Art in the City Academy at Penn Gives Students Lessons on Art and Life

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460August 14, 2013

It was a big day for 10 high school students gathered in Fisher-Bennett Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. The 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds enrolled in Penn’s Art in the City Academy were preparing to give their final presentations.

For the last two years, the History of Art Department has partnered with the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at Penn to run the four-week long summer school for students interested in the arts. The program melds field trips with traditional classroom instruction in an effort to expose students to the array of visual arts on campus and in the Philadelphia area. This year’s instructors were history of art graduate students Will Schmenner, a doctoral candidate who taught in the program last year, and Jill Vaum, who is pursuing a master’s degree. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of American art at Penn, directs the program.

Students spent their days working on weekly projects in class, taking technology workshops at the Weigle Information Commons in Van Pelt Library and researching works of African art in the Penn Museum. They braved summer heat on field trips to learn about Philadelphia’s history as the nation’s first art capital.

They viewed the portrait collection at the Second Bank in Independence National Park, where the curator, Karie Diethorn, took them on a “backstage” tour of Independence Hall to see the location of the country’s first museum in the Long Room. On a tour of neighborhood murals, they saw why Philadelphia, which boasts more than 3,600 murals, has earned an international reputation as the “City of Mural Arts.” They explored the mosaic tile art of Isaiah Zagar at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on South Street and toured the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Penn Museum and other arts and cultural institutions.

The students’ educational experiences were enriched by conversations about their goals with art history faculty and staff from the University Curator’s office.

Shaw, Schmenner and Vaum invited these faculty and staff members to the class session where students presented their final projects.

Inside Room 222 in Fisher-Bennett, the students talked about what they had learned. Each discussed the history of a Penn Museum object they chose to research and described how they’d label and display the work of art in the Museum. Some of the history and lore the students unearthed and presented prompted Shaw to say, “I’m learning so much. My area is American art. It’s nice to see your students teach you.”

During their month at Penn, not only did the students learn about art, they got a preview of college life on campus, living in the Quad under the supervision of resident assistants and eating meals in the 1920 Dining Commons and Houston Hall.

“Last year we had several students who were children of alums,” Shaw says. “I think their parents were trying to persuade them to apply to Penn. For the students, the Academy is a really nice way to try Penn on for size.” 

While all of the young art enthusiasts entered this year’s Art in the City Academy with a passion to create art, some now aspire to be art historians and art critics even. And Shaw says that at least two of the rising seniors in the group want to attend Penn after they graduate and are preparing to apply early decision.  She will be writing them letters of recommendation.