Jessica Sack is the Jan and Frederick Mayer Senior Associate Curator of Public Education at the Yale University Art Gallery. She leads the development of the Gallery’s school, youth, and family programs as well as resources for teachers and students. She runs the Wurtele Gallery Teacher Program which trains Yale graduate students to teach the K-12 school groups, programs for visitors with special needs, and professional development programs for teachers. Prior to coming to Yale, she was the senior museum educator and coordinator of teacher services at the Brooklyn Museum. She has contributed to publications including The Caring Museum: New Models of Engagement with the Ageing, Interpreting the Art Museum, “Looking to Learn, Learning to Teach” in the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin and Picturing a Nation: Teaching with American Art and Material Culture. Jessica received an M.Phil. in Ethnology and Museum Ethnography from Oxford University and an M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University.
1 Why is your work relevant to a broader audience outside of your specific discipline?
What is critical today? The work that we do at the museum: we are free and open to the public. The institution does not charge for any of the programs that it runs, so anybody who wants to participate in what we are doing formally is welcome to do so. And those who wish to come, be here, reflect, think, look, draw, whatever, are welcome to do so as well. I think that spaces like museums are incredibly important at times like now, because they are places where people can come together. What we talk about in a museum now is different from what we talked about in a museum a hundred years ago, is different from what’s going to be talked about in a museum in a hundred years. The art that we look at now is interpreted differently than it was in its original context. It was made for one use; we revere it or think about it differently now. It may change in the future. And so, we are places that are infinitely flexible. And yet, we’re permanent. I think that that is a very special way in which museums can be places of coming together: the commons. And they are places where a diverse range of people: people with different beliefs, people with different experiences, can come and do something in common, leave with different perspectives of that thing in common, but have had a chance to have dialogue.
2 What are the “commons” that your specific research fights to preserve, protect, contest, or share?
What’s really important right now is that the arts remain available to kids, and to adults, the public—to all people. Also that students who work in the museum are learning how to teach, how to connect their own work to the arts. This awareness of the arts as part of cultural heritage is also important when we are thinking globally about the preservation of cultural heritage. Included in this is architecture and physical spaces, as well as the visual arts. We are living in an incredibly visual culture right now with technology. By teaching people how to think about looking and how to look critically, then hopefully they will be more aware and involved in the world around them. If one just takes in everything that’s being pushed visually, one may not know how to discern that which is worthy of focus.
3 What is at stake in your work?
New Haven itself is an incredible place for the arts. The school district supports the arts in ways I have not seen in other places I’ve worked. In elementary schools, there is art education in every school: there’s music, and there’s drama, creative writing, and dance. We work very closely with the arts coordinator and the arts teachers. We are able to offer the real. When you come to the museum, you are not looking at images in a book, you’re actually seeing the original work of art. As students are learning to compose or perform, play their instruments or dance, they are creating the real. The visual artists are creating the real, but they have not all seen original works of art unless they come to a place like this, the Yale Center for British Art, the Peabody, or the Collection of Musical Instruments. We have many art spaces on campus. These public students come in and get to see—like time travel—what has been created, valued, cast-off over time. This allows them to think: what are they making in response to the world now? What are they able to do? At the same time, education in general—public education especially—is always being critiqued, re-envisioned, restated. In my dream world, education is highly valued, [where] people who want to be teachers, whether they are at the elementary, middle school, high school, or university level, their career choice is a valued choice— that teachers are supported, and that the education systems are seen as important. That’s my dream vision.
4 Has your research encountered physical spaces that potentially perpetuate or exacerbate the issues your work seeks to redress?
I’ve loved working in this three-building complex. I’ve been here since 2004, so I’ve seen the expansion of the building. I taught in it, and trained people including School of Architecture students to teach in it, as it’s grown into what it is now. I will say that each way the space is designed and laid out affects how sound works, how sight works, how groups experience the environments. We have a group, the Blind Veterans, who are a part of a rehabilitation program through the VA. They come and participate in a descriptive tour of the art and also the space. We have a conversation about what it feels like to go from a wood floor to terrazzo and stone that’s bumpy. What does it feel like to walk across that, plus the sunlight? It’s an experiential thought to architecture. How do you feel your way through it, and know what’s what? I think about museums, concert halls, theaters, schools that you design. What will you do when you leave here that will allow you to say, “I want to create a place for universal access”? How does this gallery space project sound so that everyone experiences the musical performance? Or how do you make it so that sound doesn’t project, so that it’s a private space? Because, yes, we’re a public institution but we want to have private moments.