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Educational Tools That Can Teach Us a Lesson

Huntington receives a collector's array of historical art supplies.

April 05, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Diana Korzenik admits it. She loves art-education "stuff": crayons, paint boxes, animated manikins, color charts, stencil kits, ornamental design manuals, how-to-draw books, reproductions of paintings used for teaching.

A prominent art educator who recently retired as professor and chairwoman of the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and a former teacher of the history of art education at Harvard University, Korzenik has amassed a collection of some 450 books and 1,000 artifacts that document the teaching of art in America since the 1870s. She has used the collection as a teaching tool, but now she is passing it on to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Why the Huntington?

"Because they are the smartest people in the world about what this stuff is and what can be learned from it," she said during an interview at the venerable library.

What's more, Korzenik said, the Huntington is "like a re-creation of the environment in Brooklyn that nurtured me as a child. I was very fortunate to take classes at the Brooklyn Museum, where art was serious, wonderful, fun stuff. It was the most exciting place.

"The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens were right next door, and then next to that was the great main building of the Brooklyn Public Library. So, in a way, the three pieces of the Huntington were all there. I have a tremendous affinity with this place and these people, so I feel like it all came to the home it should be in."

Korzenik attributes both her career and her collecting to her parents, who wanted her to be an artist and raised her in a milieu where art was a weighty subject. "I was born in 1941, a time of tremendous change," she said. "Modernism was beginning to boom in New York in the Abstract Expressionist movement by the time I was in college. There were these rhetorical views about what was good for artists and what was a good art education. And because of my parents' seriousness about this when I was a child, I thought this was like the disputation of the rabbis."

Her mother was "a brilliant looker and talker about art who organized charity benefit exhibitions in New York City before there were so many of them," she said. "She had a fabulous eye and a fabulous sleuthing quality. Her joy was auctions, but we also went to barn sales and flea markets because that was a way to get out of the city and have fun as a family."

Korzenik didn't set out to collect art materials and teaching aids, but once she got started, she was insatiable. "I was a vacuum cleaner, and I was in no position to decide what was and was not important," she said of her early days.

However, she soon realized that she could learn a great deal about the history of American art education from the objects she found. As she pieced the story together, she organized her thoughts in what she calls "four traditions," which she describes as goals or values that have been promoted through the teaching of art.

The first tradition uses art to teach basic school subjects; the second takes a utilitarian approach, using art training as preparation for factory or technical employment; the third treats art as an aesthetic and spiritual force; in the fourth, art is a means of understanding cultural differences.

In talking about her collection, Korzenik often introduces other themes. Catalogs of art materials provide information about business, for example, while the technology of printing changed the way drawing was taught.

"The socioeconomic messages in this stuff is very important, too," she said, comparing a tin paint box decorated with a picture of Donald Duck and an elaborate wood paint box containing embossed blocks of watercolor, a porcelain paint-mixing tray and a delicate stand to hold wet brushes. "That Donald Duck set is a cheapie for every kid, while this is a jewel box of art supplies," she said.

Shifting her attention to art prints, she said, "It's terribly interesting to see what art is reproduced when. I have always wished that this collection could teach my contemporaries how incredibly trendy art is. The collection also reveals the American tendency to disparage the kind of teaching done in the past and to replace it with something new, over and over again. There's a sense that Americans could do no good; they could never get it right."

The high moment of Korzenik's collecting was her discovery of an apartment full of materials in the estate of Mabel Spofford, an art educator in Gloucester, Mass. "Her career spanned many years and, thank goodness, she was a pack rat," Korzenik said. "She would be sent samples to order for her school, and she saved everything. That's how I acquired a wonderful crayon collection as well as a full run of a magazine, the School Arts Book, which started in 1902 and ran into the 1940s. That collection of magazines is a Rosetta stone for the 20th century. It's a virtual national curriculum because it had subscribers all over the country."

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