By taking the course “Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection,” high school students of Phillips Andover Academy have the unique experience of preparing for studying the arts in college by curating their own exhibit in the school’s renowned Addison Gallery of American Art.
Phillips Academy is a college preparatory boarding school of about 1,100 students established in 1778 and located 30 minutes north of Boston in Andover, Mass. The Addison Gallery of American Art, on the Andover campus, was founded by Thomas Cochran in 1931 “to enrich permanently the lives of the students” and has since grown to contain almost 17,000 objects dating back to the 18th century.
The course, which runs about nine weeks every spring semester, comprises lectures by an art history professor, a curator, a museum learning specialist and other museum staff members and visiting artists.
Through assigned readings, writing assignments and research projects, students learn about the history and context of American art. At the end of the semester, the entire class, which has ranged from four to twelve students in size, develops a culminating project for which they design and curate their own exhibit in the Gallery.
“Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection” was founded by Andover art history teacher Elaine Crivelli, who says that the course has evolved.
“The class didn’t start out as a curating class,” Crivelli said. “It was really about looking at art in different ways, responding intuitively and responding analytically.”
Crivelli wanted students to practice looking at art in a broader context, so she brought students to the Addison to meet staff members.
“I wanted students to really get an idea for how a museum worked,” she said. Crivelli, after receiving positive feedback from students and staff, saw the potential for more.
“I thought…we’ve got this resource on campus which is pretty extraordinary, why not build the course around the collection?” she said.
The class’ final project was originally conducted through a virtual curatorial exhibition. But in 2005, Crivelli initiated a more hands-on approach – students curate a physical gallery on view to the public. Crivelli now works closely with the curator and education associate. Students have the opportunity to meet visiting artists and staff members throughout the semester.
“All of us really teach the course,” she said. “From there it’s just sort of taken a life of its own.”
Jaime DeSimone, a former assistant curator at the Addison who now works at the Peabody Essex Museum, described the importance of learning with access to the physical art, especially in the context of current exhibitions.
“We teach in the galleries and use the exhibitions on view…showing them how we’re different, providing them almost with a case study,” DeSimone said.
DeSimone’s favorite part of the semester is preparing the students for their final project.
“We’re trying to change their mindset to ‘I’m the creator of this,'” she said.
When developing their final curatorial project, which goes on view during the last week of the semester, students must take into account the relationship between every exhibition in the gallery. The group project requires students to take on a lot of responsibility and make decisions as a team.
“Most students leave saying, ‘I learned more about the dynamic of working with a team than anything else,'” DeSimone said.
Mikaela Rabb, a junior at Phillips Academy, took the course in the spring of 2011 and feels that she gained valuable experience from the course.
“I really liked how we were balancing time between the classroom and hands-on learning,” Rabb said.
In switching off between readings and work in the museum, she learned a lot about art and gained a deeper appreciation for museum work.
The final project of the course included many stages, such as picking which works to use, deciding on the placement of the pieces, writing the text for the exhibit and advertising for opening night.
According to Education Associate and Museum Learning Specialist Jamie Kaplowitz, the potential for the museum to play a role in a class curriculum doesn’t stop at “Visual Culture.” One U.S. history class, for example, studies how images in sequence can depict a historical narrative, and for their final project, students select among pieces from the Addison to represent a part of history.
“The skill that comes with curating is something we apply in all sorts of subject areas, whether asking them to move pieces around in the Addison or put .jpgs in order,” she said.
Phillips Academy students interested in studying the arts in college also have a leg up on their peers at other schools in terms of the independence and hands-on experience that this course offers. While other boarding schools in the area are putting more emphasis on arts education, Phillips Academy is ahead in museum learning. The Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., which hosts art history and architecture classes in the Robert Lehman Arts Center on campus, doesn’t have any museum studies courses similar to “Visual Culture,” as the school lacks the expansive collection and staff assistance.
Most high students don’t have access to a collection of this calibre, much less the chance to curate it, until they reach college. Tufts, for example, offers similar classes with hands-on collection work in the Department of Art History and graduate program in Museum Studies.
Edith Young, a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), took the course her senior year at Andover and found that it influenced her choice of what to study and what school to attend.
“The Addison’s curating course became hugely influential in my decision to take a gap year and further explore options in the art world before deciding that attending an art school was the right choice for me,” Young said.
During her gap year, she studied at the Oxbow School, an arts-intensive semester school in Napa, Cali., and worked at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, New York.
She feels the course helped her make the decision to study art history and studio art at RISD.
“If you are considering taking the plunge into the art school realm, I highly recommend this course that is completely unique to the Andover community,” she said.