Located on the busy corner of Chapel and High Streets, the Yale Center for British Art hosts the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom and greets visitors from the Yale and New Haven communities free of charge six days a week. An eight-minute, four-block walk down York Street, the Yale Child Study Center serves the same communities through a breadth of clinical services and research for children with mental disabilities and their families.

Despite both centers’ reputations as leaders in their respective fields, to most Yale students, the path between the Study Center and the YCBA may seem an arbitrary one, a road perhaps less traveled than that to Blue State or Bass Library. Moreover, the short physical distance between the two seems almost inconsistent with a cultural belief that often depicts art museums and biology labs as diametrically opposed.

However, in her time as senior curator of education at the YCBA, Linda Friedlaender has begun to bridge that gap. Through her expansion of the center’s education access programs, Friedlaender has developed strong connections with the Yale Medical School and Child Study Center in the pursuit of making the museum a more inclusive and welcoming space for visitors of all abilities.

“Those partnerships have been enriching for her in making evident what opportunities can really be capitalized on in the most productive way through Yale’s own community,” said long-time Director of the YCBA Amy Myers, in reference to Friedlaender’s work in the education department. “That interdisciplinary reach that she has across Yale may fuel her creative forces and is enabling for her and empowering for the center.”

For the past six years, Friedlaender’s creative forces have done just that, enabling the opening of the museum’s doors to local children and young adults with autism through the center’s two autism-focused access programs, Exploring Artism and Artworxx. The older program of the two, Exploring Artism is a free monthly program for children ages 5 to 12 with autism and their families. In it, participants explore the museum galleries and engage in activities in a museum classroom.

For Friedlaender, the motivation for developing Exploring Artism was both professional and personal. Though she has a scholarly background in art history and museum education, she had not explored the intersection of art and autism until her grandson was diagnosed with autism 13 years ago. Observing her daughter’s experience caring for a child with autism as well as encountering a growing field of study on autism spectrum disorders inspired Friedlaender to begin researching the prevalence of autism access programs in public museums along the east coast. Back in New Haven, Friedlaender met with researchers at the Child Study Center and surveyed the physical environment of the museum to consider the feasibility of developing similar programs at the YCBA. Finally, after much preparation, the YBCA convened the first meeting of Exploring Artism in 2011.

Now in its sixth year, the program is largely developed and instructed by Friedlaender and Jaime Ursic MFA ’02, associate curator of education at the YCBA. Ursic’s work with the YCBA marks a sort of artistic homecoming. A studio artist, she received her MFA in painting and museum education at the Yale School of Art before moving to Los Angeles, where she would discover her interest in the intersection of behavioral sciences and art. On her partnership with Friedlaender, Ursic explains that their different backgrounds in art education have allowed them to collaborate on unique curriculum.

“Working together, we were a really nice fit because she has the personal experience and I have the certification and she is coming from an art history and education background and I come from a museum education, art-making background,” she said.

Each Exploring Artism session follows a set lesson plan consisting of a gallery activity and docent classroom activity, both based around a specific artistic theme, like “Animals and Art” or “Shape and Color!” Each session aspires to not only develop visual literacy skills but teach participants to express themselves through discussion and creation of art, with inspiration for activities coming from education theory like universal design as well as new psychological studies.

“A lot of research, especially Marvin Chun’s research, talks about how our visual brain is the most developed the earliest [in a person’s life]…A lot of education opportunities and therapeutic benefits come from looking at art and expressing one’s self with art,” Ursic explains.

Friedlaender also stresses the importance of making the programs accessible to families of children with autism. In this vein, the YBCA reserves free parking for all participating families and makes every session open to all family members, including siblings. Friedlaender also invited Kathy Koenig, associate research scientist and clinical nurse specialist in psychiatry at the Child Study Center, to specifically train all museum security guards in effective instruction methods for children with autism.

Despite the program’s defined structure, both Friedlaender and Ursic note the necessity of adapting programs to the needs of specific students. These needs can include motor control, verbal capacity and sensory sensitivity. These accommodations are inherent to the trial-and-error process of drafting curriculum and making the programs more accessible. After every session, Friedlaender explains, “We always sit and talk for an hour about what worked, what didn’t work, and what we could’ve done better.”

Since the inception of Exploring Artism in 2011, the YBCA’s autism-access programs and its partnerships with the Child Study Center have continued to grow under the guidance of Friedlander, Ursic and Koenig. Citing an apparent deficiency in social opportunities for girls and young women with autism, Koenig founded the Initiative for Girls and Women with Autism Spectrum Disorders at the Child Study in autumn 2013. The initiative works to provide programming to other organizations and groups on-campus serving girls with autism from preschool-age to young adulthood. Because of the ongoing work of the initiative as well as the success of Exploring Artism, Koenig and Ursic conceptualized the YCBA’s second autism-access program, Artworxx, a studio art club designed for teenage girls on the autism spectrum.

While the program revolves around art and is facilitated by studio artist Ursic, Koenig emphasizes her motivation in creating the group as a way for the young women to build a community and socialize in a low-pressure environment.

There is so much focus on teaching that there isn’t as much on just enjoyment and socialization and building community, so I specifically didn’t make this a clinical service but instead a community and recreational service,” she explains. “I just felt like kids with autism need to have fun just like any other people and I just was trying to make that happen for these girls and women.”

Still, Koenig stresses the unique way art can allow the young women to express themselves and take ownership of their creations. In May 2016, Koenig and Ursic organized an Artworxx exhibition for friends and families of the participants, which drew a crowd of 250 people in its first day. Looking forward at the near future of Artworxx, Koenig hopes to organize a second exhibition this spring, as well as expand beyond visual art courses to drama, dance and yoga. Given the considerable success the Initiative for Girls and Women with Autism Spectrum in just two years, Koenig’s ultimate vision is to develop institutional bridges between the different age groups within the initiative. Within this framework, 9- to 12-year-old girls in the current photography classes offered through the initiative would graduate to the art program, while graduates of the Artworxx would continue onto Snapp Space: a social networking app Koenig is developing for young adults with autism to connect and explore new information about health and wellness.

On a larger scale, according to Friendlaender, the rapid internal growth of Exploring Artism, Artworxx, and other access programs at the YCBA is part of a larger trend toward inclusivity in museum collections across the country.  

“From when I graduated college to today, there’s been significant changes in terms of how many different ways people who are in the profession see how to use museums…This notion of making museums more inclusive,” she says. “[The notion that] they’re not just for people that know about art but that anybody can come and then it became that the art in museums needs to be more inclusive and needs to be about more than just the Euro-centric western canon.”

As a pioneer in access programming, the YCBA education department prioritizes reaching not only more program participants, but other museums, and providing resources to help aid the transition to greater inclusivity throughout the museum community. Xander Mitchell ’19, an intern for the YCBA through the Bartel Fellowship, is working with Ursic to simplify the signup process for Exploring Artism as well as develop and curate curriculum for future use both at the YCBA and beyond. While Mitchell says he has found his experience fulfilling, he notes that funding discrepancies can often prevent smaller museums from obtaining the resources necessary to employ experts like Friedlaender and Ursic, as well as cover the material costs of specific programs.

Despite these difficulties, Friedlaender affirms her belief that the responsibility of any museum, including the YCBA, is to most effectively and sensitively reach the community they serve. Furthermore, she and Ursic acknowledge the opportunity for the expansion of access programs afforded by the museum’s partnerships, devoted staff, and enthusiastic undergraduate supporters, like Mitchell.

James McPartland, a professor e Child Study Center and director of the Yale Development Clinic, reiterated that sentiment. He cited a rapidly increasing interest in autism research and awareness on-campus as well as more opportunities for interdisciplinary work in the field.

“There is a limited literature scientifically on the benefits of art therapy for people with autism but we know that whether you have autism or you don’t have autism, doing things that you enjoy like being able to go a museum are beneficial,” he said. “The reasons courses [like PSYC 350] exist is that we wanted to take the smart, talented, young people with a passion for autism clinical work and autism research and give them the opportunity to learn more because that’s going to be the future of our field.”

And with the ever-growing work toward inclusivity and collaboration at the Yale Center for British Art, that future looks bright.

 

Ryan Howzell ryan.howzell@yale.edu