Undergraduates who never had been to an art museum before? That just wasn’t acceptable to Alisha Kerlin.
It was 2016 when Kerlin, then the collections manager at UNLV's Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, made that discovery. Just a year later, she had Bus to the Barrick rolling. The program now brings more than 1,000 secondary school students to campus each year to immerse them in the museum’s exhibits.
Though the launch was swift, developing the program wasn’t a simple matter for Kerlin.
Kerlin, now the museum's director, had invited CCSD teachers to bring their students to the museum only to be told the cost of getting there didn’t always fit into the school’s budget. The $160 per bus was especially prohibitive for schools in economically troubled areas.
The answer for Kerlin was both straightforward and daunting: The Barrick would find a way to pay for the buses.
Kerlin began using UNLV’s Rebel Raiser crowdfunding platform. A partnership with Cheryl Wagner, the coordinator for CCSD’s school-community partnership program, ensures that schools that might have trouble paying for trips are prioritized.
Bus to the Barrick has served a range of participants, from high school photography clubs to groups of students who have recently arrived as refugees from countries such as Syria and Vietnam. Sometimes the groups meet local artists or faculty members from UNLV’s art department. Sometimes the field trips include campus tours. Teachers hope that exposure to campus life will inspire their students to consider attending college. Most of the students’ time, however, is spent with the Barrick’s docents, learning about the artwork and talking about the decisions artists make.
The docents prepare by studying the exhibitions and speaking to the artists. When a student in a tour led by docent Javier Sanchez asks why artist Ramiro Gomez has made a painting on cardboard instead of canvas, Sanchez can give them an answer from his own experience with Gomez. Another docent, LeiAnn Huddleston, will know that the seemingly abstract shape on a piñata wall hanging by Justin Favela is really the pattern from a carpet in a casino where the artist’s aunt works. However, the docents want the students to discover as much as possible through personal observation. Why do they think this detail is colored red? Why is that sculpture large instead of small?
“What if it was only this big?” asks a docent, holding her hands a little way apart. “Would it still seem the same?”
“What if you were the artist? What size would you make it?”
At the end of the guided tour, the groups participate in a creative workshop. The workshop themes change as the exhibitions change. The students who saw a show of paintings and sculptures by artist Andrew Schoultz in the summer of 2018 were invited to explore stripes and patterns, as the artist did. Students who visited the exhibition “Sorry for the Mess” created three-dimensional plants like the ones in the show. Favela, the artist who designed the plants, is a native Las Vegan. The docents mention the connection.
“He went to school here — like you.”
Part of the museum’s fundraising efforts goes toward buying materials for the workshops. Students don’t only deserve access to the arts, said Kerlin; they also deserve to make art with quality materials. She wants them to handle the materials that professional artists use. “Real oil sticks,” she said.
The tours can reverberate in unexpected ways. Weeks after a curator told a group that Tim Bavington, the artist and UNLV professor whose painting they were looking at, was also the artist who had created the Pipe Dream sculpture outside the Smith Center, the museum received a thank-you note from a student. “I liked the painting that was the music notes that were in front of the Smith Center,” the student wrote. “I hope to go there.”
On another occasion, a UNLV staff member returned from a high school visit and told Kerlin about a wall-mounted project he had spotted in a classroom. It was based on artwork the students had discussed on their Bus to the Barrick trip. The class had recreated the physical shape of the work and used it to map out ideas about their lives.
“It has been a great benefit to our students,” wrote Lori Andrews, the principal of Griffith Elementary School. All of Griffith’s students qualify for free or reduced lunches, but the school has an art club and special family evenings that focus on art and academics. Its students have toured the museum several times.
“Taking kids on the Bus to the Barrick is a powerful way to pique curiosity, awaken imagination, build appreciation of the arts, and broaden their understanding of themselves and their world,” Andrews said.
The museum's 2019 summer fundraising campaign raised $10,280 for the Bus to the Barrick program. In addition, the museum will bring more than 1,800 middle school girls to its latest exhibit, Connective Tissue by renowned neuroscientist-turned-artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.