Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading

Building the Sky

For years I have longed to make full use of our museum galleries’ great ceiling spaces. With the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, we not only had the chance to do something special with the Getty Gallery “sky,” as it were, but our first-ever opportunity to integrate the full play of daylight within the space into the design. The team jumped right on board with the idea and began to think of different ways we could use the ceiling not only as a visual element but as an interactive component that would add to the show’s content as well.

View of the sky in the Women Hold Up Half the Sky gallery

This is how Wish Canopy, a commissioned work by architectural office Layer, is looking these days. Colorful and luminous.

The Los Angeles–based architecture practice Layer was approached to create an installation that would somehow represent the sky. One major inspiration was Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project. For Wish Tree, people are invited to write their personal wishes for peace and tie them to a tree branch. The fact that our “sky” would be mostly out of reach of visitors precluded a hands-on interaction with the artwork in the same manner as for Wish Tree. Nonetheless we wanted the installation to be more than a sculpture and provide an outlet for creative and affective responses to the exhibition’s content.

Consulting curator Karina White (left) and Layer co-founder Lisa Little discuss prototypes in Layer’s offices in Venice.

The team came up with the idea of inviting each visitor to write down a wish for girls and women around the world and have it added to a “sky of wishes.” The resulting sculpture, which would transform over time, would give visual testament to the power of collective action to effect change. Continue reading

Book of Ideas, “Eddies of Calm”

Shortly after we opened the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, I was asked, “So how do you design a show based on a book of ideas?” Good question. For one thing, I didn’t do it alone but as part of a core team of designers, curators, educators, and advisors. Through a lot of discussion, a few key ideas emerged that would drive all of the exhibition design, from signage to furniture.

First, we wanted to move away from any design language that would be typical of a museum art exhibition—rigid walls, framed images, projection rooms—and strive to create “safe” environments for viewing, absorbing, considering, and discussing some very difficult subject matter. We would come to refer to them as “eddies of calm.”

Preliminary floor plans show spaces defined by gently curving walls.

Pictured here during installation, the basic structural armature creates the “eddies of calm.” The curved ceiling of Moshe Safdie’s architecture was a major influence on our design as well as our initial idea of fully utilizing the “sky” of the gallery.

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A Father/Daughter “Wow Moment”:
Making a Wish for Women and Girls Worldwide

Rosie, admiring Wish Canopy. How proud I was to see her wish that women and girls “become whatever they want to be.”

The first thing visible when you walk into Women Hold Up Half the Sky is the expansive “sky” that hovers above the gallery. My daughter, Rosie, the consummate twelve-year old, was immediately taken by it, which of course made me happy. As a museum professional, I lust for “wow moments” in museums, and so I was pleased that she had one right away. “This is amazing,” she said, peering over the railing of the mezzanine. “I can’t get over it.”

We made our way into the first section of the exhibition, which focuses on maternal health, and what drew her in most were the paintings and textiles made by families involved with the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Each one tells the story of a woman who perished in childbirth as a result of violence, cultural practice, or poor health care. The images, to say the least, outraged Rosie. Like most kids, she is obsessed with things being fair, and these stories seemed to illustrate just how unfair it is that there are still women who do not survive childbirth. “Horrible. Women should have all the help they need and not have to suffer,” she said with indignation. You said it, sister, I thought to myself. Continue reading