September 8, 2010  |  Events & Programs
Learning from Brazil

View of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum as seen from the Maquinho, the Museum’s Community Art Center. Photo: Pablo Helguera

In this age of facile and constant communication—when you can Google and search anything you need to know, and e-mail or Skype with any one of your colleagues globally—the question arises: Why travel abroad to research?

On a recent research trip to Brazil, I was reminded of the reason by the astute Luiz [Guilherme] Vergara, former director of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum and professor of art at the Federal University of Niterói: “Geography is everything.” This he noted as we looked out from a community center high up on a mountain at the base of a favela, overlooking a breathtaking view of a bay and the Niteroi Museum, a superb Niemeyer-designed spaceship-like form. The museum and the center work closely in tandem in the community.

There is a long history of collaboration between MoMA’s Department of Education and the Museum’s International Program. In the past, MoMA’s efforts to fulfill its founding educational mission have been held up as a model for others to learn from, but in this global age it’s clear that there is no one superior way to educate and there are many models, sources, and ideas from which to draw inspiration and learn. And so, in late August I set out with my colleagues Amy Horschak and Pablo Helguera from the Education Department and Gwen Farrelly and Jay Levenson from the International Program on an intensive, three-city investigation to find out more about current practices in Brazilian museum education.

Why Brazil? Well, it’s a country with a rich history of innovation in education, and arts education in particular. In addition to the country’s outstanding developments in modern and contemporary art, architecture, design, theater, and music—and other areas greater in scope than the limitations of my interests—one of the most influential education theorists of the twentieth century, Paulo Freire, hailed from Brazil. His seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written in exile during Brazil’s military dictatorship, has had enormous impact on the field of education globally, as has Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. We were interested in knowing more about current practices in museum education, and also if and how the legacy of Freire’s and Boal’s work has had impact.

This quote from Freire piqued my interest, in part because it is aligned to some of my thinking about artists’ processes as being a more salient way of engaging people with art:

Never does an event, a fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book, have one reason behind it. In fact, a deep gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys. And so I have always been more interested in understanding the process in and by which things come about than in the product itself. (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope)

In considering works of art that are participatory in nature, like the work of Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, I have lately been interested in better understanding how to interpret work that is specifically made for direct participation within a museum context, where it is not the norm to directly touch works of art and where there are often large numbers of visitors. In Brazil I was interested in exploring the intellectual interchange, if any, among Freire, Boal, and participatory artists like Clark and Oiticica.

There are no easy answers or solutions to these questions, but along the way in our sojourn to São Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio de Janeiro, we did gain some tremendous insights, which I will share with you in the next few weeks in blog posts.

Perhaps the most memorable comment beyond “Geography is everything” was made by our colleague Mila Chiovatto, director of education at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo: “Wendy, in Brazil participation is everything!”