MEATPACKING DISTRICT — High school junior Justin Penn stood in front of a painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art on a recent Wednesday afternoon, engaging a group of peers and museum educators about the work.
“Why do you think the artist chose to paint this man?” Penn asked about the 1976 painting of the dapper “Steve,” by Barkley L. Hendricks in the “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” now on view.
After his small audience took guesses, Penn told them the subject “embodied the look and attitude of things [the artist] liked,” and added that if Steve were around today, he’d probably be featured on someone’s fashion Instagram page.
But Penn isn't a museum guide — he's one of about dozen students enrolled in an “art criticism” course at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Gotham Professional Arts Academy. Taught by the school’s visual arts teacher, Andrew Willgress, along with a Whitney museum educator, the course involves frequent trips from the Ralph Avenue school to the hip Gansevoort Street museum.
It culminates in a talk on an artwork in the museum like Penn’s.
Justin Penn discussing "Steve." (DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer)
His Wednesday talk was a practice run for the formal presentation given to friends and family as well as to a panel of teachers and museum educators, who grade the students. The students can use the scores from the presentation as a substitute for a Regents exam, since the school has a waiver from the state for all but the English Regents and can use “performance-based tasks” as alternatives.
The goal of the course isn’t so much to critique the art as good or bad, but to get the students to discuss and look deeply at art, Willgress said.
“We try to hammer in there’s no right answer, that a piece of art doesn’t mean one thing. Whatever it means to you, is legit,” he said. “It’s kind of stunning, the small amount of time people give complex works of art. [But] they start to learn that when you look deeply you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see, and they’re rewarded for that. They gain an expertise over the artwork.”
Though Gotham is an arts-themed school, its admissions do not screen for arts-inclined students. Only about half of the kids who attend start off with an interest in the arts, Willgress estimated.
“A lot of our kids come in not even understanding why you would go to a museum or gallery or studio,” he said. “The most common complaint we get from the younger students: ‘It’s boring.’”
But their relationship to art and to museums transforms over time, he added.
“They go from being disengaged to when we get to this point — my students are really excited about it and kind of anxious [about their presentations], but in a way that shows they care,” Willgress said.
Gotham teacher Andrew Willgress (right) looks with a student at a work called "No Sex, No City: Miranda" (DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer)
Gotham, a Title I school with roughly 200 students, was designated one of the city’s 130 community schools last year, partnering with the United Federation of Teachers to coordinate community resources, like health and mental health services, to help support students and their families.
But the school’s relationship with the Whitney has been running since the school’s founding 9 years ago.
“They allow us to do things that budgetarily we wouldn’t be able to do,” Willgress said of the Whitney. “We have a deep appreciation for the partnership.”
The partnership with the museum also provides a pipeline to the Whitney’s highly-coveted citywide teen program, Youth Insights, which gives students access to the art and artists whose work is on display at the museum.
The entry-level Youth Insights program takes place afterschool during the academic year and pairs students with big names in the art and creative world. This year's students worked with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras on their own film. Grads of the program are then eligible for a summer program where students learn about the various careers associated with the arts, from curators to conservators to communications specialists.
Those grads can then become "Youth Insights Leaders," a yearlong paid internship where teens lead tours, collaborate with artists and act as ambassadors to get other teens into the museum.
Shaniece Frank, who was helping Gotham students with their practice runs, graduated in 2011 from Gotham and was a Youth Insights Leader.
She now works full time at the Whitney as an assistant to school programs.
Shaniece Frank (left) stands with Gotham students and Whitney's coordinator of school programs, Jamie Rosenfeld. (DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer)
Participating in the program exposed her to careers in the arts she never knew existed, said Frank, who majored in education and visual studies at the New School and continued working at the museum in various capacities since getting a taste of it in high school.
As she wrote for her Youth Insights bio when she was at Gotham, she hoped to "possibly pursue a career in the arts whether it be writing about art, teaching art, or even directing programs like the ones they offer at the Whitney."
Willgress, her former teacher, said, "She has made us all very proud."