In honor of International Museum Day, we sat down with Museum Educators Sabrina Phillips (School and Teacher Programs) and Monique O’Neil (Family and Community Programs) from the Blanton Museum of Art to chat about Art of the Book, a new collaboration between the Blanton and BookPeople, where we invite students to interact with authors and illustrators before exploring literacy themes in the galleries. We also dive into the museum’s summer programming, perfect for all ages! Check out part 1 below and start planning your visit to this local gem!
BP: Why were you originally interested in partnering with BookPeople? How did the Art of the Book collaboration come about?
Sabrina: The Blanton offers family programs and school programs that have a very strong connection with literacy skills and social and emotional learning (SEL), and we merge those two skills together a lot. We use picture books in our galleries through our program called Tales and Trails. So when I met Meghan (BookPeople Children’s Book Buyer), we were talking about what we do and we thought, we’re talking to the same people and we’re serving the exact same audience. She’s going into schools, she knows all the librarians, and I told her what we were doing– and it was almost immediate: OF COURSE we should be doing something together, why have we not done this before? With the Art of the Book series specifically, we started dreaming about how exciting it would be to have author-illustrators come into the museum and showcase what they do and how they’re inspired by artwork. We also wanted students to see themselves in the museum space and show them how accessible it is. And finally, we wanted teachers to see the connections between literacy and SEL skills. All to say that all of those things seemed like really obvious connections to why we should be working with BookPeople.
BP: Through the Art of the Book series, we’ve hosted Caldecott Medalist Javaka Steptoe and author-illustrator Armand Baltazar. What have you taken away from these author visits, and what do you hope the students have taken away from them?
Sabrina: When the students first came into the museum, it seemed to me like they weren’t sure why they were in the space to begin with– teachers, too. I’m sure they thought they could just do this in school. So I think having the author be in the museum, looking at art with the students, talking about his childhood experiences of being in museums and how that inspired his work, ended up being this transformative moment for everyone. Now the kids were looking at art in a different way– they weren’t just saying, “This looks nice.” They were looking at art as inspiration, as a source to write, and I think that was a really big turning point. So my big takeaway was watching students and teachers become aware of what the potential of being in that space is.
Monique: I like people to understand the fact that somebody made this artwork. We didn’t just find this somewhere and hang it up– there was somebody behind it who had ideas and thoughts and dreams and struggles and challenges. And it’s the same with books. There’s so many people behind a single book, who wrote it and illustrated and collaborated to make this book. So I like the idea of activating this book, of bringing this author or artist here and telling students these people actually exist. They get to see the process of how this book is made and all the time it takes, and they appreciate it in a different way. I think it’s a beautiful partnership in the same sense, that you’re bringing two different mediums, one’s visual and one is writing, and you are activating these authors and these artists, bringing the author to life. You’re putting value into what their work is. I always love to show pictures of authors to kids, because kids think these ancient people made this, that it’s something dug out of the mud, but pictures make it relevant. As a parent and as a former teacher, I love thinking of ways to bring a kid’s favorite book into the museum and how to expand these pages and these words, and looking at the choices the author-illustrator made while we walk the museum. And extending the reading experience, adding longevity, and along with that, trigger critical thinking, patience, and understanding of the creative process. I want the enjoyment of sitting with something for a long period of time instead of, “Okay, done. What’s next?” How can you keep unfolding these layers? I think that’s what storytelling is. You can keep telling a story forever.
Sabrina: When we had Armand Baltazar, author-illustrator of Timeless, come in, we had students make their own costumes. We were thinking about world building and how to create characters. Baltazar talked about how the book was inspired by his son and his friends, and he showed students maquettes he made of different characters and objects in his book. Seeing all of that and going into the museum and making these huge costumes showed students that they’re doing the same thing the author is.
BP: Could you tell us a bit about the summer programming the Blanton offers?
Monique: There are so many different options according to age group, so your readers can check it out online, we have pictures and more details about what we do. But I have programming throughout the summer for kids ages 3-5 to 14, and all of my programming is parent-child centered. This is purely because I believe that parent-child modeling is essential. It’s about engaging, it’s about learning from one another, and I want the child to model for the parent and the parent to model for the child. I also work with community partners like Latinitas, Boys & Girls Club, Shutterbug, and Creative Action. We have so many different programs, and we even aged out on some so we’re now offering something for the older kids to have more in-depth conversations about the artists that we can’t really have with the younger ones. Now we have more of a middle school focus, in which we’re able to draw more on social contexts and relevant issues that are happening. It’s wonderful to have the parents involved, because they’re central to having these kinds of conversations. It’s not just about telling them our ideas, but helping spur the conversation– and parents appreciate that we’re a safe place to do that. Most of the time, parents tell us they don’t even know how to approach a conversation, and a book or a work of art is usually the safest way, because it acts like a buffer. You can look at a still image or a still book, and it’s a great safety net. It makes people comfortable cause you can separate yourself from it without avoiding the conversation. So, our summer programs are really fun but I always want them to be enriching.
Explore the Blanton’s summer programming options here and stay tuned for part two, where we reveal Sabrina and Monique’s picks for International Museum Day and highlight a few bookseller faves. Plus, Sabrina and Monique go down memory lane and share what inspired their love for museums!
The Blanton Museum of Art is located at 200 E. MLK Jr. Blvd. in Austin, Texas 78701