Art Museums for Adults Only?

Sydney McGee, an art teacher in Frisco, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas is losing her job. The reasons are not entirely clear, but her evaluations turned negative after a museum trip last spring in which students — fifth graders — did in fact see some sculptures, including some that were nudes, including one that was, reportedly, abstract. The New York Times reported on this yesterday, as did the Frisco Enterprise on Friday.

The district spokespeople give a different story than does the teacher, (as is often the case in discipline and dismissal cases) but a common element of both stories is that one parent complained after the Dallas Museum of Art trip last April, and the complaint had to do with the student having viewed “nude artwork.” The principal later talks about “abstract nude,” and the Times article mentions specifically Auguste Rodin’s “Shade” , Aristide Maillol’s “Flora” , and Arp’s “Star in a Dream,” which I can’t find (but you can click here for a page of Arp’s abstract work, to get a sense of it).

Before anybody gets all stereotypical about “The South,” let me tell you that Frisco is a wealthy suburb. When I say wealthy, I mean that according to the census bureau, in 2005 the median family income in Frisco was over 100,000. (So half of families had incomes above that!) It’s also a place with a pretty highly educated population. While the 2005 education numbers aren’t available, in 2000, half of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and 12% had graduate or professional degrees. (If you want to make comparisons to the nation as a whole, in the US in 2000 only 24% of the adult population had Bachelor degrees or better, and only 9% had graduate or professional degrees.) Frisco residents tend to work in professional, management, sales and office occupations.

Whether they are frequent museum goers or not, I would have assumed the residents of Frisco are the types of people who see museums as places one goes to be exposed to “culture” and would think about nudes in a museum as entirely different than the otherwise presumably problematic representations of naked people one might find in the “lowbrow” mass media or in pornography. According to the reports so far, only one parent complained about the museum trip and, according to the district, the museum trip is only one reason why this teacher’s contract is not going to be renewed next year. (The other parts of the reason appear to do with her resisting being disciplined over — yes, in part — the museum trip.)

I would also have wanted to believe that the school principal cared enough about the education of children that she would talk to a parent making such a complaint and explain that it is healthy and important for children to be able to walk through an art museum, be exposed to the work presented there, and to discuss the work, it’s time period, and the context in which it was created. It sounds as if one of this principal’s complaints — and I’m admittedly reading between the lines here — is that the museum trip wasn’t planned well enough to avoid the children’s gazes falling on these nude sculptures in the first place.

I’m left bewildered that this has come up at all. There may well be more to this story, but it’s shocking to think that an art teacher could find herself in trouble for taking her students to an art museum. I don’t know how largely that one parent’s complaint figured into the trouble this teacher now finds herself in, but it strikes me as terrible that any parent, having signed a permission slip for a child to go to an art museum, would then be offended that said child saw, well, art.

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