Director of Learning and Interpretation – Portland Museum of Art
Recently, I had the opportunity to have a wonderful conversation with Jenn DePrizio, the Director of Learning and Interpretation at the Portland Museum of Art. This blog post provides you the chance to learn about Jenn and some of the work she is doing at the museum.
Please tell the Maine Arts Education blog readers about your background.
As an undergraduate studying art history, I didn’t even know museum education was a career option. I knew that I loved that learning about art of the past. I started in the classics department, but after a debacle in Greek class, I became an art history major. Art could convey ideas, beliefs, and political propaganda. Works of art can be both windows, offering a view beyond one’s self, and mirrors, providing a reflection of one’s self. Through my study of art history, I learned about not only the past, times and places different than my own, but also about myself and how I fit into the world. I thought, “This is so cool. How can I share this with others?” And then I learned from an intern supervisor, who is now my best friend, that I could make a career out of that desire! So off I went to George Washington University and got a Masters of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education. Before coming to the PMA, I worked at the Vermont Historical Society, Worcester Art Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum, and most recently Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. At each of these museums my main focus was on gallery teaching and creating engaging gallery experiences for visitors of all ages. I look forward to finding ways to continue this work in Portland, making the PMA a place of discovery, innovation and excitement in terms of gallery learning.
Why did you want to leave Massachusetts and move to Maine?
I have always loved Maine as a visitor and in particular Portland. For me, quality of life is an important factor in making decisions about my professional life. My husband and I were looking for a place to raise our young daughter. We wanted to live in a place that combined all the benefits of a city (including good restaurants and bars—for a number of years before having my daughter I wrote a cocktail blog), with a relaxed atmosphere and connection to nature. This past weekend as we enjoyed our lobster rolls and haddock sandwiches out at the Five Island Lobster Co., we were reassured that we made the right choice in moving to Maine.
Describe your responsibilities as the Director of Learning and Interpretation at the Portland Museum of Art.
As the Director of Learning and Interpretation at the PMA, I am responsible for developing enriching and engaging opportunities for visitors of all ages to engage with authentic works of art. A big part of that work since I have come on board at the PMA has been exploring who the museum’s audiences are currently and thinking deeply about who are the audiences that we are not reaching. Hanging over my desk, I have written a quote by David Carr that reads, “Museums aren’t for everyone. But they should be for anyone.” How can we make the museum accessible to anyone who may be inclined to want to explore art and creativity with us?
One of the greatest challenges for museum’s today is meeting the changing needs and expectation of today’s audience, while remaining true to one’s intellectual integrity and institution’s mission. Many museum-goers are savvy cultural consumers who expect to benefit from the museum’s expertise. They also want to be actively engaged and to be given the freedom to chose and organize their own experience. There are also a great number of Americans who do not approach museums with the same comfort level and sense that museums as vital places of learning and engagement. For many, museums are intimidating and a visit can be daunting, overwhelming and frustrating if they are not provided with basic orientation and safe entry points to begin to look closely and make meaning of the works of art. It is my responsibility to work collaboratively with my colleagues across the museum to ensure that the needs of both these types of visitors are considered and planned for.
What are the goals of art education programs at the Portland Museum of Art?
I am fortunate to have a dedicated and thoughtful team at the PMA to work with on a daily basis. Together we strive to encourage curiosity and wonder for visitors to the PMA. By offering audiences of all ages opportunities to connect with authentic works of art through programs that offer open-ended experiences, intellectual rigor and exploration of the creative process, we hope that we can impact the lives of PMA audiences. A successful art education program may look a little different depending on the audience and the activity. But if I were to imagine an ideal scene in the galleries that signaled success, here is what I would see and hear: Visitors would be looking closely at works of art. There would be times of quiet contemplation and moments of boisterous conversation. Visitors would share observations, possible interpretations, while the docent or staff would find ways to build on those ideas. Perhaps most important of all, visitors would wonder aloud, they would ask questions, they would speculate. Through that curiosity their connection to the work of art and the world around them would expand.
I believe that art museums can change people’s lives. As museum educators, my team and I have a chance to contribute to the vitality of our community by connecting art of the past and the work of living artists with contemporary issues relevant to our visitors. In working with varied audiences—school children and teachers, teens, families, adults, docents, museum members, tourists—we then craft programs that meet the individual needs of each.
Since many of your readers are classroom teachers, I can talk a bit more about our goals related to K-12 students and teachers. Currently, we serve about 7,000 students through our school tour program, but we could be serving many more. I hope that teachers know that visits to the PMA are free for them and their students.
Moving forward we will be building programs that promote the primacy of the in-gallery experience. What is unique about the experience that students can have at the PMA? By looking at and talking about works of art, students can develop their looking and critical thinking skills. Having seen the positive impact firsthand, I am huge proponent of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and am exploring ways we strengthen our programs using this teaching approach. Because VTS is grounded in research and developmental theory, it is rare as a pedagogy in that it begins with the learner and the questions they have, not the information that we, as adults, think is relevant to the students. The students guide the discussion to what they are wondering about, and the teacher is there to help them get to where they want to go. And the listening skills, the empathy and respect for others that VTS teaches connects back to the idea I was talking about earlier—the work of the L&I department at the PMA can impact the lives of our visitors in profound ways.
If you were given $500,000 to do whatever you please, what would it be?
While there are so many ideas I have, the first thing I would do with such a trove of money would be to make the museum free to all visitors. For many the financial barrier is a serious one, and to truly impact our community we need to eliminate as many barriers as we can. Art should be accessible to everyone. In the words of William Morris, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”