When Laura Pasquini ’98, visual arts, started her studies in art at UMBC, she thought she wanted to be a museum curator, creating exhibits that set great art in narrative contexts.
Pasquini did end up working at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., one of the most prestigious museums in the United States. But she did so in way that’s making a difference for thousands of young people and their families by opening up the Corcoran’s magnificent collection and the gallery’s other assets for learning.
As the director of the Corcoran’s Youth and Family Programs, Pasquini has revamped and revitalized the gallery’s approach to education with the aim of “empowering kids to confidence.” Most notable among her achievements is the growth in Corcoran ArtReach – an after school program that collaborates with community centers to reach 150-200 disadvantaged students a year.
In one evaluation of the program, a parent called Corcoran Artreach “the best youth arts program in the area.” And this success has also brought Pasquini recognition, most recently as the winner of the 2009 UMBC Outstanding Alumni of the Year award for a graduate in the visual and performing arts.
Pasquini points to a junior year internship at UMBC in the university’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture as a key moment in choosing a career in arts education, one which she says “changed my career and life outlook.”
Working in conjunction with Arbutus Elementary School, Pasquini designed a program to introduce and integrate students into the world of art that included talks, tours of the UMBC Fine Arts Gallery and the creation of original works of art by students. The important thing, Pasquini recalls, was to find and reinforce connections between art and the students’ experiences.
Her enthusiasm for the project steered Pasquini away from an intended career as a museum curator. “I realized I didn’t want the academic, the behind-the-scenes,” she recalls. “It awakened a world I didn’t know was out there – a world of possibilities.”
After taking a master’s degree in teaching at the Corcoran, Pasquini ended up working at the gallery full-time. She quickly worked her way up into her present position as director of Youth and Family Programs, where she drew upon her UMBC experiences to spark a renewal in the Gallery’s Corcoran ArtReach program – which brings the gallery’s art to disadvantaged children in the Washington, D.C. area.
ArtReach works in partnership with community centers in District neighborhoods. Pasquini and other members of the Corcoran Gallery develop curricula specifically geared towards each individual community, complete with lesson plans, slides of Corcoran art exhibits and a brief outline of each work.
ArtReach students also get a chance to explore the Corcoran itself, and the program augments individual coursework with monthly family workshops that incorporate parts of the gallery’s exhibits collection into broader contexts. Pasquini points to “Creatures of the Deep” workshops that the program offered last October in concert with the gallery’s “Sargent and the Sea” exhibit. These family workshops used John Singer Sargent’s paintings as a springboard for an examination of sea creatures, providing a fun, kid-friendly science lesson communicated through art.
Pasquini says that exciting student interest is the key element in ArtReach’s success. “Art has value and meaning,” Pasquini insists. “It isn’t supposed to be dead on the wall. It isn’t about a lecture – it’s about the experience, about making a learning connection [for the students] between what they saw on the wall to what they see in their own lives.”
The culmination of the ArtReach experience is a chance for students to create their own works of art using techniques and knowledge gleaned in their classes. The work is both displayed in community galleries and professionally framed and hung (with accompanying silkscreen text) in the Corcoran Gallery of Art itself.
Pasquini says that ArtReach has become “a place of learning through visual learning, creating an experience for people that brings [art] to life… It empowers kids to talk about art. It ignites curiosity and higher thinking skills. Seeing [the students] gain confidence in themselves and their art…it’s incredible.”