NORTH ADAMS — An estimated 300 arts educators — college professors, elementary school art teachers, museum educators and the like — gathered in and explored northern Berkshire County over the weekend for the annual conference of the Massachusetts Art Education Association, which put a focused lens on arts achievement in the region.
"We need you all here today," said Joseph Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in his welcoming remarks.
He also told The Eagle, "It's felicitous timing since this year the MAEA honors two deserving Berkshire-based art educators for their exemplary work in the field: Mary Beth Eldridge, the dynamic arts instructor at Taconic who is revered throughout the Pittsfield community, and MASS MoCA's own Laura Thompson, the long time center of gravity for Kidspace, and the head of MASS MoCA's Education Department."
At a Saturday luncheon, Eldridge, who teaches at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, was honored as the MAEA's Secondary Art Educator of the Year, while Laura Thompson was named Museum Educator of the Year.
The occasion also marked the first time in 30-some years that the conference, which rotates sites throughout the commonwealth, has been held in the Berkshires, signifying growth and acknowledgement of the region as leader in not only showcasing works of art but in fostering the creative process among residents and visitors alike. Conference events were held at Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
Laura Thompson lauded the event as "a convening of like-minded people who are fighting the fight" to preserve and promote teaching and learning of the arts. "It's not all about Common Core standards and testing. The arts are central to humanity and we're building awareness to this form of education," Thompson said.
Alice Gentili, the MAEA's president-elect and a visual arts educator for Mendon Upton Regional Schools said with the release of new state arts education standards last year and the increasing need to not only teach students fundamental academic skills but how to apply them to work with ingenuity and creativity, it's essential for arts educators to make time to gather and to collaborate.
"A lot of arts educators are often the only arts educators in their school building, so this is great sharing experience and opportunity for networking," Gentili said.
"We're thrilled to be here in the Berkshires," said MAEA board secretary Helen Downey, who also coordinates the state's Youth Art Month. She said she hopes connections made this weekend will mean more involvement in the program from Berkshire students and teachers.
Among the first-time visitors to the county was Rebecca Rohloff, the coordinator of undergraduate and graduate art education at Salem State University. She also holds a doctorate in arts education and said more critical work needs to be done not only in integrating visual, fine and performing arts into schools and colleges, but also in educating educators how to continuously train and hone their own skills and creative thinking.
"It can be really challenging," said Rohloff, the 2013 MAEA Higher Education Art Educator of the Year.
"A lot of students we see coming in are used to doing things really quickly but few come in with a mastery of techniques like knowing how to draw. I think we need to help them build a mindfulness, to slow down and think deeply about what they're doing and why they're teaching what they teach. They have a responsibility to be artists first," she said.
Taconic High School art teacher and this year's MAEA Secondary Arts Educator of the Year, Mary Beth Eldridge, said that it can also be challenging for educators to advocate for arts integration across academic departments. "It's a constant challenge and sometimes we feel a little like underdogs," she said, noting art teachers "could really be a resource" to other teachers and subjects if the willingness to collaborate is there.
In the Berkshires, Eldridge said, there's a state-backed arts education Professional Learning Network of 120 educators who don't all teach art but who have a vested interest in developing ways for curriculum and lessons to tap into the arts. Through networks like this and the MAEA, teachers can share strategies and lesson plans through blogs, videos, newsletters and at meetings. "It's a nice support and resource." she said.
"Curiosity, Inquiry, Wonder" was the theme of this year's conference, And as keynote speaker, Brooklyn, N.Y. artist Jen Bervin, told the audience, arts eduction is about inspiring students to be inquisitive about the world they live in and how resources are used.
One of her most notable projects, "The Silk Poems," required extensive research that took her to silk bioengineering and nanofabrication labs, medical libraries, textile centers, sericulture farms, archives and museums all over the world.
"People have helped me ask many questions," she said. Which is important to her process because, she explained, "Nothing in the arts happens alone."