that students can make meaningful works informed by well-researched and developed ideas.


Use inquiry-based strategies

Viewers often initially look at works of art in a few different ways. Some people look at a work of art and first consider the formal qualities; others are able to investigate the work through a conversation with someone else. Some enjoy reading about the work and the history of the artist's process, in order to better understand it, before analyzing the artwork. Consider each of these entry points:

  • How is it made? What is the composition like? What kinds of decisions has the artist made?
  • How do our opinions and reactions to the work compare? What kinds of personal connections can we make? What is the art communicating?
  • How does the artist's history and background affect the way the viewer understands how work is made and the message contained within it? What preceded this work and how has it influenced this body of work?

See Starting the Conversation for more questioning strategies and discussion prompts.


Utilize ART21 and contemporary art to enhance the curriculum

Support units of study by researching themes and essential questions that already play a part in your curriculum. Use the ART21 Educators Guides to research thematic connections and curricular connections. Enrich your curriculum by integrating specific artists, films, texts, and images that can inform your topic in a variety of ways.