The art of education
Image courtesy of DePaul University
There's a conventional view among the lay public about art museums in university settings. That view, says Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum at Chicago's DePaul University, holds that art museums are reserved solely for the nation's premier universities, and that the prime beneficiaries of these museums are students majoring in studio arts and art history.

Few viewpoints could be further removed from the truth, she says.

Not only are art collections part of the higher learning landscape at many colleges and universities, but these collections can be exceptionally beneficial in the teaching of an array of disciplines, from sociology and other social sciences to chemistry, law, journalism and a great many other subjects.

In an era in which a number of U.S. universities have made news by "de-acquisitioning" – that is, selling off parts of their art collections – it's worth recognizing many Chicago-area universities continue adding to their collections.

Art is information

Art collections are so vital to universities because they represent an exceptionally effective means of imparting knowledge to students, says Teresa J. Parker, curator for university collections at Lisle's Benedictine University.

It's fine that universities accumulate books and employ professors as sources of information, she says. But visual aids, particularly works of art, are also essential learning tools.

"It's nice to have the physical representation of the painting, sculpture or print, rather than just looking at it online," she says.

Benedictine has more than 3,000 pieces of artwork in its collection, across all media. Once housed on Old Ben Hall's fourth floor, it was dispersed when the building was razed. "My predecessor wanted to gather as diverse a collection as possible, to show the breadth of creativity," Parker says. "He taught art history, and used the collection as a teaching tool. The collection is literally in every building, in every hallway and every office. It's an astonishing collection."

Parker is of a similar mind that all forms of creativity are worthy of exploration and use as teaching tools, so her policy is to keep on gathering art.

"I make it part of the curriculum that students have to go out and find pieces of art on campus, and learn about the art and its creator, and do written reports and presentations about the artwork. Students have said over and over again how much they appreciate this collection to look at."

Cutting across disciplines

As Lincoln notes, works of art are used as teaching tools in subjects far afield from studio art or art history. "There are some surprising areas where students can profit from studying works of art closely," she says. "At DePaul, there's a faculty member interested in the chemistry of paintings, and that has implications for conservation and authentication. The collection is used by a faculty member in the law school interested in cultural property law."

Professors teaching other disciplines are drawn to DePaul's collection on the notion viewing paintings or other works is different from reading assignments and lab assignments.

"Looking at a work of art is learning to think differently and understanding how to think about ideas in visual form," Lincoln says.

At Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, there are three museums on campus collectively housing more than 1,000 pieces, as well as the Jack Olson Memorial Gallery, says Jo Burke, director of the NIU Art Museum.

Recently, journalism students came by to produce articles on the art collection. It's not unusual for English majors to write papers about works of art on display.

Education majors also use the university's art collection in learning to produce lesson plans and devise art projects for middle school art classes. In addition, NIU students use the collection to stage art expositions each spring.

University art collections can also add value to the towns where the school is set, as Burke suggests.

"NIU wants to see the collection used as a resource for students as well as the community, and we do that," she says.

The ins and outs

In these troubled economic times, universities in Florida, Texas and California have faced the need to sell off portions of their collections. The problem has also plagued some financially-troubled museums, Parker says.

"It's sad to see universities and museums divesting themselves of art," she adds.

"But sometimes it's a necessary exercise."

For instance, at some universities, curators have decided certain pieces don't fit with the overall focus of their collections, and that those pieces are expendable. This "necessary culling of the collection," as Parker terms it, can generate funds necessary to better care for the remainder of the collection.

As mentioned, Benedictine continues accumulating works of art. While it purchases some works, many of its pieces come through donation, Parker says.

Meanwhile, NIU has not had a budget to acquire art for some time, Burke says. Art work comes in solely through donations. And because NIU is a state university, once it acquires works of art, those works are state property.

At DePaul, Lincoln says she and her colleagues are aware of and sympathetic to the financial pressures encountered by universities. "But we take seriously the museum as a teaching resource, and we are committed to building that resource, rather than dismantling the museum," she says.

In the great museum city that is Chicago, it would be easy for universities to argue against collecting art, because the Art Institute is so close, she adds.

"But we collect in a different way from the Art Institute. And we can put students in a room with 25 paintings selected by their instructors for the purposes of that class, and they view those paintings without barriers."