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Drawing the Line : Educators and Parents Worry Students May Learn Wrong Lessons at Museums

February 14, 1988|ALLAN JALON

The combination could hardly be more volatile: schoolchildren, sexually explicit art, private museums and public morality.

-- Last month, an Orange County school principal, feeling that some of the works on display at the Newport Harbor Art Museum were too sexually graphic to be appropriate for children, canceled a tour by fourth-graders. Museum staffers, through telephone diplomacy, were able to persuade 23 other principals to let their students visit the museum--after they had promised that the tours would bypass some of the potentially controversial works.

It wasn't the first time this solution had been struck. In February, 1986, officials with the Orange County Department of Education protested two paintings included in a show of Flemish art at the museum, and tours were remapped so the offending works would be avoided.

-- Two months ago, 390 students from around the county were scheduled to see some Neo-Expressionist art at the Laguna Art Museum. Only 90 got there. The other visits were scotched after a teacher was upset by several pieces. Museum officials quickly defused the situation by warning other principals that the show had caused alarm. The principals pulled out but rescheduled tours for a later show.

None of these incidents occurred because local museums are showing more lewd art these days. Rather, they have been byproducts, school and museum officials say, of the increasing role museums are playing in public education in a decade when many parents are reacting against the sexual imagery to which children are exposed.

California schools, especially, are sending children to museums more frequently now that tax reform has curtailed classroom art education.

Museums want the school visits. Among other things, they stir the sympathies of private donors and boost attendance figures that help lure government grants. The Laguna and Newport museums say these tours account for up to 30% of their attendance.

For now, cooperation between local schools and museums remains intact, and school-museum programs are continuing. In one, called "Partners," Orange County has joined with private donors to bus children from about 24 schools to Newport Harbor Art Museum. Public officials have not denounced any exhibitions. Meanwhile, school and museum officials are becoming more adept at averting the parental backlash that they worry might jeopardize the tours. "One picture and one parent is all it takes to attack the credibility of the art, the education programs and the museums," said Marie Clement, the visual and performing arts coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education. "I don't want to put this department in the position of an ogre, but this is a very sensitive matter, and we have to be careful."

Being careful enough is tough, says Ellen Breitman, the Newport museum's education curator. She cites her experience with the current show, "Skeptical Belief(s)," which features work by 58 graduates of the California Institute of the Arts. One piece called "Haircut," by Eric Fischl, shows a nude adolescent girl looking at herself in a small round mirror.

On Jan. 28, the first day of school tours for the show, Breitman got a call from Georgia Menges, principal of the Acacia Elementary School in Fullerton. Menges had heard from a parent that "Haircut" was inappropriate for children. Ninety-six students were touring that day; about half already had been through.

As the others waited, Breitman told Menges that the children's teacher had been briefed about "Haircut," and she tried to explain the picture to Menges. "I said it's not a dirty picture. I said it's partly about identity, about self-identity. I said kids who had seen it had responded very maturely."

Menges gave the go-ahead, and Breitman realized that she had to go beyond briefing teachers, which she had done with every class coming through. She called the principals of 23 other schools to discuss the art. A single principal canceled one tour for fourth-graders.

Besides warning teachers, Breitman already had volunteer guides steering student tours away from several potentially controversial works, including one with scatological references by artist Mike Kelley. But for two paintings by David Salle and two by Fischl--including "Haircut"--rerouting wasn't possible. They were in the middle of the exhibit. Still, Breitman said, "After the original burst of concern, things have settled into a regular tour routine."

In December, the Laguna Art Museum did not settle back into a regular routine after a teacher reacted to an exhibition called "Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s."

The show included Fischl's "First Sex," which shows a beach party where a young nude boy watches a nude adult woman. There were paintings by Leon Golub showing the obscenities of gang violence, including a man urinating on a mutilated head.

Dinah McClintock, the museum's education curator, said a class of fifth-graders saw the pictures and the teacher was "just livid."

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