Clark Art Institute Transforms Troubled Kids with Art

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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RAISE program developer, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer

Can engaging with art help kids who are in trouble? Can a museum program transform hostility into wonder? Can museums foster cultural values like respect?

In 2005, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer developed the RAISE program for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. RAISE has served more than 175 boys and girls ages 12 to 17 from Berkshire County, a rural area in western Massachusetts with a population of approximately 129,000.

The majority of participants are from households with a poverty threshold income and involvement with the Department of Children and Families due to concerns about their home environment and/or the activities of people living there. Many participants are living in homes with substance abusing parents, or are abusing substances themselves. Most participants are failing in school and are in alternate school settings, and are not involved in structured activities such as sports and clubs.

RAISE participants generally have no exposure to the arts and culture. Other than through their schools, they have not likely seen a play, heard an orchestra, or been to an art museum. They have extremely limited knowledge of art or artists. These students would never consider walking into a museum; both because they are intimidated by the experience and because a museum has no meaning in their world, that is until they have been through the RAISE program. One of the goals of RAISE is that participants will feel comfortable and like they could belong in an art museum anywhere in the world.

RAISE encourages participants to utilize looking at art, writing, and drawing as vehicles for thinking about human issues. Discussions and activities focus on human capacity, differences, universals, self-respect, and respect for others. By focusing on their strengths, participating youth learn how to think about themselves and the potential and purpose of their lives in constructive ways. This greater self-awareness brings a sense of personal responsibility and control that results in positive life changes. RAISE offers the opportunity for participants to think about their own power, to develop their voice, and helps them learn appropriate self-expression.

Ronna has worked in the education department of the Clark Art Institute for more than seventeen years, first as the Coordinator of Community and Family Programs and for the past seven years as Director of Education Programs. Her goal as a museum educator is to help people understand more fully that looking at and thinking about art can expand their sense of human possibility.

An Interview with Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer of the Clark Art Institute

Meg: Can you describe the RAISE program at the Clark Art Institute?

Ronna: RAISE is a five week program that we developed here at the Clark in 2005 to serve as an alternative sentence for adjudicated youth 11 – 17 years old in Berkshire County. We offer the program twice a year, in November and in March. Typically, the group size is between 8 and 12 students. We developed a curriculum for the program that we are happy to share with other museums--and we have!

Meg: What is the rationale behind the program, and how did the idea come about?

Ronna: We developed the program at the request of Jude Locke, one of our local juvenile court judges who is actually a personal friend of mine. The Berkshire County Juvenile Court is a leader in alternative sentencing, partnering with the area’s many cultural institutions to provide enrichment experiences--rather than punishment or “educational” programs – certainly enrichment experiences are also educational but the understood goal/purpose is slightly different.

The rationale behind the program is related to our philosophy of art museum education and our working definition of “art”--a reflection or expression of human experience and imagination. We don’t see our job as “teaching about art”. We believe that our job is to teach people to engage with art--to look at, think about, discuss, and learn about art as a vehicle to explore human dynamics--their own and others. So to us, art museum education offers an opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being – the artist and how and why he/she made a particular object, the people who lived in the same time and place as the artist, how the meaning of an object has changed over time, our own experience and the experience of other people engaging with the object.

We believe that engaging with art can validate the essential and nebulous nature of humanity--both shared and idiosyncratic--or both the universal nature of being human and the value and uniqueness of the individual. This validation can encourage self-esteem as well as an appreciation of diversity. Engaging with art offers a consciousness that can lead to more purposeful, pro-social and healthy behavior.

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Berkshire County Probation officer Nancy Macauley (retired), Juvenile Court Judge Locke and Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, Director of Education Programs. Photo: Clark Art Institute

Meg: What was your response was when the court system first approached you about partnering?

Ronna: Judge Locke and I were on the sidelines of our daughters' soccer game, we were talking about the program Shakespeare in the Courts, which was the first alternative sentencing program in the county. The program had just won one of President Bush’s Thousand Points of Light award, and it was getting a lot of national recognition. She explained that the success of the program was prompting the juvenile courts to connect with other local cultural venues to develop a variety of new programming.

Berkshire County is a rural area in Western Massachusetts and we are known for our beautiful landscape. We have Mount Greylock, which is the biggest mountain in Massachusetts, lots of farms and public lands and nature preserves. But we are also known as a “cultural mecca” of sorts – we are home to a huge number of major world-class and world-renowned cultural venues. We have three different theatre companies, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and Tanglewood. And we have amazing museums - the Norman Rockwell Museum, MASS MoCA, and of course The Clark Art Institute.

There are also all kinds of other smaller arts organizations and initiatives. For a small, rural county, we have a lot to offer and many people from New York and Boston and really all over the country and world, come to Berkshire County to engage with the cultural opportunities here.

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Autumn on the Clark campus. Photo: Clark Art Institute

I was delighted--and a little nervous about this whole idea of working with kids who were in trouble, who broke the law. But mostly delighted because I believed in the initiative. My orientation has always been “growth mode” rather than punishment in terms of dealing with bad behavior, especially for kids who are still learning what it means to be a person, and developmentally may not even have the capacity for certain rational choices. Furthermore, most of the kids who end up in court ordered programs are from backgrounds that are disadvantaged, kids who don’t have some of the benefits that all children should have, particularly in a country like ours that really has plenty for everybody, but the divisions aren’t exactly fair.

Innovative programs like RAISE come from personal commitment and passion. I’m certainly passionate about my work at the museum and Judge Locke is passionate about the work that she does in the juvenile courts. She has a heart as big as the world! Before she was a judge, she was an attorney for the Department of Social Services and she saw firsthand that the kids who were in the system were often kids that got a bad break, that ended up in bad circumstances and making bad decisions, because of the situations they were born into. She loves The Clark - she actually had her swearing-in ceremony here at The Clark – and she believed that spending time at the Clark would be a good experience, the kind of experience that could help kids understand that life could be more than just getting by.

I was really excited when we started talking about this. The RAISE program is the first outreach program that we’ve ever done at the Clark Art Institute. It coincided with a paradigm shift in the museum world - new ways of thinking about what museums can be, and how we understand ourselves as institutions, what purpose museums serve in society. Instead of thinking about our objects as important in and of themselves, we now understand them as important because they offer a springboard for exploring meaning from multiple perspectives and for having important discussions, for talking about human issues. Thinking about art like this can make it relevant to anybody and everybody.

The Role of Art Education in Society

Meg: I have the belief that 95% of the world's problems come from people being unable to express themselves, or feeling they "can't" for some reason. Can you speak to this in the context of the RAISE program, in terms of art education more broadly, and in terms of society as a whole?

Ronna: I agree with you--although I might even back it up a bit to suggest that many people are not only not able to express themselves, but are generally not even in touch with themselves and often have a greater sense of what they are not, instead of what they are all about. We live in an incredibly dehumanizing time --globalization makes it hard for anyone to feel as if they matter among the millions of people - it’s easy to feel a sense of 'what difference does one person make in the big picture.'

Virtual and extreme experience is valued over nuanced and inner experience; mobility makes it hard for long-term, consistent, emotionally intimate relationships; and our materialistic, consumer economy preys on our sense of being ok by selling products to us based on the idea that we are not ok without said product. Furthermore, the pace and volume of modern day-to-day life demand that our attention is focused on activity and experience outside of the self.

Engaging with art--objects that are evidence of human creativity/spirit--is humanizing, validates lived experience, and connects us with our own and others’ humanity. This is an awareness and orientation that is a critical foundation for self-expression--both the ability and the willingness for self-expression – and for related wellbeing.

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Engaging with art helps RAISE participants improve self-expression. Photos: Clark Art Institute

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Meg: What is the attitude of the kids who are participating?

Ronna: They come in really pissed off and pretty much closed. Their attitude is that they are “gonna do their time”. They soon realize that this whole program is an opportunity for them to validate who they are instead of our trying to teach them something that they need to be. And it’s incredible to see the transformation in so many of these kids.

Many of the kids come in with the bravado of 'look how bad I am' and a hostile attitude. And they so quickly become loving and respectful and kind. Because the only thing that we’re asking them to do is to celebrate their own potential value and potential impact. The shift happens pretty quickly.

The goal of the first day is to both have the kids articulate what they were good at and what they liked in the galleries, and to re-frame the reason they’re in the program into reflecting a positive quality about themselves. And it’s effective. You can literally see in their physicality, the way they carry themselves, the eye contact they make.

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Now, of course, that’s not true for everyone. I can think of two kids in ten years that we just really couldn’t get through to. But even those kids, at some level, were probably impacted. It really is incredible the way that once kids feel validated, regarded as a unique human being with the potential to impact the world in their own way, it dissipates a lot of the anger. And acting out of the anger, instead of from a place of self-awareness (and control) is what gets them in trouble.

And they have the right to be angry, by the way. I get it. Most of these kids have been dealt a bad rap. By accident of birth. I’m in no way I’m saying the anger isn't justified, but it doesn’t serve them well. It doesn’t help them to be who they might be in the world.

Meg: Yes, it’s a natural response, but it’s not a helpful one. Can you share a personal transformative experience or epiphany you had in truly appreciating the power of self expression?

Ronna: I think my study of humanistic psychology in graduate school has been most important to me: Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Virginia Satir, Haim Ginott. There are two Rogers’ quotes that guide me: “That which is most personal is most universal” and “Truth is our friend”.

It was not a single transformative experience or epiphany that I had that brought me to my appreciation of the power of self expression, but instead more of an evolution and synergy of my personal experience, education and professional training. First of all, I am very sensitive in general and tend to be an empath by nature. I am also philosophical and a big picture thinker. I once had a graduate professor say to me, “Ok, let’s start this meeting with what you had for breakfast… “ in an effort to help me stay in the ‘concrete’ world.

A deeper explanation on the RAISE Program at the Clark Art Institute. Video: Clark Art Institute

I have a doctorate in Humanistic Psychological Education with a concentration in Child Development. My research focused on how teachers and schools impact affective development. I started out my career as a classroom teacher. After my graduate work, I taught at our local college in the teacher certification program and then moved on to the Clark.

When I first began working at the museum, I was fortunate to work with an incredible colleague, Michael Cassin, who was hired to reform our education program from the old paradigm of museum education--teaching about art through a lecture style method--to this idea of engaging with art through a conversational method. “Engaging with art” still focused on learning about art but instead of sharing particular information--deemed important from an art historical perspective--all different kinds of information could be included. Information would be included as it related to the conversation and the interests and orientation of the viewers, and could be offered by other people besides the museum educator.

With my background in Humanistic Psychology, it became clear to me that this engagement approach to museum education didn’t only facilitate learning about art but it also related to affective development and positive self-awareness. Engaging with art validates individual perspectives--what people notice, how it relates to what they know, think and feel, and their own interpretations are all important to the conversation and each person’s perspective can enhance everyone else’s.

Engaging with art tacitly celebrates individual uniqueness as well as a shared human condition, both necessary for a healthy sense of self and the ability and willingness for self-expression. For most of our programs, this dynamic is a secondary benefit; for the RAISE program, this dynamic is primary.

Meg: Is there a work that seems to particularly strike a chord with the kids?

Ronna: There’s a painting called "Friends or Foes" by the American artist Frederic Remington that we always include in the first session /initial gallery experience because the students relate to it so well. A sense of loss, being treated unfairly, loneliness, sadness, the importance of a single decision, the relationship between the man and his horse as the only source of comfort, nighttime as a psychological space, are all the kinds of things that come up when we talk about this painting. The painting has also had a number of title changes for various reasons throughout the years, and was once "Friend or Foe"--the singularity totally changes the meaning, so we discuss this, too.

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"Friends or Foes? (The Scout)" by Frederic Remington. Photos: Clark Art Institute

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As a young man, Remington regarded the Native Americans as uncivilized and felt totally comfortable about Western Expansion, manifest destiny, and didn’t worry about how it displaced/destroyed the Native Americans and their way of life. Throughout his career, he spent more and more time with Native Americans, both to study them as subjects for his paintings but also as subjects for his novels about the American West and he started understanding Native Americans as human beings. Later in life, Remington was sensitive to the fact that we may have wiped out a way of life and he wondered if maybe we had made a mistake with our policies.

Meg: A dimension of the program is engaging in self examination with a sense of detachment and through multiple perspectives, a technique I have used in writing workshops, and that is incredibly mind-expanding and liberating. This way of seeing the world, of course, is inherent in appreciating art. Can you share thoughts on the value of these themes, both as a museum educator and on a personal level?

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Photo: Clark Art Institute

Ronna: I know that somehow the program helps kids see themselves in much more complex ways and as an ever-evolving work-in-progress. The whole concept of “multiple perspectives” is very powerful and validating and liberating and can help kids to be more careful and less reactive.

So many times the kids that come to us are so caught up in the world and reacting to it, instead of acting in it. We live in such a busy, complex, dehumanizing world. These kids spend a lot of time mistakenly trying to have a sense of connectedness and an impact by striking out or getting negative attention, which is very often not purposeful or in their best interest. There’s a real irony or maybe even a paradox that as we can learn to be a little more detached from our own agenda and see the world from multiple perspectives, it actually ends up clarifying what is important to us and empowers us to go after what we care about.

And so I think this whole idea of detachment and seeing your own perspective as one of many empowers you to behave from that point, rather than trying to prove yourself by some other value system. Of course, this all assumes that people are all born with the potential for constructive interaction with the world and a natural tendency and motivation for that, which is a perspective of Humanistic Psychology.

I’m always trying to understand the world and how and why people behave as they do. I know this sounds totally goofy, but I value humanity and the power of love; I don’t understand how the world has become such a dangerous place where people don’t take care of each other. Because I really believe we’re all innately motivated to take care of ourselves, because we’re social as well as individual creatures, that sort of makes us wired to take care of each other. I guess I’m saying that kindness and decency are actually in our self-interest if nothing else. It’s complicated.

Meg: Yes, it is complicated. And it is disheartening at times. But I think while there are those that aren’t as advantaged, there is that innate capacity for constructive interaction, and you’re helping to bring that out in people who, for whatever reason, didn't have the environment for that ability to manifest.

The True Power of Art

Ronna: I sincerely believe in the power of art to make the world a better place. Art can be help us engage with our own humanity and value and understand other people’s humanity, even when it’s different from our own. Rather than seeing 'different' as being a threat or something that we need to feel competitive about, the idea of differences becomes a reality that supports our own uniqueness and expands our own possibilities.

RAISE students in the classroom. Photo: Clark Art Institute

Meg: What I’m hearing you saying is that when a child is faced with something that is unknown, or is the “Other,” that rather than reacting with fear and competitiveness and aggression, they can learn to respond with a sense of wonder, and a sense of curiosity.

Ronna: I think that’s exactly right. As I mentioned, humanistic psychology has been an important theoretical foundation for my thinking, and in particular, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs dovetails with what you’re saying. If kids feel validated and accepted for who they are and appreciate others for their uniquenesses too, then they can respond to the world around them with wonder and curiosity.

And our visual experience is so connected to meaning making which is why engaging with art can be so profound as a validating and humanizing experience. When we’re babies, before we have language, the way we make meaning is through our visual experience, if we’re a sighted person. We naturally trust our own experience and our capacity for making meaning. Engaging with art can reawaken this tendency and put us in contact with our own power and agency in the world; engaging with art can help with a sense of self validation.

Meg: Can you share a few specific examples of how the students participating responded to the program, both initially and over time?

Ronna: For the most part, the kids walk into the Clark the first day looking absolutely miserable and angry to be forced to be at an art museum. Throughout the five weeks, they look increasingly more comfortable, happier, like they belong. One of our volunteers chooses to work on Tuesdays, the day we hold the program, because she enjoys watching the transformation.

During the fifth week, the students serve as gallery guides for their adults and court personnel--the first time they are all together again since the time of sentencing--and the kids seem indistinguishable from our graduate students, walking around like they own the place! After the gallery tour, we hold a ceremony where we read a letter about each student focused on all of the positive qualities that we noticed over the program, from holding the door for our elderly visitors, to offering heartfelt advice to their fellow students, to having interesting insights about various works of art.

After each program, we ask for feedback from all of the participants. My favorite comment from a student on our program evaluation was “I guess I really am smart”! We’ve had kids ask to participate in the program a second time. One student went to college to study criminal justice because she was so impacted by the experience and how the program changed her life. We’ve has parents tell us that they have never heard anything positive about their kids from people “in authority” before the RAISE program.

Meg: The program includes a segment focused on portraits, personal presentation and identity, and the idea that “what you see may or may not be what you get." Can you talk about the importance and implications of these themes both in terms of the RAISE program, and more broadly as a museum educator...and also from a personal perspective?

Ronna: In general, helping kids learn about the concepts of objective and subjective experience and reality and the gray areas in between is important. That we and everybody have inner experience and outer presentations and they don’t always match. That we can control both to some degree if we choose to. That assumptions about and comparisons with others usually are not helpful. Again, I think of the Rogers’ quote “That which is most personal is most universal".

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Meg: For other museums that may wish to explore offering a similar program, can you talk about the process of getting buy-in from decision-makers at the Museum, and the Berkshire County Juvenile Court system? What were some of the challenges/issues that needed to be thought through?

Ronna: If the decision-makers prefer the traditional, authoritative model of a museum, this program wouldn’t make sense. The same is true of the courts--if a court prefers the punishment model, this program would not be valued. The program assumes that people can change and that if given the right context, have a tendency to be pro-social and constructive. The decision makers need to share this world view or there is no way the program would fly.

Meg: What impact has the RAISE program had on Clark as an institution?

Ronna: The RAISE program has served as a concrete example of the postmodern paradigm change that I keep referring to, an example of what an art museum may be, of putting theory into practice. It helps us build new audiences and it helps us and our community think of the Clark Art Institute in new ways. Less elite, more as a member of our community--even providing a service to the community. Our traditional audiences seem to be interested, even bemused and pleased that we host the program. It has made us more aware of how important the process of engaging is whereas before we may have been more focused on the content that we could offer. It has helped us think about our regular programming in new ways and encouraged us to try new things with our more typical visitors.

Meg: I understand you also serve as an educational advisor to the French Regional and American Museum Exchange (FRAME), Can you describe that program and your involvement?

Ronna: FRAME is a consortium of 26 museums--13 in North American and 13 in France--that share ideas, exhibitions and other programs together. Elizabeth Rohatyn, wife of the American ambassador to France, started the organization when relationships between our countries were shaky because of France’s stand on the Iraq war. Elizabeth believed that the arts could serve as a bridge of friendship and connectedness. I serve both as a board member and as the educational advisor. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from the cultural differences and similarities of ideas about museums and art and art education.

Historically, art and the discipline of Art History have been an important part of French culture and education and because of this, in many ways the French museums still operate from the traditional paradigm of museum as an authoritative institution that teaches about art. But with globalization comes some homogenization of culture and learning about art has become less valued by the younger generations. My French colleagues have been very interested to learn about our new ways of programming that can help make the museum more accessible and more relevant to more people.

Meg: Can you single out an initiative undertaken by FRAME that you would consider "visionary"?

Ronna: I think the whole idea of the organization is visionary--art as a way of connecting people, addressing real human issues, and accepting, appreciating and learning from differences.

Curating a Culture of Respect (CCR) is a FRAME Education initiative that began as a pilot project between the Museums of Strasbourg, France and the Clark Art Institute and partner schools, with the goals of building healthy human relationships, raising awareness about and helping to prevent violence. The project is beginning its fourth program year and museum/school partnerships in Lille and Montpelier, France have joined and Hartford, St. Louis and Detroit are eager to participate in the program, pending funding.

CCR meeting in Strasbourg. Photo: Clark Art Institute

Building on the RAISE program, the CCR project aims to utilize engaging with art as a vehicle to expand awareness about human relationships, perspectives and choices, violence and compassion. In other words, this project connects young people and schools with art museums as a place to explore and contemplate contemporary social issues and problems--in this case violence, from bullying to terrorism--and to consider their power in shaping their own worlds and the future in positive ways.

In addition to engaging with art at the museums, teachers are reshaping some of their classroom activities to connect with the museum experiences and the related analytical thinking about the human condition. Typically, school groups visit museums to support an area of the curriculum. In this case, a visit to the museum changes what, why and how teachers deliver their standard curricula, expanding the role that museums can play in children’s education. The operational strategy for the project is “synergistic co-creation”--each of the partners share responsibility for initiating activities and contributing to the evolution and potential impact of the project as well as choosing levels of participation.

A component of this project is a communication system set up between participating schools and the museums in both countries to share experiences, instructional approaches and related activities, and to learn from the cultural differences and similarities about the problem of violence and its prevention. All participants will share some common experiences:

- at least two visits to an art museum, one with a focus on violence at the beginning of the year and another focused on compassion;

- some integration of CCR into the classroom and reshaping parts of the curriculum to include more of a focus on validating and exploring human experience, and may include discussion of violence, from bullying to terrorism;

- focus on the artist Tomi Ungerer, a Strasbourg local and lifelong social commentary artist and how he has addressed the issue of violence in his career and the idea of how one person/the arts can influence hearts and minds;

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Photo: Clark Art Institute

-some sort of culminating project, designed by the students, that involves making art as a form of violence prevention education and/or that expresses their power to realize a norm of compassion;

-a family event at the museum where the students can share their thoughts about their involvement with the project, guide their adults through the museum and be celebrated for their work.

This project aims to utilize engaging with art as a vehicle to expand awareness about aggression and compassion, human relationships, perspectives and choices, so that future generations may live together in ways that foster well being on both a personal and global level.

The feedback from students and teachers who have participated in the project so far has been exceptional with most reporting that being involved with the project has been incredibly rewarding and positive. Research about violent prevention programs suggests that CCR is approaching the problem in an effective way for true behavioral change by exploring and understanding violence in a nuanced way rather than teaching a rote judgement and response. The CCR program offers a model that could be adopted by any school/museum partnership.

So, I think that Curating a Culture of Respect is a really visionary program, if you will, because it suggests a different way for schools and museums to work together. Different responsibilities are suggested about who educates our nation’s youth. And given that it’s an international project, if the goal is to help kids become more aware of their potential for constructive interaction with the world, it’s really trying to give kids the power to choose to make the world a better place, to connect and to understand a shared sense of humanity.

That’s why I think it’s a project that is visionary, and it’s significant that it’s international because it wouldn’t be that effective if just a small group of kids started thinking in this way. But the idea is the more of this generation that we can reach with this kind of thinking, then the more possibility we actually have of their building a better world for themselves than the world that they’ve inherited from us.

Meg: Your job requires a certain level of being "visionary," to continually keep things fresh. What are the ups and downs of this personally, and how do you keep yourself inspired?

Ronna: The whole idea that art can make us more truly human helps me cope with what I consider a rather distressing world. I am embarrassingly sincere in believing in the importance and power of my work. The old model of museum/art education has clearly delineated boundaries of practice but this new idea of museum as a place for people to contemplate what it means to be a human being, engaging with art as a vehicle to validate dynamics of humanity and connect people both through their similarities and differences, suggests a multitude of possibilities. Museums can offer an antidote to all of the dehumanizing pressures of the modern world, a place to pause, re-calibrate. RAISE is a model of a new way that museums can be more inclusive and meaningful to more people. This kind of initiative gives me hope and helps me stay optimistic and inspired, both personally and professionally!

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