How do you teach a nine-year-old about art? That's the question Rebecca Sailor has been asking herself for the past eight years. As curator of education for the Gibbes Museum of Art, it's Sailor's job to not only organize the daily school tours of the Gibbes, but to make sure the children on them gain a lasting appreciation — or at the very least piqued curiosity — of art. It's a role she takes very seriously even while the museum is closed for a $13.4 million dollar remodel.
"The only thing that really stopped are the tours," says Sailor. "We've continued all of our in-school programs."
Since the Gibbes' closure, volunteers have visited area schools to bring the art to them, but come May, with the reopening of the renovated museum, two new classroom spaces to let kids get hands-on with art right after viewing it.
During the tour dubbed The Charleston Story, students will examine portraits of children and landscapes of the city. "You have to remember what you can learn about history from looking at art," Sailor adds. "We talk about the way people were dressed, the background, the time period, and the South in general." Then to really send home the message, kids will return to the Gibbes' street level classrooms for a hands-on lesson in drawing their own portraits. Sailor is quick to point out it's a new opportunity for the museum.
"We didn't have that kind of space before," she says. In the past, visiting school groups had to do their sketching on the rotunda floor or nix an art activity all together. This new educational component is something Sailor is especially excited to offer Title I school children as Sailor believes in how much art can change a child's life.
Multiple studies back up Sailor's feelings. For instance, a 2009 report from the Center for Arts Education found that New York City high schools with the highest graduation rates also offered students the most access to arts education. Schools in the top third of the study hired 40 percent more art teachers as well. Another 2013 report from the National Parent Teacher Association found that students in high-poverty schools benefitted dramatically from arts education and schools that instituted arts programs were able close the achievement gap by teaching kids how to think creatively.
That's at the heart of the Gibbes outreach program. An elementary education grad herself, Sailor worked at Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center before joining the Gibbes and says both experiences taught her to look to teachers for guidance in creating the museum's programs.
"We don't just assume that what we're offering is what they want," she says. And the renovation means she has more ideas to share with them now that the museum will be able to display more of its 10,000 object collection. While history lessons are great, there'll be even more to see soon.
"Our curators are working really hard with to bring out more of our contemporary collection," she says. "Also, the rotunda will be all sculpture, which we didn't have before."
That said the arts educator can only do so much, especially in a state whose governor continually attempts to cut arts funding. As a result, the onus is on parents and teachers to organize field trips. And the time to book is now. "We're already taking reservations and registrations for our reopening," she says. School groups can visit Monday through Friday, while Girl Scout troops, church groups, community organizations, etc., can make weekend reservations. The cost is $7 per child for the tour and classroom activity. But most importantly Sailor adds, it's entirely free for all Title I children.