Contemporary Approaches to Teaching

Teaching Strategies



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


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

Integrating contemporary art and themes into teaching requires a shift from predominantly technique-driven instruction to idea-driven instruction. Many artists do not work in a single medium or technique and instead try to explore an idea, event, 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.


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.


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.


Marina Abramović. Crystal Cinema I, 1991. Quartz earthholder, wooden stoo.l Installation at Arte Amazonas, Museo del Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro Photo: Tomas Adel Courtesy the Marina Abramović Archives © Marina Abramović.


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.


Tania Bruguera. Museum of Arte Útil, 2013–2014. Pictured: The Loompanics Room. Installation view: Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Photo: Peter Cox. Courtesy Studio Bruguera and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Tania Bruguera.


Think and talk more; make less.

Encourage students to consider how contemporary artists get ideas, and where their inspiration comes from. Ask them to consider the concept-the ideas, choices or decisions the artist made to create the work (such as the selection of materials, installation decisions, color or image choices). Why do they think the artist made those choices? What visual, literary and/or historical references do they see in the work? How does this work of art tell us something about the world we live in?

Similarly, when students are making their own artwork, instead of rushing to start on artworks, ask them to first consider the idea they are trying to express. Have students brainstorm ideas and questions on paper. Encourage them to find artist role models who are exploring similar ideas with diverse methods. Ask 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.


Joan Jonas. Joan Jonas performs "Reanimation" (2012) at Norrlandsoperan, Umeå, Sweden, 2013. Production still from the ART21 "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 7 episode, "Fiction," 2014. © ART21, Inc. 2014.


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.