Photo: Courtesy of Jessie Magyar
Q+A: Jessie Miyu Magyar, Ed.M.’17
An alum on altering museum offerings and making them accessible during the pandemic
COVID changed work for most people, but for Jessie Miyu Magyar, this past year has meant a lot of stops and starts: the museum where she works as school and family programs manager closed its physical doors to the public in March 2020, reopened in July, closed again in December, and plans to open again this March. Still, she says, they found ways to continue offering workshops, storybook readings, art labs, and art-making breakout rooms for kids, teens, and families. This spring, just a few weeks before the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston was slated to reopen, Miyu Magyar talked to Ed. about how things changed, the desire to create, and the plus side to visiting a museum online.
What was your job like pre-COVID?
I oversee ICA programs for kids and families as well as school and community partnerships and work with and support staff as well as contract educators and teaching artists to implement these programs. Pre-COVID, my job was a mix of teaching, program development, and management.
How did that change because of the pandemic?
During COVID, my responsibilities have largely stayed the same but the programs look quite different. We’ve found ways to pivot our programs. Instead of ICA teaching artists working with students in their physical classrooms, they’ve led workshops in Zoom classrooms. Our free monthly Play Date program moved online in the form of virtual workshops and digital downloads. Instead of hosting weekend art making at the museum in the ICA’s Bank of America Art Lab, we launched our Art Lab at Home site where people can download creative activities to do at home. For school vacation weeks, we’ve facilitated Zoom workshops, partnered with organizations to distribute art kits, and hosted virtual cinemas. My team has worked on organizing, packing, and distributing 100 art kits each week for families as part of the ICA’s food distribution program serving communities in East Boston. Our work to encourage meaningful experiences through art and to connect youth and families to the ICA continues, it just looks a little different.
How did you get interested in the arts?
The arts have always felt familiar to me. My father is an artist and my parents own a glass and sculpture studio and so I was surrounded by creativity and making as a child. My parents didn’t push me to pursue art, but it was what I knew and I wanted to apply those skills in working with people. I thought I would study K–12 art education but during my first year at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I had a workstudy job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as a creative arts assistant. This led me to research the field of art and healthcare and I ultimately learned about art therapy. I transferred to Smith College where I double majored in studio art and psychology with the goal of eventually attending graduate school for art therapy.
What lead you to museums?
Looking for an experience where I could teach art in the community, I joined a student museum educator group at the Smith College Museum of Art. This was such a formative experience and where I grew my interest in art museum education. I ultimately did receive my M.A. in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and wrote my thesis on the potential and benefits of art therapy programs existing in art museum spaces.
I had grown this deep interest in how the arts, development, education, and health intersect, and those were areas I explored while at HGSE. As a graduate student teacher at the Harvard Art Museums, I worked with teens from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to organize a student exhibition of works inspired by their museum visits. It was during this time I also met with educators at the ICA to learn about their teen arts education program. I was really drawn to what the ICA was doing and continues to do in teen arts education and creative youth development. When a position opened up to work on their middle and high school partnership program, I jumped at the opportunity. Since then my role has expanded greatly to include a range of audiences and programs but my background and experiences absolutely continue to inform the work I do.
Tell us about the Play Dates program and what it looked like before COIVD.
Play Dates are the ICA’s free family program. Occurring the last Saturday of every month except December, families receive free admission to visit the galleries and exhibitions, participate in art-making workshops and storybook readings, see performances, and experience other activities throughout the day. (Youth 18 and under always receive free admission.)
How did this change when Play Dates went virtual last May?
We still partner with artists to lead workshops each month but now they happen on Zoom. We still offer a menu of ways to be creative, but the program is more structured now. Play Dates were so much about the informal, in-person ICA experience: Being able to see contemporary works of art in person with your family and then creating your own art to form those deeper connections. We now have to be more creative and intentional with our virtual offerings so that we can achieve those connections through a screen. We’ve aimed to stay flexible in order to respond and adapt to the needs of families. We’ve adjusted the timing of the program to fit with school and family schedules. We’ve also added a morning program specifically for kids 5 and under and included more digital, downloadable activities for families who can’t attend our live workshops.
One silver lining to going virtual is that you can cast a wider net to families who might not otherwise have been able to visit the ICA in person. Can you talk more about this?
Yes, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with families locally, nationally, and internationally through our virtual programs. While virtual programs have been a way to stay connected to our audiences, many of these families have also been brand new to the ICA. I think about the accessibility factor a lot with our virtual and digital programs. I have a two-year-old and one thing I quickly learned as a new parent was the importance of flexibility. Especially in those first early months, we rarely made it to an appointment on time! While the experience of physically visiting the ICA is missed, offering free opportunities to engage with art and art-making in the comfort and convenience of one’s own home without having to travel is a huge barrier lifted for many families.
You said it was vital that institutions like the ICA continued offering something for young people after the pandemic closed just about everything. Why?
One of the biggest challenges for us was reading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the pandemic’s impact on children and teens. After reading about the devastating toll the pandemic is having on their mental health, as seen in the increased number of emergency visits across the nation, we were determined to do our part in supporting young people at this time. The pandemic has changed nearly everything about our lives, but what hasn’t changed is our human desire to create and connect. Making art can be an especially powerful activity as we — including young people — try to make sense of the world around us. Right now, more than ever, access to art and art making should be every child’s right; it should be part of their education all the time. This is a time when everything feels out of control. Having art materials in front of us, being able to control what we are making, and becoming the maker, can be very empowering.
Even after the ICA reopens, how do you think this virtual experience will change your thinking as an educator and what the ICA offers for young people?
These are exactly the questions we are discussing as a department now. I don’t think anything will ever replace the power of in-person learning and experiences, but there are certainly things through these virtual experiences that have expanded our reach and impact. I’m looking forward to offering Play Dates at the ICA again, but I’m also excited to continuing growing the Art Lab at Home page and continuing to collaborate and add new creative activities so that kids and families can continue to explore art and art making at home. Considering the experiences that families can have in the museum is just as important as how those experiences can continue at home.
Listen to a WBUR interview about the art kits distributed at the East Boston food pantry.