“The meaning we make”—a teacher’s reflection

Laure Veissiere is a Preschool/Pre-K teacher at Washington International School and participated in The Phillips Collection’s Summer Teacher Institute.

A print I created in the workshop about equitable society.

My interest in Art Integration started when I experienced my own limitations as a novice teacher, frustrations with some school systems and society as a whole, and the need to grow, collaborate, learn, and change while working with an underserved population in Anacostia five years ago.

Art Integration has the potential to enhance academics, democracy, and humanity by engaging students in meaningful conversations and proposing an alternative to the violence of the current political and educational climate. To fight against the school-to-prison pipeline, enhance engagement, dismantle some systems of oppression, and decrease violence, Art Integration practices have led to a culturally relevant approach to education.

The Summer Teacher Institute at the Phillips was pivotal in thinking about how we bring our own meaning to our classrooms, our artmaking practices, and our communities of teachers and communities of origin. It got me thinking about how our students can make meaningful connections with each other through art. Also, it allowed me to examine how using art in the classroom can support me in recognizing my own biases and the meanings students bring with them from their own backgrounds and experiences.

Phillips educators had us undergo a process of self-reflection by looking at ourselves, our values, communities, and interests as they transpire into the class. The Phillips Collection Head of Teaching & Learning Hilary Katz, said, “While looking at your personal identity, it is important to be clear about your position (your perspectives, power, and identities) when teaching an arts integration lesson to students.”

During one of our arts integration lessons, we recreated a work of art as a way to confront our biases in the process.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018; My recreation of No Face.

I was drawn to reproducing the artwork by Simone Leigh because I connected to the feeling of discomfort that I felt when looking at it. I learned that she explores historical and contemporary racism in the United States. I connected to the feeling of struggle and the “subjective experience” I felt as a first-generation American woman. Looking deeper at my identity and funds of knowledge by closely looking at my communities of origins made me realize how the meaning we each bring to the classroom impacts our teaching.

Also, this workshop allowed me to think differently about the process of curating as a meaningful creative process and think about ways I could apply it in the class with some original students’ work.

In small groups, we curated the teachers’ recreations of Phillips’s artworks.

This workshop was instrumental in recognizing my power as an Artist, educator, curator, and leader in my communities.  By selecting, encouraging voices, validating students’ confidence, scaffolding talents, creating meaning and culture through inquiry, and building the classroom fund of knowledge, teachers and artists can motivate and change their communities.

Making my own prints and reflecting on their meaning made me think about what kinds of communities come together in my classroom.

My seven-word story about my prints: Communities are powerful when they value education.

This workshop made me look back at my values, my bias, and my commitment as a teacher and artist to nurture the potential in all human beings. Culture is something that is intangible and inseparable from the experience; it is flexible and always interchangeable. Hilary Katz said, “Culture is not in a box.” Culture and funds of knowledge are fluid, always changing and evolving.

Just like artists influence their communities, teachers have transformative powers. They are agents of social change in their communities because they support and nourish their students’ voices and talents and help them recognize their knowledge, cultures, and funds of knowledge.

Thoughts on women’s rights and our work in the museum

I know I am not alone in being depressed and appalled by the erosion of women’s rights in this country and around the world. Rape is used as a tool of power, terror, and abuse in war zones in Europe and Africa. Women are forced from their jobs and girls are turned away from schools in Afghanistan. In the US court rulings and new legislation strip control of reproductive and health decisions from women. The current atmosphere of intolerance encompasses legislation negatively impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, and the banning and censoring of books, to mention just two more troubling issues.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018, Terracotta, graphite ink, salt-fired porcelain, and epoxy, 20 in x 8 in; 50.8 cm x 20.32 cm, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2019

In my role as Director of The Phillips Collection, I want to share some thoughts about these troubling issues, and how our museum reflects and embraces our mission driven values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that are so boldly stated in our strategic plan, crafted and adopted by staff and board leadership, and that continues to guide our work in all ways. Our diversity values impact our workforce, our hiring, our institutional culture, our board of trustees, our collecting policies, the focus of our exhibitions and programs in the museum and in the community.

Our collecting policy explicitly embraces adding diverse voices—people of color and women. I want to mention just a few of the women that are now represented in our collection, acquired within the past ten years or so (by no means intended as a comprehensive list): Jae Ko, Kate Shepherd, Arlene Shechet, Zilia Sánchez, Nekisha Durrett, Ranjani Shettar, Nara Park, Zoë Charlton, Renée Stout, Marta Pérez García, Mequitta Ahuja, Janet Taylor Pickett, Barbara Liotta, Regi Müller, Tayo Heuser, Linn Meyers, Alyson Shotz, Jean Meisel, Jennifer Wen Ma, Helen C. Frederick, Bettina Pousttchi, Jeanne Silverthorne, Sandra Cinto, Julia Wachtel. I have been true to this goal of diversification in many of the purchases made with the Director’s Discretionary funding including works by Simone Leigh, Dindga McCannon, and the complete portfolio of the Guerilla Girls.

Nekisha Durrett with her artwork Airshaft (2021) in the bridges of The Phillips Collection. Photo: Brendan Canty

Many of these artists were featured in Vesela Sretenović’s Intersections exhibition series that was inaugurated in 2009, or from projects curated by Klaus Ottmann or Adrienne Childs, among others. The acquisition of the work by Zilia Sánchez resulted from the major monographic exhibition that Vesela organized in 2019 that traveled to New York and Ponce. Our exhibition of the Debra and Dennis Scholl collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal women artists resulted in a stunning gift of six ceremonial poles. Marta Pérez García’s work entered the collection from our centennial community juried exhibit Inside Outside Upside Down, (curated by Elsa Smithgall and Camille Brown with Renée Stout) an introduction that resulted in her current Intersections exhibition Restos-Traces.

Marta Pérez García, Restos-Traces, 2021-2022, photo by AK Blythe

Our programming has also reflected women’s rights issues. Programs can be platforms for learning, exchange, and participation. In 2018 we mounted a solo installation by Australian artist, Halcyon fellow, Georgia Saxelby, To Future Women. Installed at the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March of January 2017, this project involved a community making, participatory letter writing activity, resulting in a time capsule of hundreds of expressions of anger, hope, sorrow, and solemn reflection. On February 14, 2018, Violence Against Women Day, we staged a panel discussion that brought an array of voices to the stage. How appropriate that this summer we have hosted Marta Pérez García’s powerful and disturbing Restos-Traces exhibition that confronts us with the resilience and strength of women who have survived domestic violence. Later this month, as the exhibition reaches its conclusion, programming will allow our communities to convene for further discussion, growth, and healing. In addition, I recall the 2020 annual Artists of Conscience Forum with the theme of “Women, Race and Representation,” celebrating the creativity of women highlighted throughout the Intersections series.

Installation image of Zilia Sánchez’s Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), 1987

In 2020 we engaged in a heated debate about whether to install Black Lives Matter banners on our façade. We heeded the advice of then Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, that we should first “show the receipt,” and kept on doing our work towards diversity and inclusion, rather than making a performative gesture. Later that year we installed a work by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer which included two large banners “Moral Injury” and “So Vote.”  For me, that remains the key message and opportunity. It applies no matter what any individual’s opinion might be. In previous years we have hosted voter registration drives and citizenship ceremonies, activities we will continue to embrace. Our support of these activities seems especially important in a time when political forces are attempting to thwart the right of enfranchisement of the citizens of our country.

Very soon we plan to hold internal museum wide discussions with the participation of artist-activists with whom we have worked before. My hope is that this forum might afford a safe platform for a rich exchange of ideas and proposals. Additionally, next month internal staff will commence with the Diversity Intergroup Dialogue Series (DIDS). These sessions will afford each of us an opportunity to delve further in topics that reflect DEAI areas and methods to increase our cultural sensitivity.

Public programs will be announced in the near future.

We hope you continue to join us on our journey.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fishnet), 2014

A Look Back on 12 Years as Chief Curator

After 12 years of distinguished leadership and curatorial accomplishments, Klaus Ottmann has stepped down from his role as Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Academic Affairs. During his tenure at the Phillips, Ottmann oversaw the curatorial, conservation, and registrarial departments, as well as led our major academic partnership with the University of Maryland. Here, Klaus shares some of his favorite memories.

What makes The Phillips Collection different from other museums?

The Phillips is unique in many ways but one of its most distinctive characteristics is the emphasis on creating new conversations between art works, which keeps the collection alive, relevant, and new, even if one has seen some of the individual works in other contexts before. This is what distinguishes The Phillips Collection from other more static museums, where art is not allowed to thrive and acquire new layers of meaning.

What are your hopes for the Phillips’s next century?

To continue to strive for more diversity within its collection and exhibitions without abandoning its foundational mission as a museum of modern and contemporary art where the intimate and experimental meet.

What exhibitions/programs/partnerships are you most proud of?

First and foremost, I would consider the creation of the Wolfgang Laib Wax Room my lasting legacy. In regards to exhibitions: Angels Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet (2013) because I had a brilliant co-curator, Dorothy Kosinski; George Condo: The Way I Think (2017) because it was an extraordinary collaboration with an exceptional artist; Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018 (2018) because it allowed me to work very closely with all of the Nordic Embassies including the Greenlandian Representation (our rich diplomatic partnerships were one of my favorite aspects of working at the Phillips) and because it enabled me to work with 19th-century and 20th-century art in one exhibition for the first time.

George Condo and Klaus Ottmann in the Phillips galleries, 2017. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

What is your favorite work in the Phillips’s collection? What is a favorite work of yours in the Phillips’s collection that our members might not know about?

The Rothko Room has always been my refuge; it is one of the most powerful installations one can experience in a museum. I discovered many wonderful artists and paintings while working at the Phillips. One of my favorite works in the collection, and probably one of the lesser well-known ones, is Louis Michel Eilshemius’s Summer Landscape with Hawk (between 1901 and 1906).