Our Voices

Educator at the Blanton Museum of Art, Carlen Floyd Describes a Roundabout Path to Making Art History and Education Her Life’s Work

As the Museum Educator for School Programs at the Blanton Museum of Art, located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, I would love to tell you that I’ve had a lifelong devotion to art, that I studied art history and art education, that I have always given art the respect it deserves. I would love to say all those things. They’re just not true.

As a high school social studies classroom educator for 26 years, I rarely included art in my instruction. A decades-long focus on state-mandated standards made me feel constrained to teaching skills only – how to “read” a political cartoon, or how to analyze a work of art to defend an assertion for a document-based question in AP US History – always in preparation for one standardized test or another. Art, for me, was always the means to an end: successful performance on an exam designed by someone else.

Then, I was asked to create a new elective on our campus. The course, Ethnic Studies, would provide students the opportunity to explore more history and culture than “fit” in requisite social studies courses. I had the freedom and flexibility to imagine new ways to reach kids’ hearts and minds, and to make some often inaccessible concepts more relevant to juniors and seniors in high school. I knew I wanted to allow students to explore music, literature, and art that would relate to each of our units. I felt comfortable in my ability to guide students in their quest for discovering new music and literature.

But art? I was terrified. Yes, I loved visiting art museums. And yes, I love noticing the beauty that is all around. But beyond a Renaissance history course I took in college (embarrassingly long ago), I had no formal experience talking about, let alone teaching about art. I needed help! I signed up for a workshop, co-sponsored by the City of Austin, The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab, that introduced me to new resources and more of the local art community. I participated in a week-long Facing History workshop, hosted at the Blanton Museum of Art, where we looked closely, thought deeply, and conversed freely about social justice issues, both historical and current. I learned more about how to look at and talk about art in non-threatening and age-appropriate ways; I also learned more about the opportunities in my community for students to observe and experience art first-hand.

I felt liberated. I didn’t need to be an expert, either as an artist or as an art historian. I soon learned that all I needed was to ask thoughtful questions, and to let the students take it from there. Whether we were looking at Chicano murals (including many murals right here in Austin) or examining patterns in various Indigenous textiles, my students were hooked on looking for personal and communal meaning in various types of art. Many, for the first time, saw themselves reflected in the expressions of artists. They made connections between issues and challenges in their own communities with those of people in other places and times. Soon, they were creating their own works of art to express their own experiences. Suddenly, profoundly, watching my kids interact meaningfully with art helped me connect more meaningfully with art.

Now I have the privilege of seeing hundreds of students discover more about themselves, others, and the world – all through looking closely and talking openly about art and the human experience. As the museum educator for school programs, I observe students interact with each other as they are led through activities and discussions by our well-trained volunteer gallery teachers.

While I am still not an artist or an art historian, I am a believer in the power of art. I believe that art can be accessible to people of all ages. I believe art has the capacity to reach our hearts and minds in ways I don’t understand (I’m glad there are neuroscientists who can try to explain it to me!). I believe looking at art together can allow us to have conversations that can change the world.

Now, I cannot imagine being an educator without including art in classroom instruction of all subject areas. It’s just that important.

Our “Exploring Diversity & Civil Rights” guided lesson and online resources developed in collaboration with our local office of the Anti-Defamation League support teachers (who might feel just as intimated as I did) in their desire to help their students engage with art and human rights issues. Click HERE for a sample of the series.