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View of the museum's Heinz Galleries with a portrait of Michelle Obama in the foreground.

Installation view of 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo: Bryan Conley

The Creative and Intellectual Power of Art

At Carnegie Museum of Art, our goal is to provide visitors and students with the creative and intellectual tools needed to make their way in a rapidly changing world. Through classes, tours, and informal experiences in our galleries for children and adults, we foster the ability to analyze and then innovate, both individually and with others. The key is careful looking, which art museums are well positioned to teach. Early in my career, I learned the value of developing that ability.

My undergraduate degree is in photography, and I worked as a photographer for about 10 years, until writing took over and the need to make a living sent me to graduate school to become fully employable. Before I went back to school, I was an adjunct professor at three different New York schools, writing about seven reviews a month, and making very little money. Teaching under those conditions was difficult but rewarding, too.

My favorite place to teach was Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where I had earned my BFA (having started college at Carnegie Mellon University). In the early 1970s, the faculty in the photography department there were mostly scruffy guys, former beatniks who had committed themselves to photography as an artistic medium, a little-understood pursuit at that time.

In each class we would look at slides of work by historical and contemporary photographers and talk about them. Then we’d tack the pictures we’d made since the previous class up on the wall, and carefully study and discuss each other’s work. We were supportive but frank. Occasionally, our teachers would put their pictures up and we’d talk about them, as well. I remember one day when Philip Perkis, a fine photographer and an exemplary teacher, invited some of his friends to show us their pictures. Among the six or seven who came to Pratt were Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Ralph Gibson, and Larry Clark. They were already well known in photography circles but not yet famous. Photography-as-art was still a rather esoteric interest, and photographers like them usually made a living teaching or doing commercial work.

The ethos of Pratt’s photography department, as I understood it from Phil, was that photography at its best was a moral, spiritual, and intellectual pursuit. I believed that there was nobility in that, and did my best to pass it on to the students. I knew that, even if they never became professional photographers, they were developing valuable skills: careful looking, critical thinking, and honesty in dealing with a powerful medium that could reveal truths about life but also lie. If the students mastered those skills and values, they would have the creative intelligence to succeed in any profession, and make meaningful contributions to their work places and communities.

Museum visitors congregate in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Museum visitors experiencing the exhibition 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Today, analytical ability and collaborative exchange are more important than ever as we face the challenges of 21st-century life. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we teach these attributes each day in our galleries and classrooms. In recent years, exhibitions like Oh Snap! (2013) and The Stories You Tell (2016) have focused on careful looking, encouraging visitors to express their insights about works on view through their own photography and by writing six-word stories. We also practice what we preach: The Hillman Photography Initiative exemplifies critical thinking in its examination of the state of a medium in the midst of radical change, and our current exhibition 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art, is a significant example of collaborative exchange between institutions.

Art has the power to unleash the creative potential in all of us, regardless of our age or level of schooling. The essential abilities it offers make us better workers and citizens, and greatly enrich our lives. Please visit us soon and see how art works!

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world.