Through the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Learning Center, the Art Institute champions the role of art in lifelong education, promoting equitable participation in art and the museum, fostering critical and creative thinking, and collaborating with diverse partners and communities to strengthen the fabric of our city.
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What is now known as the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Learning Center has been organized in many ways over the years in response to evolving museum priorities, community dynamics, and the professionalization of the museum education field.
Department of Museum Instruction (1913) Department of Extension (1916–1937) Department of Membership and Extension Lecturer’s Department (1938–1954) Children’s Museum (1926–1940) Gallery of Art Interpretation (1940–1955) Department of Museum Education (1934–2016) Department of Learning and Public Engagement (2017–2022)
Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Learning Center (2022-Present)
Chicago’s public school teachers received free admission to the museum from the day the museum opened. Programs were so well attended that by 1907 one-third of all Chicago public school teachers had attended courses or brought students on visits to the museum. Programs for adults were equally robust, and in 1897 the museum received a gift to build the lecture and concert space that is known as Fullerton Hall. In 1901 one of the museum’s first endowment gifts established the Scammon Lectures for students and the adult public. In these early years the museum also went outside of its walls, holding exhibitions from the collection and related programming in Chicago Park District field houses, something it would again attempt in 1935.
Building on its early commitment to K–12 teachers and students, in the early 20th century the museum, public schools, and the Chicago Public Art School Society—an organization founded by Ellen Gates Starr and which eventually became known as Art Resources in Teaching—formed the Art Institute’s earliest and most enduring art education partnership. Thanks to this partnership thousands of children had access to art in their classrooms and in the museum. These efforts set the stage for a foundational gift received in 1924: through the James Nelson and Anna Louise Raymond Fund the museum started to offer children’s programs outside of the school day. The founding of the Children’s Museum in 1926 soon followed, complete with exhibitions, tours, and other programs.
The 1933–34 Century of Progress propelled interest in adult art education in Chicago. At this time various museum functions became integrated for the first time under the department of Museum Education. The museum’s Director Daniel Catton Rich declared in 1938 that education should be “at the core rather than the fringe of a museum program.” Soon after, he reorganized the Children’s Museum into the Gallery of Art Interpretation and appointed Katherine Kuh as its curator. Kuh revolutionized museum practice internationally devising unconventional and highly accessible ways for adult viewers to learn how to look at modern art.
Volunteerism surged in the United States in the postwar period, including increased commitment towards arts, community, and education causes, especially among women. In this context, the Art Institute’s Woman’s Board was established in 1952. From the start it focused on making the museum more accessible and responsive to Chicagoland residents. It launched Community Associates in 1953, an association of community-based Art Institute groups designed to offer art education opportunities for people in Chicago’s growing suburbs, and especially middle-class women. The Woman’s Board also helped to create the museum’s Docent Program in 1961 with the Junior League of Chicago as a means of revitalizing and expanding programming for children. Soon after, in 1964, the Woman’s Board worked with the museum to realize the Junior Museum, an innovative space that built upon the legacy of the Children’s Museum and set the precedent for two subsequent iterations of our multimodal learning spaces—the Kraft Education Center (1993) and the Ryan Learning Center (2009).
The department continued to evolve and professionalize, increasing its staff and formalizing its functions, including the establishment of Family Programs division in 1981 and of education internships in 1987, and the growth of a range of programs for adults. In the 1990s, the Art Institute launched a series of community engagement initiatives to further expand the museum’s relevance and reach. With support from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund and the Pew Charitable Trust, the museum took a series of actions specifically designed to engage more African American families, individuals, and school groups with the museum and to do so by establishing a process for creating ongoing connections between these audiences and the museum, thus establishing the museum’s Leadership Advisory Committee. Additional efforts in the 1990s focused on driving family participation and sustaining the museum’s significant efforts with schools through teacher programs, student tours, school partnerships, and educational resources as well as expanded partnerships with city agencies such as the Chicago Public Library.
Since 2017, other major initiatives have further expanded access and equitable participation, in addition to core school, family, youth, community, and public programs. The museum began to offer free admission to teens from Chicago under 18 years of age thanks to the generosity of Glenn and Claire Swogger and the Redbud Foundation and launched a major curricular collaboration focused on museum education with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Graduate Division, and, in collaboration with multiple other departments, secured major funding from the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation for a multi-year initiative designed to transform internship processes and experiences at the Art Institute in order to increase equity and access and eventually diversify art museum leadership. Programs with living artists, including performances and participatory events that are in dialogue with the unique spaces, exhibitions, and collections of the museum, are also now hallmarks of our public offerings, foregrounding the museum as a generative site.
All of these changes led in 2017 to the renaming of the department to Learning and Public Engagement in order to better reflect its purview, diversity of audiences, and leadership role.
Underpinning the evolution of the museum’s educational work is a vital and consistent vision: To be a museum that actively opens access and spurs meaningful engagement with works of art by a wide range of people, while simultaneously, enacting our identity as a museum of Chicago, carrying out our work much beyond our walls by partnering with organizations, public agencies, and communities across the broad Chicago region. Hallmarks of the Art Institute’s educational work include community engagement initiatives and partnerships, K–12 school programs, groundbreaking interpretive spaces, family programs and resources, and programs that foster youth leadership and creative development within the context of an encyclopedic museum.
Learn more about the department’s history from 1897–2003 in this issue of Museum Studies (2003).