July 10, 2012
Meet Ray, The Blanton’s new Director of Education and Academic Affairs
Get to know the newest member of The Blanton’s education team, Ray Williams, in this Q&A by Colette Crossman, the museum's curator of exhibitions.
As Director of Education and Academic Affairs, what will your role be at the museum?
My primary role will be to think with colleagues and collaborators about the learning opportunities that the collections and exhibitions might support for diverse audiences. I will have the opportunity to lead a dynamic team of educators who will design curricular-based gallery experiences for student audiences (school and university), as well as lectures, performances, studio workshops and other programs for families and adults.
Your resume includes an impressive roster of positions at museums such as the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, and most recently, the Harvard Art Museums. What drew you to The Blanton?
I am most at home working in university art museums, and I really appreciate the opportunity to participate in the life of a great public university that is committed to community service and engagement. The Blanton has exciting collections and dynamic leadership. It’s a great moment in the life of this institution, approaching its 50th anniversary, and I hope to contribute to The Blanton’s future. The Blanton is nimble and willing to explore new possibilities; I think we have real potential to contribute to the national discourse around art museum education.
What new projects do you intend to bring to The Blanton?
Every institution and community is different. Rather than arriving with specific projects in mind, I will start by listening to a lot of different perspectives on The Blanton, building relationships with potential collaborators, and exploring Austin. Of course I am curious about programmatic opportunities that the city’s famous music scene might provide. That said, my recent work has involved partnerships with health care professionals and business leaders, using the museum as an environment to foster professional reflection and better teamwork. I also have a longstanding commitment to engaging immigrant communities through programs that encourage cross-cultural understanding, conversation about democratic values, and expressive use of English. I hope that some of these projects might find a new life here in Austin.
Why did you get into museum education?
During my graduate studies in art history at UNC-Chapel Hill, I volunteered as a gallery teacher and found myself right at home in that space between museum visitors and original works of art. I continue to find a real thrill in the challenge of flexibly responding to visitors’ interests and observations. Sensitive teaching includes elements of improvisation, empathy, and generosity. I feel very alive when I am in teaching/ listening mode, and I hope to have many opportunities for teaching in the Blanton galleries.
Why is it important for people to see and learn about art?
Children and adults alike can learn so much from their encounters with art. Art causes us to think and feel at the same time. It takes us to different times and places, introducing very different ways of living in the world. It is a language that we all need to become fluent in, since we are constantly bombarded with visual information. We are meaning-makers, ready to find connections between what we see in the museum and our own lives.
How is learning in the museum different from learning in a classroom?
For one thing, students benefit from being in a different environment—from the novelty and the beauty of the museum. The galleries tantalize us, command our attention, raise questions, and offer choices. An educational theorist might say that the museum is a place for “informal, non-linear learning.” David Carr, who wrote The Promise of Cultural Institutions thinks of the museum as a place that supports visitors in their “process of becoming,” an idea that I find inspiring.
How do you see the role of an art museum on a university campus?
University art museums can be an important connection between the university and the broader community, and The Blanton has a strong history of community engagement. I am proud to work in a museum that embraces both community service, particularly through the schools, AND university engagement. I want folks at UT to see The Blanton as an integral part of university life—welcoming freshmen at orientation, offering restorative “study breaks” during exams, hosting visiting parents and alumni groups. First and foremost, we should encourage curricular use of the collections in courses across a wide array of disciplines. The Blanton is building a team of educators and curators that are available to collaborate with faculty in designing and leading gallery experiences that support course goals.
When you are not at work, what do you enjoy doing?
Romping with an exuberant dog, playing the accordion, growing tomatoes…. My partner and I hope to build a chicken coop that will be funky enough to make it onto the roster of Austin’s “Funky Chicken Coop Tour” next spring. I love the Texas landscape and expect to spend a lot of time outdoors. (No, I will not miss New England winters!)
Do you have a favorite artist or work of art?
I am an enthusiastic generalist. One of the great pleasures of being a museum educator is that we are always immersing ourselves in learning about new exhibitions. One Blanton painting that I am looking at these days is Thomas Hart Benton’s “Romance”—it has many layers of meaning and resonance for me.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a jockey—but by fourth grade I was already too tall. I am hoping to do some horseback riding now that I am in Texas.
Photo by Geoff Hammond