Camden Students Create Gallery Exhibitions via Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts’ Museum Mentorship Program

By Tom McLaughlin

At the Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, old desks from the school basement are getting renewed purpose. But these are no ordinary desks. They will poignantly remain empty, and students will use the backs, arms, and legs as canvases to spread messages of gun-violence awareness.

Robin Cogan, a school nurse in Camden and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University–Camden, conceived the “No More Empty Desks” art campaign after her family was touched by two mass shootings, nearly 70 years apart. She reached out to Lisa Wallenburg, an art teacher at Brimm, to lead it.

The project, which has two desks completed, will now grow to fill an entire classroom, thanks to the school’s participation in Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts’ Museum Mentorship program.

The students are among more than 200 Camden schoolchildren in grades three to 11 who are exploring the fascinating and multifaceted world of art – not only as aspiring artists, but in the many supporting roles as well – via the initiative.

The Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts is currently in the second year of a three-year Arts Education Special Initiative Grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to lead the innovative program at four Camden schools: Brimm High School, Thomas H. Dudley Family School, Holy Name School, and U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School.

Through in-school, hands-on artist workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and visits to the Stedman Gallery at Rutgers–Camden, the students are preparing for their ultimate goal: to curate, design, and install their own exhibitions in the Stedman and Camden Fireworks galleries in May 2021.

“The idea is for students to not only gain an appreciation for the arts and art museums, but to become well-versed in different techniques of art-making and the career roles common to museums,” says Miranda Powell, arts education and community arts program assistant for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts.

Noreen Scott Garrity, associate director of education for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts, explains that the RCCA had been working steadily with the schools on various art initiatives over the past several years but sought to augment the students’ learning experiences.

“We wanted to offer a more robust, sequential program so they could really dig into ideas behind the arts and art exhibitions,” says Scott Garrity. “This grant gave us the opportunity to do that.”

The RCCA thus began working with the students on the project in fall 2018, with Scott Garrity and Powell leading a series of studio art workshops that enabled the children to connect with the curricula and gain an appreciation for various kinds of art.

These workshops included an introduction to the impressive artworks contained in Rutgers–Camden’s permanent collection. With many works restricted to the campus, the RCCA created mockup pieces that look like the originals, but were printed on canvas. These works were then curated into different themes, such as mathematics in art, covering linear perspective and patterns; language in art, such as narratives and storytelling through art; and cultural art.

In November, visiting artist Hollis Citron of Cherry Hill led professional development workshops with the participating teachers and worked with them to hone their exhibition themes and develop age-appropriate projects. Citron is now helping to guide the respective projects two days a week.

“Hollis is doing small projects that will help us to begin thinking how to use imagery to get a message across,” says Wallenburg.

In addition to the desks, Wallenburg will lead a series of projects at Brimm focusing on how gun violence is affecting students in their school. Her classes also include discussions about social justice and how to articulate a political idea through visuals and writing.

At Holy Name School, teachers Sister Rosemary Golden, Abby Koetting, and Kara Chase are leading fifth to seventh graders in a project focusing on ancient art, with plans in the works to create a cave painting for their installation.

Students at U.S. Wiggins Elementary School are working on a project using methods of mapping, which coincides with their fifth-grade curriculum, under the guidance of teachers Edith Bobb, Tammy Mellon, Ruth Colon, and Brian Gannon.

At Dudley Family School, teachers Raeshell Carter, Brunilda Nieves, and Alisa Ratliff are leading third graders, including a bilingual class, on a project focusing on art that is representative of students’ personal cultures and identities.

Over the course of the project, the students are asked to think about the different types of museums – for instance, science, history, and cultural museums – and consider where different kinds of exhibitions might be found. They are also encouraged to consider the different roles and jobs that they might take on, and their own skill sets and experiences, as they prepare for their exhibition.

“Maybe they want to help us build the pedestal that the artwork stands on or curate the exhibition and decide what objects go where,” says Powell. “Some kids may not be art enthusiasts, but they are learning that there is a role that everyone can play here.”

Scott Garrity notes the incredible value of students learning how to start with a theme, then build and promote an exhibition.

“The goal is to bridge the theoretical that they learned last year to an understanding that this project is going to be a reality – an exhibition that people will actually visit,” she says. “They are seeing how the whole process works.”

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