11/05/2010 03:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toby Tannenbaum Talks About Getty's "Open Studio" Program

Since joining the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2008 as assistant director for education, Toby Tannenbaum has expanded its efforts to get contemporary artists involved in education projects. Among the latest results: Open Studio, a web portal created by renowned painter (and 2009 MacArthur fellow) Mark BradfordOpen Studio is a set of free, online art lesson plans that Bradford wrote or collected from other established artists not only creating a bridge between the museum and schools, but a direct link between working artists and the future artists sitting in classrooms today. Recently Ovation partnered with the Getty to help bring these resources to an even larger audience.

Bettina Korek spoke with Tannenbaum about this groundbreaking idea and the lessons kids can take from the creative freedom -- and discipline -- of art-making.

BK: Why did you choose Mark Bradford to be the first participant in the Getty Artists Program?
TT:  It was very important to us when we launched this program to focus on Los Angeles-area or Southern California artists. We wanted to create ongoing relationships with local artists. And we were interested in starting with established, mid-career artists, especially those we knew had an interest in education or in engaging with particular audiences. Still, we got surprised. I'd known Mark for many years, and I wasn't aware that K-12 teachers would be an audience he was interested in. Its one of the nice moments of the program when we learn about somebody's unexpected interests.
BK: Where did Mark Bradford to get the idea for Open Studio?
TT: He had spoken a year before at a National Art Education Association Conference and afterward teachers were telling him how interested they were in engaging students in contemporary art practice. But they just felt that they didn't know where to start -- what materials there were and things like that. So when we invited him to be the inaugural artist, at some moment it just occurred to him that this was the perfect opportunity to address that need and really to engage his peers in contributing to materials for kids and their art teachers. And, as you can imagine, when Open Studio launched we heard from lots of people -- teenagers who said they were doing it trying these things on their own, and parents who said they were trying them with their children.

BK: There is a lot of interest in this documentary, Waiting for Superman, about how deeply broken our public education system is. Is it hard to focus on arts education in the context of that bigger crisis?
TT: What we have to think about is what we at the Getty Museum can best provide, and how we can best collaborate with artists, schools and classroom teachers. That really is a guiding principle for us. Because Open Studio is online and all this material is available without charge, it has an incredibly broad reach. We did quite a bit of promotion when it launched during the summer, but we'll also have an electronic newsletter for teachers and are encouraging them in various ways on our teacher Facebook page. Now that the school year has commenced we'll use some of these activities and will work with teachers on professional development and share some of these with them.
BK:  Mark Bradford has said he wants children to develop a work ethic about arts -- that it's not just the fun stuff you do after your other work is done. What do you think about this idea? Can kids can develop a work ethic about art that that will spread into their other disciplines?
TT: I think there are two sides to that. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to talk about arts education or arts learning impacting test scores or many of the other things that there is research on. But, one of the great examples I observed was during an entirely different program that we do annually with high school students. At the conclusion of that program last year, the students said they enjoyed the opportunity to work on any project over an extended period of time because that was something they didn't get to do in school. The idea of editing, or curating, was something else they saw that they could put to use in other arenas. Or critical thinking skills, or the idea of simply encouraging creativity.
BK: You said you're reluctant to start talking about test scores. But museums too are in this position where, more and more, their success is judged on numbers, like attendance and revenues.
TT:  In truth, I'm not sure that there is increasing pressure; there has always been a focus on participation or attendance in museum education programs. As we report on what we do, we focus not just participation levels, but ask: can we articulate a public value of what we do? The question of reach won't go away, but it's important to share the other side of that. What is the benefit of what we do?
BK:  Mark has talked about how young people move through the world at a faster rate. Does that affect how you interact with students?
TT: There is no question that students have, at a younger and younger age, experience with technology of all kinds. And just a broader visual experience through a range of media. So it is really a balance. It's thinking about where students are developed mentally -- and also what the range of their experience might be. It may require thinking about how you engage with them. What kinds of materials or tools are they already familiar with? A good example: The days of disposable cameras are over and almost everybody carries a cell phone with a camera in it. Are there ways to incorporate the kinds of technology they already have some experience with, and build on them? 
BK:  What advice would you give to parents who want to integrate art into their own relationships with their kids?
TT: Find opportunities to look at and talk about art. Visit museums and galleries together.  And also include art-making materials at home, so that there is really that free access to the materials necessary for creative expression.
Bettina Korek is the founder of ForYourArt and director of the Institute of the 21st Century.