The Riches of Modern Art
by Peter Samis
One of the great gifts of multimedia has been to enable students,
teachers and members of the general public to gain direct access
to primary source materials including artworks that
previously lay inaccessible to the public gaze. Today, subjects
are increasingly brought to life through historic footage, letters
from the front, or streaming video feeds from the field. Students
can use inquiry- and constructivist-based methods to form their
own opinions about important moments and cultural phenomena, sharpening
their research and critical-thinking skills in the process.
In 1994 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art began Voices &
Images of California Art, one of three multimedia titles that inaugurated
its new building. In the years since, through a series of teacher
workshops and classroom evaluations, the program has gone from prototype
to CD-ROM with accompanying classroom curriculum guide, featuring
History, Language Arts and Visual Arts lessons keyed to the California
state standards and adaptable to grades 4-12. That curriculum guide,
now in its second printing, has gained widespread acceptance in
the field, and is changing the way teachers and students look at
The Voices & Images of California Art CD-ROM is the cornerstone
of the curriculum. It harnesses the power of multimedia to offer
indepth, intimate portraits of eight celebrated California artists:
photographers Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange;
painters Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo and Nathan Oliveira; and sculptors
Robert Arneson and Betye Saar. Each artist's life and work are presented
through an introductory movie, a biography, a gallery of artwork,
a photo album charting their life, an interview and/or correspondence
section, and a scrapbook. The CD-ROM is a rich mix of primary source
documents: in all, there are 40 video and audio clips, more than
150 full-screen reproductions of artworks, and personal photographs,
letters and diary entries that reveal the artist's goals, values,
and challenges in a very concrete, real world manner.
On the CD-ROM you can:
Watch Betye Saar make an assemblage drawn from different cultures;
Listen to Dorothea Lange narrate the first time she encountered
an "Okie" family in California;
Read Ansel Adam's advice to fellow-photographer Edward Weston
about earning a living;
Read Imogen Cunningham's 1913 article titled "Photography
as a Profession for Women" and then see Cunningham at age
93 teasing Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show;
Review the press dossier surrounding Robert Arneson's portrait
bust of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, which provoked a
major scandal through its graphic references to the late mayor's
life and assassination; and
Follow Jay DeFeo's seven-year struggle to complete her masterpiece
The Rose, now in the collection of New York's Whitney Museum
of American Art.
This is just a suggestive sampling; others include an extensive
dossier of Dorothea Lange's letters and photographs of migrant workers
in California during the 1930s, including the way they were reproduced
and have been appropriated since. All of these items are reproduced
digitally, with minimal accompanying commentary, in an interface
designed to serve as an elegant, easy-to-use multimedia document
But they are just the foundation, the raw material around which
the curriculum was created.
The Curriculum Development Process
In the summer of 1996, after preliminary research conducted by
museum educator Susan Spero, Ph.D., on the state of technology use
in the schools, SFMOMA invited four teachers from as many subject
areas and grade levels to participate in a one-week workshop at
the museum. These educators, all early adopters of technology in
the classroom, were asked to evaluate two of the museum's three
pilot multimedia programs for their classroom potential. At the
time, Voices & Images was singled out as most fully developed
and most easily applicable to the California curriculum.
Over the next three days, the teachers and museum staff brainstormed
a variety of curriculum strategies that could be mapped to the CD's
content and came up with a list of potential themes. Over the next
six months those initial ideas were written up, circulated, reworked
and transformed into a working curriculum that was ready for testing
in the classroom.
Because the CD-ROM was a digital publication, we at the museum
assumed that teachers would wish to receive the curriculum in digital
form, as a Web site or a PDF file on the disk itself. But the teachers
quickly, if somewhat sheepishly, informed us otherwise. Would it
be all right if the lessons were published in book form? That way
they could bring them home, even read them in bed at night without
being connected to their computer. And while we were at it, could
the book have a spiral binding, so it would lie flat on a desk,
and print large enough for middle-aged eyes to read from a standing
position? Finally, could it be an elegantly designed volume, one
they would be proud to display on their shelves among the other
more homespun curriculum materials they received, one that said
the museum really valued teachers?
The answer to all of these questions was a resounding "Yes!"
After all, here was the ultimate focus group telling us exactly
what they wanted. Why produce this curriculum if it wasn't going
to serve its audience?
A draft of the book was designed, copied, and then farmed out to
20 teachers in the Bay Area for further classroom testing and evaluation.
Their feedback was incorporated even as the museum moved forward
on seeking funding to publish the finished book. In the meantime,
SFMOMA educators and participating teacher-advisors began demonstrating
the program at CUE conferences in both northern and southern California.
A generous grant from AirTouch Communications Foundation enabled
not only publication of a new CD-ROM edition (sans the nudes of
the original version!) and the printed book, but also a grassroots
statewide program based on teachers training teachers. By working
with regional CTAP (California Technology Assistance Project) and
TCAP (The California Arts Project) representatives, project manager
Susan Spero was able to recruit a group of 13 teacher trainers from
throughout the state. All of these "teacher leaders" came
to San Francisco for a two-day training at the museum, and then
fanned back out across the state in the fall of 1998. Over the next
year and a half they would conduct workshops for more than 600 California
teachers. Teachers or school districts paid a nominal $20 fee for
the three-hour workshop, and came away with both a copy of the CD-and-guide
and hands-on experience using the program and its accompanying lessons.
In 1999, CalStateTEACH, the distance-learning component of California's
on-the-job teacher credentialing program, adopted Voices & Images
as a core art and technology component of their statewide curriculum.
"We're trying to create a habit of mind that the arts are an
important part of the curriculum, and we're trying to do it early,"
says Dr. Carol Barnes, system-wide associate director in charge
of Curriculum and Instruction. By incorporating Voices & Images
in the required CalStateTEACH materials "it's given to them
and they're expected to use it. The arts should not be something
they have to hunt down and spend a fortune on," Barnes says.
As telecommunications mergers and acquisitions have claimed even
such titans as AirTouch, Quantum Corp. stepped up to the plate by
underwriting a second edition of the Voices & Images Classroom
Curriculum Edition, now including lesson-by-lesson references to
the California state standards.
So What's in the Curriculum?
The fact that the Voices & Images CD-ROM is entirely composed
of primary source materials makes it a gold mine for developing
inquiry and research skills, and for triggering those moments of
insight that lie at the heart of real learning. The first part of
the guide gives teachers a set of structured questions suited to
the subsections of the program: Gallery, Photo Album, Interview,
etc. These discussion questions encourage careful looking, reading,
listening and interpretation of each artist's work, and suggest
connections across the sections. Synapses begin to fire.
The second and main portion of the curriculum guide encourages
students to look at the world around them through five themes inspired
by the artists' life and work:
Separate Language Arts, History, and Visual Arts lessons flesh
out the dimensions of these themes and challenge students to internalize
something of the artists' creative processes. Students may create
"pedestal portraits" of historical figures or literary
characters inspired by Robert Arneson's biographical bust of slain
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone; undertake a documentary essay
about a subject of their choice inspired by Dorothea Lange; or represent
a pivotal moment in their own life story à la Joan Brown.
Several such projects are on view at SFMOMA's Web site: www.sfmoma.org/eschool
Finally, the curriculum is rounded out by a bibliography, filmography
and historical timeline which tracks history, art, literature, and
music from the 1930s through the 1980s the decades represented
by the artists on the CD-ROM.
Teachers have told us that the Voices & Images curriculum:
This last point was proven most forcefully at last summer's Teach
The Teachers Collaborative in Ojai, where two veteran V&I trainers,
Esther Kligman-Frey of San Rafael and Debra Clare-White of Orange
County CUE, led a weeklong workshop in which teachers explored the
CD-ROM and its accompanying curriculum firsthand. The class of 16
was a diverse group: it included a second-grade teacher, a middle-school
humanities teacher, high-school computer science and English teachers,
and yes, even art teachers! Individually and in teams, they brought
the arts into the heart of their practice and allowed these eight
artists to expand and renew the way they thought of communicating
their own subject area.
The response to this program has been quite rewarding for all involved
on an academic and a human level. The key has been the CD-ROM's
focus on the artists themselves, as each one is a unique and creative
individual who had their own struggles and personal identity. "These
kids just loved the CD-ROM," one high-school English teacher
writes. "They were always willing to stay late to continue
to explore it. They really put their hearts into the project. I
will add that as a teacher, this experience made this art much more
meaningful to me." Another teacher comments, "Artists
become living, breathing people whom students can realize are human,
and that they can share the same desires and dreams."
It seems that these eight artists' engagement in making their work
and re-creating the world we all live in gives an empowering message
to students and teachers alike.
Peter Samis is associate curator of Education
and program manager for Interactive Educational Technologies at
the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He spearheaded development
of three interactive multimedia programs for the inauguration of
SFMOMA's new building in 1995. One of these, Voices & Images
of California Art, was awarded the "Best CD-ROM" prize
in the American Association of Museum's 1997-98 design competitions,
and received AirTouch Communications Foundation and Quantum Corp.
grants for widespread dissemination throughout the California schools.
Samis and his team won a 2000 People's Voice Webby Award for Best
Art Site for their program about video artist Bill Viola www.sfmoma.org/espace/viola,
which made extensive use of QuickTime streaming. Samis's current
focus is on the ambitious task of Making Sense of Modern Art
a combined Web site/kiosk and CD-ROM with curriculum. SFMOMA is
at 116 New Montgomery, Suite 720, San Francisco, CA 94105. (415)
SFMOMA is committed to developing the full spectrum of appropriate
technologies, ranging from person-to person live classes to CD-ROMs
to printed books and educational Web sites. Check the SFMOMA e-school
for changing online curriculum and samples of student projects inspired
by Voices & Images of California Art. Last Fall, the museum
also published Art as Experiment, Art as Experience: An Exploration
of 15 Works from the Anderson Collection. It is available as a broadband
feature on the SFMOMA Web site and as a CD-ROM with accompanying
curriculum guide through the MuseumStore (415/357-4035). Also available
as a broadband feature on the SFMOMA site is the new version of
Making Sense of Modern Art. Museum educators are currently working
with teachers to develop curriculum based on this new program. For
more information about school and teacher programs (both technological
and non-), see www.sfmoma.org,
or contact Tana Johnson, coordinator of School and Teacher Programs,