I often to try to imagine what it was like for MoMA’s first director of education, Victor D’Amico, to build a new, expansive education program dedicated to art with a radically different modern aesthetic at a time when the public was hard hit by the Great Depression. Having studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College, D’Amico was steeped in the educational and aesthetic theories of John Dewey, for whom experience was central. Dewey challenged the aesthetic hierarchies and institutions that isolated art, and championed the connection of art to everyday life.
In the introduction to her book For the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars, which focuses on The Federal Arts Project and The Museum of Modern Art, A. Joan Saab notes that “through their educational philosophies and exhibitions, both institutions transformed the ways in which aesthetic value had been determined in the United States and helped to redistribute the nation’s cultural wealth, making cultural capital more available to more Americans.”
Supported by a board of trustees, a founding director with a commitment to both democratic values and broad public education, and his own “laboratory” spirit encouraging and celebrating creativity, D’Amico had a firm foundation upon which to build.
I invite you to join us and learn more about D’Amico and other leaders in the field of museum education at Mining Modern Museum Education today—Friday, June 25—at MoMA.
Below Briley Rasmussen, a museum educator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gives a brief introduction to her presentation on Victor D’Amico.
Art—A Human Necessity: Victor D’Amico and The Museum of Modern Art, 1937–1969
My presentation will address the pioneering work of Victor D’Amico, in particular his most widely acclaimed and influential program, the Children’s Art Carnival, and his philosophies of creative teaching, his concept of the Museum as a laboratory for art education, and his ultimate goal to vitalize living through aesthetic experience.
The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929 as the only museum of its kind in America dedicated to the contemporary arts. It was established “for the purpose of encouraging and developing the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and practical life and furnishing popular instruction.” D’Amico drew his pedagogy from a deep understanding of art itself, and to him, this meant modern art. He believed that art and art education should be responsive to and impact contemporary living.
In volume 19 of the Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art, D’Amico asserted that the role of the art museum in education was to “help education by exploring new teaching practices and techniques…the museum is the last remaining source of such experimentation and through this service alone can offer the schools a valuable aid.” He also stated that once schools or other organizations had adopted a practice, the museum should cease that activity. With the resources of original works of art and the expertise of the staff, D’Amico felt the role of the museum was that of a laboratory for the development of creative teaching practices. And thus, his programs became his experiments.
D’Amico’s most widely acclaimed and influential program, the Children’s Art Carnival (1942–1969), was an experiment in modern art education that tested and developed his ideas about children, creativity, and modern art. The Carnival constructed an ideal environment and circumstance for creative development. It transported children into a separate world devoted to their creativity, imagination, and art making. The Carnival was a space for children—no adults were allowed. It empowered children to be self-directed and to take on adult roles in a safe, supportive environment. It also offered children various modes of free-choice learning through visual, tactile, and kinesthetic experiences.
The Carnival had the broadest reach and influence of any of D’Amico’s programs. The influence of the Carnival extended beyond the Museum and the United States. It became a cultural export of the United States, traveling under the auspices of the State Department and the United States Department of Commerce to Barcelona, Milan, India, and to the World’s Fair in Brussels as a symbols of American innovation and freedom.
D’Amico believed that art was a universal and humanizing force that was primary to our lived experience. In the shadow of the growing tensions of the Cold War, D’Amico articulated art as the balancing force to science and destruction, stating that “Art may…be the salvation of modern man, but only if children—all children—have the benefit of true aesthetic experiences and if the average man seeks the reward of creative endeavor which is aesthetic satisfaction…[Art] is in these days of hot threats and cold wars—a human necessity.”
D’Amico exhibited strong leadership in art education and museum education. He developed a philosophy and practices based on the individual, aesthetic experience, and a belief in the primary role art plays in bettering our lives and society, and he worked to extend these beyond the museum walls and to educate parents, teachers, and the public about the primacy of art.
I hope you’ll join my colleagues and me this weekend to learn more about this pivotal figure and how his innovative ideas revolutionized arts education in the United States and beyond.