Changing Lives Through Art

How the Polk Museum of Art is becoming a museum for the modern age

photography by Philip Pietri

We are sitting in a comfortable circle within the offices of the education department at the Polk Museum of Art (PMoA). The museum’s Education Manager, Ellen Chastain, welcomes me with the vibrant eyes and genuine enthusiasm of an educator who loves her work and warmly introduces me to the rest of the team. Art supplies painstakingly catalogued and readied for use, all manner of instructional media, innovative learning materials, and, of course, an array of children’s art works, surround us. The paintings, sculptures, and sketches offer a testimonial to the many years of outreach programming carried out by the museum aimed at exposing the youth of this community to the visual arts.

But, even more compelling than these physical manifestations is the tangible sense of mission and commitment in the voices and bearing of the program leaders assembled there. “Any entity that seeks to be an agent of real and lasting positive change must first understand the evolving needs of the community it aims to serve,” Trae Holland begins. He is the Polk Museum of Art’s director of development, and a former classroom teacher.

“In the past,” Holland says, “museums were stereotypically seen by the public as literal fortresses of art, where the visitor experience was limited to seeing the collection within the confines of the space. This by definition excluded self-directed or hands-on enrichment. Though a core aspect of our mission remains collection stewardship and exhibition, that’s simply not the only way we define a successful museum anymore.”

For the past 15 years, the Polk Museum of Art has been evolving to become accessible and relevant to the greater community outside of the building itself. “With a mission to enhance the lives of our varied communities by bringing people and art together, PMoA has pursued that end by growing the definition of a museum itself. In addition to being a repository of the artistic works entrusted to our care, the museum is an active outreach center focused on youth and at-risk members of our community. In the name of offering a deeper and richer service to the public, our comprehensive approach to arts education and cultural experience reaches across racial, ethnic, generational, and economic divides by design. Through a multifaceted model of broad-based engagement that includes education, outreach, exhibitions, and events, Polk Museum of Art is an agent for positive change (PMoA Organizational Information Document, 2014).”

As the overall program of outreach, “Changing Lives Through Art” is a vital realization of the Polk Museum of Art’s mission. This program is structured to not only bring people in contact with the arts, but more importantly, to utilize the arts as a vehicle for social change and civic engagement with the hope of improving the overall emotional health, well-being, and quality of life for everyone in the Polk County community. From preschool students in homeless shelters, to teenage mothers, to youth diagnosed with autism and adults facing dementia, the museum’s education department has made a vast impact on the people of Polk County in ways that may surprise many who may feel they are already familiar with the museum’s programs.

PMoA’s commitment to maintaining and growing its outreach efforts rests as much on data as it does a compassionate impulse. “The body of research establishing the positive impact of access to the arts, especially among at-risk youth, is as convincing as it is exhaustive.” Holland says. “Whether it’s lowering teen pregnancy, incarceration, and drug addiction rates, or significantly raising the chances that a student goes on to higher education, exposure to the arts correlates to everything we as a society claim to want for our children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.”

But, for each of the members of the PMoA educational team, the power that consistent and relevant access to arts can wield has been proven to transcend the individual and has been shown to provide a powerful means to healing divisions and uniting all members of the community, regardless of state in life or background.

“TO SEE THE JOY, EXCITEMENT, AND PRIDE EXPRESSED BY THESE CHILDREN WHILE THEY ARE COLLABORATING IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS IS TO REALIZE THAT ART IS A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE THAT GIVES VOICE TO THOSE WHO MIGHT OTHERWISE REMAIN UNHEARD.”
~LAURA PUTNAM, POLK MUSEUM OF ART

Through the museum’s education department, PMoA offers a full spectrum of community service. “Beauty is relative. Service, however, speaks to everyone. We are always looking for ways to break down boundaries, new ways to bring the community together to share in a common experience,” Holland says.

Laura Putnam is the resident museum educator. She is charged with taking the museum to the community, making the museum relevant to those who might not venture into its four walls. Putnam is in the trenches. “I fell into this job,” she says. “I’ve always loved the idea of working with kids and art, but I wanted to work with kids who needed it. I wanted to be a resource to provide them with an opportunity to experience art. It’s a great feeling to see art helping kids.”

A strong partnership with the Polk County School Board, combined with generous community sponsorships, provides for the permanent student gallery within the museum — one of only a handful of its kind in the state of Florida. Artworks of all mediums and genres, from paintings and drawings to sculpture and photography, are created in classrooms across Polk County, the experience facilitated by classroom teachers. This partnership generates healthy and inspiring competition among students. Each show, a total of 10 per year, culminates with both a Museum Purchase Award as well as a School Board Purchase Award. To date, the museum has purchased more than 200 student works for its permanent collection.

“Art improves lives. I am proof, because a young artist changed mine,” Holland says. “I had the privilege of experiencing Leadership Lakeland alongside Claire [Claire Orologas is the museum’s executive director] several years ago. During one of our excursions, Claire led the class through the museum. We were instructed to roam the galleries and choose a particular work that spoke to us. Mine was Chrysalis, a heart-moving and vivid work about father/child relationships by a high school student that spoke so very deeply to me about my own youth. That day started an internal conversation about my place in this life, my career, and hopes for making a bigger difference in my community. That journey culminated in my later joining Claire’s team here at the museum. It can rightly be said that the work of a young girl who had never met me literally changed the direction of my life.”

Holland’s isn’t the only life that has been enriched by the Polk Museum of Art. Last year, while working with students at Parker Street Ministries’ after-school program, Putnam met a student who had a dream of attending Harrison School for the Visual and Performing Arts. However, the student didn’t have access to art classes in school or the resources for private tutoring and guidance needed to complete his application portfolio. With the help of the student’s Parker Street teacher, Putnam provided the student what he needed to nail his audition, and he is now a freshman at Harrison, pursuing an arts-centered education.

Putnam was so inspired by her experience that she spearheaded the effort to create Empowering Youth Through Art, a program that provides kids like the aforementioned student the opportunity to harness their talents, communicate their skills, and bolster their portfolios. Over the next few years, the museum will strive to launch several new youth and arts initiatives similar to Empowering Youth Through Art. But they can’t do it alone. Polk Museum of Art has long been a place of connection and collaboration, a history that will prove invaluable as the organization continues to become an outward focused entity in Polk County.

Partnerships with organizations like PACE Center for Girls, Learning Resource Center, Parker Street Ministries, and Lakeland Montessori School make the museum and its programs accessible to those who might not otherwise have the means to experience the museum within its four walls. These partnerships often focus on program consulting; PMoA helps organizations add art to existing programs in valuable and meaningful ways. For more than a year, PACE Center for Girls’ Step Up the PACE in Math program (funded by GiveWell Community Foundation), museum staff, and contracted teachers have been teaching foundational math skills and concepts using artful mediums that include drumming, painting, mosaic, and fashion design. Art, like math, can create order out of chaos; for students who struggle with math, art is a perfect neutralizer.

“We’re not trying to spread our wings so far that we’re doing everything everywhere,” says Chastain. “We’re legitimizing the museum’s programs, understanding our partners’ needs, and creating meaningful collaborations.”

As I listened to the staff reminisce about past events, including the Smithsonian’s Innoskate, I was warmed by the thought of thousands of people experiencing art in ways they never had before.

“Working at the museum is replete with moments when your stomach jumps and you have to catch your breath because you can’t believe how beautiful what you’re seeing is,” Holland says. He couldn’t be more correct. As a museum educator, I have experienced these moments time and time again.

These moments are the reward, for both the staff who work inside the museum and for all of us who enjoy the artful experiences brought to us by the Polk Museum of Art.