Have you seen the Obama’s presidential portraits? The paintings were just unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on February 12th, 2018. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint their portraits!
In this episode of Teaching with Creativity, we go behind the scenes with Briana White, the Director of Student and Teacher Programs at the National Portrait Gallery and talk with her about the presidential portraits, upcoming exhibitions, and great ways to integrate portraiture into your classroom.
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Laura: Today we are going to be addressing a reader question that was sent into us by a teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I think I know person who can address this question much more knowledge than I can, so we are going to be giving Briana White a call. Briana is the Director of Student and Teacher Programs at the National Portrait Gallery and we have her on the line. Briana we are so excited to be talking with you, how are you doing?
Briana: I’m doing well! Thanks for having me.
Laura: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. As we are recording, this isn’t going to air for probably at least a couple of weeks, but as we are talking today we are right in the wake of the presidential portrait unveiling. So I know you guys have been really busy and we super appreciate you taking the time this morning to chat with us.
Briana: Of course, my pleasure!
Laura: So we are talking about teachers utilizing museums for arts integration on this episode, but before we get into that we have a question we wanted to ask you from a reader named Paige who says: I teach at a middle school that is geographically very close to Washington DC and would love to take advantage of the amazing museums located there. She talks a bit about how expensive it can be to obtain bussing to DC because it technically counts as an out-of-state field trip to travel to DC, even if you are located in very close proximity. But my question for you is: How can we access some of the great resources you guys have to offer if teachers and students aren’t able to get into the city because of transportation costs, or maybe just because of distance (not everyone is located in a drivable distance to the National Portrait Gallery.) So I was just wondering, I know you aren’t a magician, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts on ways to bring art to students who maybe can’t access it in person.
Briana: Sure, sure, of course! You know, over the past couple of years at the Portrait Gallery, one of my focuses has been on, actually adding more resources to our website for teachers and students who can’t make the trip to the DC and to the Portrait Gallery. So for those people who can’t come, if they come to our website, which is npg.si.edu, in the “learn” section, it is the one-stop-shop for all things education at the Portrait Gallery. There is a section for teachers, and within that section there is a page for classroom resources, and that is the best place to go to start! We host a teacher resource guide about reading portraiture: What it means to read portraits, why we read portraits, etc. But I guess my favorite part of that classroom resources page is the Portrait Spotlights. And those spotlights are images that we have had success using in the museum. What we have done is listed the image along with biographical information, historical information, portrait information, about those artworks. Then as you scroll to the bottom of each of the portrait spotlights you will see “looking questions,” ways to engage with students about those specific artworks, and then some of the images also have extension activities you can do as well.
Laura: That’s awesome! That reminds me a lot actually of Artful Thinking, which I am pretty sure you guys are familiar with, because I have done a couple of PD’s at the National Portrait Gallery and we’ve done some artful thinking work. But it’s nice to have those go-to questions, listed with the artwork, so that it’s this very ready-made resource for teachers with the questions already laid out for them, that is really nice and clean.
Briana: Exactly! I highly recommend our “Reading Portraiture Guide for Educators” because it does wind up being that really great foundational document. If you want to read portraiture with your students, start with reading this guide. It goes through what we call the “Ten Elements of Portrayal”, which are the ten visual elements that you should ask ask questions about with your students if you want to tell the story of the portrait. That’s the best place to start!
The other really wonderful resource that I do want to mention is “Learning Lab” which is actually a digital platform. You can find it at learninglab.si.edu and it is something that is used across the Smithsonian. It is something that was created by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. And it is basically the Smithsonian’s digital platform by which you can combine collections from across the Smithsonian with other resources, and teachers can create collections.
Laura: I have used that before! I didn’t recognize the site you had listed, but I’m sure if I saw the site I would recognize it. But, yeah that’s awesome! I’ve used that before!
Briana: Yeah, I think by far, it is one of the best resources that has come out of the Smithsonian- which allows teachers to use the collections of the entire Smithsonian- not just one museum. And we have at the National Portrait Gallery, used Learning Lab with our Summer Institute participants, so if you search #NPGTEACH it will come up with not only all the collections that the NPG staff has created, but also Summer Teacher Institute Participants- which I think is a really nice way of seeing how teachers are using our collections in the classroom.
Laura: Yeah! That’s a really nice resource for doing any sort of “curational” activities. I don’t know if “curational” is a word? Curating? And I do have a quick follow-up question, once teachers do have the funding to transport their students to the NPG, and they live in a relatively close distance, what does the process look like to schedule a field trip?
Briana: Ok sure, so our process is online. If you go to our website, under the “learn” section, go to “student visits” and then all of the visits and programs that we offer and the form to fill out is online. And we do offer student visits from October through June during the academic year. We generally ask teachers to start registering for programs in August for the upcoming academic year, and then it’s just a rolling registration process. We generally ask [for a field trip request] about a month in advance. We offer our tours during two time slots: 1. During the morning hours before the museum opens to the public and 2. Once the museum is open. So we offer tours at 9:30 and 11:00, and we open at 11:30, so it’s really nice to be able to bring students in before we are open to the public. Our 11:00 time-slots fill up very quickly, I would say by October/November of the academic year. And then the 9:30 time-slot starts to fill-up at that point. So there isn’t any deadline, but once a teacher submits the form either myself or one of my colleagues will be in touch- to either confirm the program (easy if we have space in the calendar) or to discuss alternate dates if that day is already booked up.
Laura: Perfect! And then once teachers are at the museum, is there a docent-led tour, or how do you suggest teachers maximize their time with students at the National Portrait Gallery?
Briana: Well I always recommend that if a teacher is bringing students to the musem, that they try and schedule a guided program with us first. Our gallery educators are the ones who facilitate the programs here and they have been trained to connect with the collection, to work with students, etc. We believe very strongly in object-based, inquiry based learning. Our gallery educators don’t give talking-head tours- it is all about the discussion and the dialogue. And I really feel like their job is to facilitate that meaning-making for the students. We really want students to have that “ah-ha!” moment when they are in the museum, where they’ve made some sort of connection to the portrait that they see: maybe it’s relevant to their lives, maybe its relevant to their curriculum, whatever it is… So our gallery educators are the ones that facilitate that, and like I said, all programs are inquiry based. For our younger audience we do some sketching and some writing. Each program is about 75 minutes long and we are always willing to customize a program to meet a teacher’s needs- if the programs we offer are not exactly what they are looking for.
Laura: Okay great, that’s really good to know! So my next question, kind of ties in with what you were saying about making sure the experience all students have at National Portrait Gallery really inquiry based and meaning making… so here at EducationCloset we really focus on arts integration, which encompasses the idea that you can use visual artwork for interdisciplinary teaching. I’m wondering if you have any ideas or suggestions about ways teachers can leverage portraits in their arts integration lessons?
Briana: Right, right. Okay, How do I start with this? Arts Integration is very much what we are all about- absolutely. The National Portrait Gallery’s mission statement is crystal clear- we tell the story of America, through the people who have shaped it. In the scheme of things we are a fairly young museum, but we are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year which we are very excited about! So the portraits that hang on the walls and sit on the pedestals, are of people that students know from their history textbooks, documentaries they have seen, or maybe books that they have read. So, basically the easiest of connections we can make with the portraits, is to our history. The Portrait Gallery considers portraits through three lenses: 1) the arts lens 2) the biography lens 3) the history lens. We consider this museum to be a museum of those three disciplines, and we don’t really ever separate them. So if we are talking about a portrait of George Washington, our Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, we are certainly talking about the artist and the symbols, but we are also talking about Washington, his biography, and what all of those symbols might mean within his portrait. So in the easiest of senses, we are absolutely all about arts integration and connecting the art with the biography and the history.
What I’ve tried to do over the past few years is to make even more connections with other disciplines. I would say, we’ve learned very quickly while working with teachers and students, that portraits end up being wonderful writing prompts. We can springboard into creative writing, persuasive writing, many different types of writing using portraits in our collections. And we’ve even been known to connect to science and math as well. Science is very easy depending on who is being portrayed in the portrait, and math- we like to use the angles and shapes that we see in the portraits to start thinking about math concepts. So, arts integration? Absolutely!
Laura: Yay! Glad to hear it! I also wanted to say before we move on that I love the language you used earlier about “reading a portrait” because I think, so often when we think about portraiture or any visual art we say “I’m looking at it” or “I’m analyzing it” but it’s really rare that I hear the literary term “read” being associated with visual art, so that’s an interesting linguistic connection that you guys are making as well.
Briana: Absolutely, we are trying to make that connection between literacy that the students are learning in the classroom with visual literacy of reading images. So obviously- reading a book is very similar to reading a portrait and vice-versa. So the idea with the “Elements of Portrayal” is that many of these elements can be transferred, not just to reading portraits but to reading other artwork as well.
Laura: And not that anyone wants to teach to a test but just in additional support of this, is that the PARCC test which is the standardized test that most schools are now using, involves not only using… it’s called a “text”- so students might have to have a writing based off of a short-story- but there could also be a visual “text” involved where they have to use a literary analysis of a visual text. And that also totally ties into what you guys are doing. So, if nothing else, it’s on the PARCC test, so there’s a good reason to use it. Well, there’s one reason to use it- I don’t know whether that’s good or not.
Okay I also want to talk to you specifically about the National Portrait Gallery and some of the programs offered there. I know you guys offer student visits with some really cool programming- specifically I saw the Explore! The Foundations of Portraiture for preschoolers, Portrait Detectives for kindergarten through 3rd grade, Shaping America for grades 4-8, America’s Presidents and also The Art of Portraiture for grades 4-12, Portrait Conversations and Voices of Social Justice for grades 6-12. I think all of your programs sound awesome but I was wondering if you could talk more about the last program I mentioned, the Social Justice program for secondary students. It seems like such a relevant offering for 2018.
Briana: Sure, of course. This program really began because the Portrait Gallery has a permanent exhibition called “The Struggle for Justice.” This particular program which just so happens to be my favorite of our permanent exhibitions, highlights people who have been fighting for their rights or fighting against injustice from the mid-nineteenth-century to today. So, originally the program was in this one exhibition, but then we realized that as you walk through our permanent exhibitions, you start to see all these other individuals who have been fighting for rights or fighting for marginalized or disenfranchised groups throughout the gallery spaces. So Voices of Social Justice really takes a broad look at these voices that have been fighting for these groups. Some of my favorite portraits that are in this program include: A portrait of Cesar Chavez along with four other individuals called The Return to Aslan, we have a beautiful portrait of Eunice Kennedy Schriver that was commissioned for the portrait gallery and was installed in 2009, we have a photograph of Harriet Tubman (which is amazing because there aren’t that many photographs of Harriet Tubman- so for us to have one is fantastic!), John Brown, Velva Ann Lockwood, Russel Means… so it does wind up being my favorite. And I’ve also noticed that the portraits in this program are really rich and compelling and provide the start for really great conversations- especially our portrait of Rosa Parks.
Laura: I think that… this program seems to fit really well with a lot of the concepts that students are learning as they go through seventh and eighth grade. Specifically- we start debate as a Language Arts, sub-topic. I think it goes hand-in-hand really well with the specific classroom content students are learning during that age, and really relevant with life outside of school right now in 2018.
Briana: I agree, I think it’s really relevant for our students who we want to be civically engaged to be inspired by the people who have come before them. Right? So I think that’s one of the reasons why this program is really popular and really engaging for students.
Laura: I want to be mindful of your time, I just have two more quick questions. I know you also offer some great Professional Development style programs for educators (some of which I have personally taken!). I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on what those look like and how to get involved as an educator.
Briana: Sure, so during the academic year I host anywhere between 5-7 professional development workshops for local teachers (although teachers are more than welcome to come in from out-of-town, it just doesn’t happen very often during the academic year). These programs are offered either on Tuesday nights, or Saturday during the day. I really wanted a mixture of both because I know that some teachers like evenings, and some teachers like weekends so- I wanted that mix. Eah year the teacher workshops I offer are based on specific exhibitions we have on view or thinking about specific strategies or ways to engage with portraiture. So earlier this year we had a teacher workshop in conjunction with our exhibition “The Sweat of Their Face” portraying American workers, which really takes a look at the history of American labor and laborers in the United States. But then in just a couple of weeks we are taking a look at how you can use portraiture to explore identity- and thinking about it in terms of STEAM. I’m partnering up with an IB Biology teacher and we are going to be taking a look at genetics and portraiture and how portraits reveal and conceal- so not tied to a specific exhibition, but more about strategy for using portraiture as a whole. So that’s during the academic year, but during the summertime is when we offer our Summer Teacher Institutes. We offer two per summer. They are five days each. The first one is June 25-29 and the second one is July 9-13. There is an application process to this, but it is an opportunity for teachers to come in and spend a week with the National Portrait Gallery, taking a deep dive into the collection, working with museum educators, working with curators, being introduced to Learning Lab, creating a collection using a portrait gallery image as it’s foundation. Those are the programs we have and more information is on our website is available about those. (Information about Summer Learning Institutes can be found here!)
Laura: So you guys just had a huge event happenning last week with the presidential portrait unveiling. I was wondering if you could talk about your personal experience- not everyone gets to be present for such a big event and I was wondering what it was like for you- as someone who is working in the art world, as someone who is working at the National Portrait Gallery, just what that experience was like?
Briana: It was really wonderful! It was one week ago, yesterday, staff were invited to the unveiling of President Obama and Mrs. Obama’s portraits. Kehinde Wiley created the portrait of President Obama, Amy Sherald created the portrait of Mrs. Obama. They are truly wonderful- they are fantastic representations of both of those individuals. I love that they chose the artists that they did. Both of the portraits are really meaningful to the Obamas because they tell a story about them. They have prides of place in exhibitions in the museum right now: When you walk out of Our Struggle for Justice and you walk into America’s Presidents, President Obama’s portrait is the first one you will see- so “capstoning” presidents is President George Washington on one side and President Obama on the other-side. And when you enter the museum via our G Street entrance, Michelle Obama’s is the first you will see when you walk into the National Portrait Gallery space. The lines have been tremendous. Yeah, it has been a whirlwind! We are over the moon thrilled here. And teachers have been so excited for these portraits that they have been asking to see them on the programs that have already been scheduled, and then we have been getting a ton of more registrations for teachers to bring their students to come and see them.
Laura: Oh I totally believe that! I actually did- not know the artists prior to the unveiling at which point I was like- “Oh my god, Kehinde Wiley did the presidential portrait?” I was totally surprised. I guess I hadn’t researched it or looked into it beforehand. And it breaks with tradition in so many ways, but it also tells the story of President Obama. I know Kehinde talked a little bit about the symbolism in speech at the unveiling- I didn’t listen to it but I read some articles about it, and in that speech he talked about the symbolism he used, which I think can really tie-in to arts integration with, once again, reading portraits and understanding some of the subtleties that come with portraiture art.
Briana: Absolutely, there are many types of flowers in President Obama’s portrait and Kehinde talked about the flowers that he placed in there being President Obama’s path- African Blue Lilies representing Kenya (which is where his dad is from), there are Jasmine representing Hawaii (which is where he grew up), and there are chrysanthemums representing Chicago (which is where he started his political career).
Laura: Endless possibilities for teachers who are interested in integrating the presidential portraits. Okay, before you go, can you tell us about any exciting current or upcoming exhibitions happening at the National Portrait Gallery that students and teachers can access either by visiting in person or by visiting the website in spring of 2018?
Briana: Okay so I already mentioned The Sweat of Their Face, which will be on view- I believe until September, so definitely come take a look at that show. The two new exhibitions we have coming up are: 1) Unseen- Our Past in a New Light, and it is the artwork of Ken Gonzalez-Day and Titus Kaphar, and that exhibition is really taking a look at the absence of people of color in American portraiture and it is contemporary artwork so it will be on the lower level of the museum on the F Street side. It will be opening in just another month. 2) Blackout- Silhouettes Then and Now. It’s not very often that we show silhouettes in the museum so this show will be all about silhouettes we have had in our collection for quite some time, but then we are also having some contemporary portrait artists come-in and install work. So the work of Cara Walker will be in that exhibition. So I think taking a look at silhouettes from history in conjunction with current silhouettes and how they were a way to democratize portraits. They were very inexpensive to create, compared with oil painting, which is very expensive and very much an elitist form of portraiture.
Laura: That is so interesting! I never think about silhouettes as being a sub-genre of portraiture, but it so totally is. That is going to be an amazing exhibition.
Briana: Yeah, we are over-the-moon thrilled for both of those!
Laura: Clearly, you are a very busy woman! I am so glad you were able to take the time to talk with us today. We are really glad you were able to stop by today! We appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day. Thanks so much for being here! Thanks so much and have a great day!
Briana: Thanks, bye!
We made an effort to link most of the programs and exhibitions Briana references in the actual dialogue transcript, but here are some of those links in list form for easy access!
The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers
UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now
National Portrait Gallery Unveils and Installs Presidential Portraits
Learn at the National Portrait Gallery:
Learning to Look Summer Teacher Institute
Classroom Resources (Teacher Guides, Lesson Plans, Portrait Spotlights)
Laura Wixon graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2012 with Bachelors in Art Studio and Art History and English Language. In 2013 she stayed at SMCM and completed the Masters in Teaching Program with endorsements in elementary education, special education, art education k-12, and secondary English education (6-12). She taught as a Language Arts teacher for two years at Bates Middle School before moving into their Arts Integration Specialist position, which she has held the past two years.