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Gallery - a thematic approach to learning.

When Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts first opened its doors in 1983, it had the immediate task of changing its look from an inner-city school to an arts magnet school--inviting and stimulating. The gallery was one of the first places visitors would see. Based on a thematic concept, the Roosevelt Gallery's goals were to find themes sophisticated enough for adolescents, and resources which would enhance its middle school curriculum.

It is important to have a room where exhibits change regularly--a visually stimulating place which belongs to the school community. Exhibits in the gallery vary from happenings or performances to long-term, thematic constructions. Here students are encouraged to observe, manipulate, extract, perform and critique ideas. The gallery is central to the school because it crosses the three grade levels (sixth, seventh and eighth), and involves students, staff, parents and community resources. Our classrooms echo the themes of the gallery--and promise more. The gallery also unifies a manner of studying. The theme approach allows individuals to express ideas from a personal standpoint, to integrate ideas across curricula areas, and to draw upon their backgrounds and cultural experiences to create new ideas. It's a place to think, to act, to be.

In the seven years that Roosevelt has been a creative arts school, the gallery has changed its themes many times in order to accommodate school needs. The exhibits have been, for the most part, collective: hats, automobiles, utensils, a faculty show, photography, clothing and student artwork. Each exhibit has had a history, philosophy, change of movement, vocabulary, and a suggested list of activities. Works by professional artists, private collections, references to art history and other subject references have been included.

As the staff changed and the curriculum developed, more brainstorming and staff/parent input became part of each new exhibit. A parent built nesting display stands; a grandparent made thirty-six cubes; we purchased a rolling ladder and canvas stools, acquired a small storage space and constructed easily movable homosote walls, designed by an architecture student. Plans to add lighting, window and ceiling treatment, and a wider door lie in the future.

Parents at Roosevelt are special to the gallery. As many as possible are recruited to make phone calls, set up exhibits, speak and provide for openings and special materials. However, our staff is the major contributing force behind the gallery. Teachers lend their support in many ways: brainstorming, permitting students multiple visits, assigning student helpers and guides, providing materials for themes, critiquing, assigning work along each theme, and even contributing physical labor.

Designing a gallery

For all galleries, I use basically the same procedure. Faculty select three themes based on enhancement of current curriculum, appropriateness for the age group, availability of resources and need.

As exhibit times near, I invite my colleagues to brainstorm the subject. And then the work begins. Usually one day is spent telephoning and networking ideas. I talk to every suggested resource, I try to obtain a firm commitment to dates for picking up displays, materials, etc. I arrange the room to accommodate the following:

Change--color, space, movement and limitations of the subject.

Visual arts--This includes art history, visual presentation, examples of current art--national and local. Local artists are asked to join us during the exhibition weeks.

Time line/history of subject.

Other arts--music, dance, theater, creative writing.

Other curricula areas--careers, computer science, languages, literature, mathematics, science, social studies.

Empty space--like an unfinished painting, there should always be room for enhancement.

The installation usually takes three and a half days.

Day 1--Color scheme, ceiling decor and traffic pattern are planned. This means wearing old clothing, moving walls and teaching carpentry skills to some unsuspecting parent volunteers.

Day 2--While I gather visual materials, parent volunteers cover stands, windows and doors.

Day 3--Parents work on charts, pictures, labels, and unfinished work from previous days.

Day 4--The final shift makes sure that everything is labeled correctly, cleaned up, and ready for the guests and guest speaker by 1:00 p.m.

We have had the time to develop a full curriculum and now it is time to re-define how the gallery functions. We still need a room for visitors, and a room where visual arts can be seen outside of an arts classroom--a place where students from various backgrounds and varying degrees of ability can share ideas through a common theme.

Works of art are not conceived in isolation nor limited to past or present artwork. Teaching children and adults to be visually open to ideas, to organize these ideas in a variety of ways, to critique ideas, and to respond by making new ideas is very important in the gallery.

Gerri McNamara is Arts Facilitator at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Author:McNamara, Gerri
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1990
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