Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museums can change the world

RAISE Program participants in the Clark Art Institute’s boardroom. Source: Future of Museums Blog.

Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, Breaking the Cycle of Youth Incarceration: museums and alternative sentencing, Future of Museums Blog, 27 December 2016

Back in August, I shared a blog post describing how the Eastern State Penitentiary is moving “beyond neutrality” to tackle the injustice of mass incarceration. The massive interest in that post (it is, to date, the most highly read post ever published on this blog) encouraged me to search for more examples of museums engaging with criminal justice. In today’s post Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, director of Adult, School and Community Programs at the Clark Art Institute, tells us how her museum is playing an active role in social justice reform in the Northern Berkshire County.

The rationale underlying the RAISE (Responding to Art Involves Self Expression) program at the Clark Art Institute shares the optimistic assumption of the Center for the Future of Museums – that “museums can change the world”. Our ten-year experience with this alternative sentencing program for kids in trouble with the law proves the validity of this claim and offers a model of how an art museum can make a difference in the lives of people and communities.

RAISE participants are sentenced to our program by the juvenile court system, literally mandated to spend time at the Clark engaging with art. The five-week program is hosted twice a year, meeting once a week for two hours, and involves gallery experiences as well as group discussions and self-awareness exercises. We work with kids, ages 12 – 18, and each program serves 8 – 12 students. RAISE is based on the premise that if art is an expression of human experience and/or imagination then engaging with art offers an opportunity for contemplating the human condition, both our own and others, throughout time and place. The goal of the program is to help kids to develop a more accurate and constructive sense of self (and other) and how they fit into the larger world. RAISE gives kids a chance to get away from the buzz of their everyday lives and gives them a space to think about who they are and who they want to be.

The participants arrive the first week looking very uncomfortable. After quick introductions, we get right into the galleries and engage with the art. We set it up so the kids will experience the process as something they are good at, something that is interesting, and something that is fun. After the gallery talk, we go back to the boardroom and do a related activity designed to help the kids look at, think about and talk about their “crime” (the reason they were sentenced to the program) from multiple perspectives, as if it were a work of art. We shift the focus from shame to exploring the context and motivation for their behavior as a vehicle for greater self-understanding and ultimately greater self-control.

The second and fourth weeks are devoted to learning the skills of visual analysis and interpretation. Students spend independent time in the galleries as well as participating in group processing activities. We talk seriously and intelligently, trusting and validating the participants’ perspectives. During the third week we focus on portraits, personal presentation and identity, and the idea that “what you see may or may not be what you get.” This session includes a self-portrait drawing lesson taught by a Williams College studio art professor. With her help, all of the kids draw a quality representation of themselves that they can be proud of. For many, this activity is also an introduction to drawing, a new competency; for some, a celebration of a skill that few knew about.

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