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What if, during a museum tour, a student makes a comment in relation to an artwork that is potentially hurtful or racist? Within the structure of Visual Thinking Strategies, we hope that a careful, thoughtful paraphrase will identify the subjectivity of a comment, suggest less inflammatory language, and engender critical reflection on the part of the commenter and the group. We try to value the participant without confirming the comment. But what if the participant does not realize their comment is hurtful; an artwork is seriously misinterpreted; or fellow group members feel betrayed under our care? What then?

These questions flooded MOCA Educators while working with teachers and students in the exhibition, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in the spring of 2017. 1 In his work, Marshall centrally positions black figures both in his painting and within the language of art history. The figures are exaggeratedly, or in Marshall’s words, “emphatically” black. As he notes, “I see the figures as emblematic; I’m reducing complex variations of tone to a rhetorical dimension: blackness. It’s a kind of stereotyping, but my figures are never laughable.” 2 MOCA Assistant Curator and exhibition catalogue essayist Lanka Tattersall argues that by deftly deploying the “prideful rhetoric of Black Power while also amplifying the notion of stereotype,” Marshall creates “a paradox that is both unsettling and generative.” 3 Our decision to use Visual Thinking Strategies to explore this sensitive paradox presented Education staff at MOCA a singular opportunity to deepen our understanding of the teaching method and to develop supplementary approaches to staff preparation, teacher training, and school group touring.

We looked forward to having students tour Kerry James Marshall: Mastry for their second museum visit within Contemporary Art Start (CAS). CAS is MOCA’s yearlong classroom partnership program that includes extensive teacher training in VTS, two staff-guided museum visits, classroom curriculum, and family involvement opportunities. By spring—halfway through the school year—students and teachers alike were familiar with both VTS and MOCA. We anticipated complex conversations, but also that the figurative, narrative nature of Marshall’s artwork would lend itself well to VTS.

Some of the first VTS discussions about Marshall’s work I witnessed were conducted by fellow education staff members with our 18 teen interns. The teens’ comments were earnest and complicated. This bright group of students, representing diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, and different parts of the city, seemed to be picking up on Marshall’s thorny use of paradox, and members were bravely, if tentatively, sharing their observations. In response to the painting Past Times (Figure 1), a white student said, “I see what looks like 1950s or ‘60s affordable housing buildings in the background. I see an African American family out of the projects. Traditionally, African Americans would serve white people normally. It’s like a switch or reversal of roles.” An African-American student said, “They’re people you wouldn’t normally associate with a country club. Growing up, this is not what black people are known to do, so it seems like a joke. They’re definitely the opposite of how they are usually seen.” These candid comments about painful stereotypes sparked tension and hung in the air.

Unfortunately, simply paraphrasing and linking comments didn’t seem to be alleviating this strain. It wasn’t helping students reflect more deeply upon the concepts of race and stereotype in play, nor address the vulnerability that comments were stirring up. It wasn’t supporting students to talk about the conversation itself, which some could be finding insensitive or even racist. I worried that if experienced staff members struggled, how might less experienced staff fare? What about our classroom teachers? While our savvy teens seemed to be aware that Marshall was evoking and testing stereotypes, would other students, especially younger ones? Would our teachers? Could we risk people walking away with reinforced—rather than questioned—stereotypes, as the artist intended? Could we use VTS with this artwork?

Figure 1. Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997. Acrylic and collage on canvas; 114 × 156 in. (289.6 × 396.2 cm). Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

To answer these questions, I turned to my greatest resources: program staff and the Contemporary Art Start program structure itself. CAS staff members, a combination of approximately ten program administrators and educators, are intimately involved in every aspect of the program. They coach teachers to use VTS throughout the year, tour CAS students during twice-annual museum visits, and meet weekly to train and weigh in on program development. 4 The values and processes of VTS deeply inform our closely-knit staff culture. Over years, VTS discussions have trained us how to listen carefully to one another, to collaborate, and to welcome diverse and unexpected points of view. Our weekly meetings provide time for us to bring this reflective, inclusive process to bear on programmatic challenges, such as how to best prepare teachers and their students for upcoming exhibitions.

We prepared for Kerry James Marshall: Mastry by conducting numerous VTS discussions about Marshall’s work, discussing catalogue essays by the artist, art historians, and the exhibition curators; reading works by James Baldwin and the memoir Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and by collectively workshopping drafts of exhibition-related classroom curriculum. Remembering teens’ challenging comments during VTS discussions about Marshall’s work, we devoted significant time to figuring out how to facilitate potentially hurtful comments. We studied how other organizations teach for tolerance and anti-racism, and carefully planned how to avoid the isolating effects of unintentionally shaming participants. Educators continue to recall the transformative impact of this effort, which prepared us with diverse perspectives and appropriate language with which to sensitively discuss issues surrounding race.

As a group, we determined that in the case of Marshall’s work it was essential to provide information about the artist and his artistic project up front, before diving into VTS discussions. While this represented a departure from our customary practice, we found that prefacing discussions with information about Marshall’s experience as an African American and his intention to populate his paintings and thereby the museum itself with emphatically black figures helped set the stage for respectful, productive conversations about the constructs of race at play in his work.

This collaborative, preparatory work among staff laid the foundation for successful teacher trainings and subsequent student tours. The structural component of pre-visit workshops provided teachers with the opportunity to explore the exhibition as adult viewers in advance of their students’ visits and to continue practicing VTS with their peers. Perhaps most importantly, these workshops enabled MOCA staff and teachers to practice conducting conversations about race in relation to Kerry James Marshall’s work, and to collaboratively anticipate having similar conversations with students.

Within our pre-visit workshops, first, staff modeled our preparatory classroom curriculum and shared the reasoning behind our decision to include background information about the artist alongside VTS discussions. For example, after facilitating a VTS discussion of a work in Marshall’s series, “The Garden Project,” we asked participants to read a quote in which the artist describes his own positive experience living in a housing project as a child. We then asked, “What might we know about this place by looking at this picture and hearing what the artist has said about his childhood home?” (Figure 2). We debriefed about the impact of background information on our discussions, and further explained why we felt this work benefitted from a departure from VTS as teachers had learned it. Teachers agreed this information supported deeper looking and more nuanced discussions of Marshall’s work. Importantly, teachers also felt it complicated overly simplified mass media portrayals of life in public housing, which could be especially meaningful to students living there.

Figure 2. Kerry James Marshall, Watts, 1963, 1995. Acrylic and collage on canvas; 115 3/8 x 135 7/8 in. (293.1 x 345.1 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Minority Artists Purchase Fund. © Kerry James Marshall.

It became clear to us that while preparatory information about Marshall was helpful, inclusive VTS discussions would depend especially upon sensitive paraphrasing and strategic framing. To help teachers practice these skills in isolation, we asked them to draft and share paraphrases in response to a selection of our teen interns’ comments. In doing so, teachers practiced paraphrasing difficult comments in advance, learned how their paraphrases struck others, and heard diverse approaches to the issues. Working as a group, we strategized ways to build inclusivity and avoid reinforcing stereotypes, for example, by not using the question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” when it may serve only to reiterate a hurtful sentiment. Using examples provided by teachers, we were also able to illustrate how shaming a commenter can cause more harm than good by isolating speakers. Closing out the day of training, teachers put theory into practice by each facilitating a VTS discussion in the exhibition.

As much as we prepared for student visits to see Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, however, especially at the beginning of the tour season, we faced daily challenges. We began each tour with a brief overview of Marshall and his project to help model inclusive language, but we often found ourselves struggling with how to best respond to problematic comments. In addition to feeling the pressure to appropriately respond to a student and their group of peers, we also felt the burden of being on public display in the galleries. While a student may not have intended to make an insensitive or racist comment, what might observers, of myriad identities, be taking away?

Weekly staff meetings provided the opportunity to regularly debrief and workshop responses. We opened our meetings by asking, “Is there anything that happened, positive or negative, that someone would like to share?” Then people offered their successful strategies and/or tough comments. If it was a tough comment or situation, we then asked, “Would you like any feedback or to workshop it as a group?” This gave the educator an opportunity to simply relay their difficulties if necessary, or to invite discussion, and kept the rest of us from rushing in with advice. In effect, it put the educator in the driver seat of their own reflection. We ended each discussion by asking the educator, “What are you taking away from this?”

Over the course of the exhibition, we collected challenging student comments and developed several core strategies that continue to be useful. In addition to thinking carefully about asking, “What do you see that makes you say that?” in case it provides an opportunity to practice a stereotype, we encouraged each other to assume the best and immediately ask oneself, what is this person really saying? What might sound hurtful at first may in fact reflect a lack of domain-specific vocabulary more than a cruel sentiment. For example, in the case of a statement we frequently encountered, “the figures are too dark,” we often found that rather than commenting directly on race, the student was noting the painting’s non-realistic depiction of skin, what Marshall refers to as his reduction of “complex variations of tone to a rhetorical dimension: blackness.” In that case, we recommended what we termed framing for realism and responding with, “So it sounds like you’re noticing that the way the skin color is painted isn’t necessarily realistic—it seems darker than what you might see in real life.” And then checking in with the student: “Did I get that right?”

We also developed a strategy that we dubbed FYI in an attempt to gently correct students without shaming them. This approach emerged after much hand-wringing over how to respond to the comment, heard on more than one occasion, “That looks like a gorilla hand,” said in relation to the painting, School of Beauty, School of Culture (Figure 3). How might we overcome the knee-jerk instinct to immediately silence that student? Doing so would most likely embarrass them rather than lead to productive reflection and could unintentionally teach the group that talking about race is too hard. Failing to respond appropriately, however, risks reinforcing harmful stereotypes by not addressing them. Instead, we suggested framing the comment and adding social perspective, which CAS Educator Michelle Antonisse describes as “the societal frame.” “You’re making an observation based on what you see here. I’m not saying you’re doing this, but just so you know, there is a long history of negative stereotypes that equate people of color with animals, which can be very hurtful because it dehumanizes people.” In that case, we also recommended building on an observation with information or quotes to steer students toward more productive readings. For example, “I think you’re noticing something Marshall is concerned about and wants us to think about when we look at these paintings. Do you want to hear something he has said on this topic?” We could then share that the artist said it was one of his primary challenges to “bring [figures in his paintings] close to being a stereotypical representation without collapsing completely into stereotype. I was playing at the boundary between a completely flattened-out stereotype, a cartoon and a fully resonant, complicated authentic representation–a black archetype, which is a very different thing.” 5

Figure 3. Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Acrylic and glitter on unstretched canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds, 2012.57. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of Kerry James Marshall and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

A similar approach could be useful in response to the comment, “This person is evil because he’s all black.” In that case, one could frame the thinking and share something the artist said to clarify his intentions. For example, “You’re making a symbolic link between the color of the figure and what that person may represent in the world. You’re doing something the artist did, too, though he intended to create the opposite effect. Marshall said that to him, ‘Extreme blackness plus grace equals power.’ 6

We discussed ways to address tension within a group caused by a particular comment. If students are expressing discomfort or disagreement, either explicitly or implicitly (by whispering among each other, for example), we suggested framing the situation or the discussion as a whole, rather than just the comments that are directly addressed to the facilitator. This can diffuse tension by helping students feel heard while acknowledging the impact of comments, both on individuals and the discussion itself. For example, “So we have a couple different points of view here, and it sounds like that is creating some disagreement within our group. Xavier feels very strongly the painting is saying [X], but others believe [Y] to be the case.” Or, “While you feel strongly about [X], it sounds like not everyone agrees.” In this case and those cited above, we also found that changing the question, “What more can we find?” to “What else can we find?” can gently nudge students along into new lines of inquiry.

In the process of teaching in Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, we departed from VTS in several ways by using, for example, the FYI approach and adding background information in select situations. Ultimately, however, we dug deeper into basic tenets of VTS, such as framing, and learned the invaluable role it can play in propelling sensitive discussions about race. Preparing for and teaching in the exhibition underscored the crucial role of collaboration—and time for it—among staff and teachers. Staff collaboration made our tools, strategies, trainings, and tours stronger, and helped build personal investment in the outcomes of our work. Collaboration with teachers drew upon and deepened trust afforded to us by the layered structure of our long-term classroom partnership program. Within these programmatic structures, VTS helped shape communities of practice that value diverse input and prioritize inclusive discussion. As CAS Educator Alice Bebbington put it, “We did it together.”

Jeanne Hoel is an educator in Los Angeles who works to support classroom teachers and increase young people’s abilities to conduct critical and democratic conversations. She is Associate Director, School and Teacher Programs at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.​

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  1. 1 - A virtual reality tour of MOCA’s installation of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry can be viewed here.
  2. 2 - "Kerry James Marshall and Arthur Jafa: Fragments of a Conversation, June-July 1999," in Arthur Jafa, Terry Sultan, and Kerry James Marshall, Kerry James Marshall (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 90.
  3. 3 - Lanka Tattersall, "Black Lives, Matter," in Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, ed. Helen Molesworth (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2016), 59.
  4. 4 - CAS was originally designed by Kim Kanatani and Vas Prabhu in 1986, soon after the museum opened. At the time of the Marshall exhibition, CAS staff included: Education Specialist Madison Brookshire; Educator-Coordinator Kai Monet; Educators Michelle Antonisse, Alice Bebbington, Jorge Espinosa, Raquel Rojas, Melissa Tran, and Jenny Ziomek; Education Assistant Alex Herrington; and myself. Each year, CAS serves approximately 100 teachers and 5,000 students.
  5. 5 - Arthur Jafa, Terry Sultan, and Kerry James Marshall, Kerry James Marshall (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 2000), 117.