In Conversation

Thomas Cahill with Phong Bui

The following conversation was initially scheduled right after the legendary Studio in a School’s 35th Anniversary Gala and their Student Celebration in October 2012. However, both President and CEO Tom Cahill and Publisher Phong Bui were tied up with their end of the year demands until recently when they finally had a chance to talk about Cahill’s life and work over a visit to Studio in a School’s Upper West Side headquarters.

Portrait of Thomas Cahill. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): Will you tell us a bit about your early upbringing and how you became involved in the visual arts?

Thomas Cahill: I was born in 1953 to an Irish-American family in Bay Ridge. My father, Charles Andrew Cahill, was a detective in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. My mother, Lillian Cahill, was a bookkeeper in a publishing house. I remember my mother telling us, my older sister and me, that when we grew up we could make changes in the world. While my mother loved to read—and we read together quite a bit—my dad seemed to know everything about New York as a city. They were both very outgoing people. As kids we would go to Owl’s Head Park, Sunset Park, or Prospect Park. We would ride our bikes on the bike path along the bay to Coney Island.  I remember mom taking us to the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and Bronx Zoo. So early on I was conscious of how lucky we were because of both of my parents’ love for the city. I also was very fortunate early on to have three amazing teachers at Bishop Ford High School. Two of them were artists and Pratt educated. Ford is at the very end of Prospect Park West, near Greenwood Cemetery.

Rail: Can you remember their names?

Cahill: I sure can. Dolores Cregan, Brother Michel Bettigole, and Brother Jonathan Ringkamp. Brother Michel Bettigole, my seventh grade teacher, gave us art projects as a way to respond to historical events, which was very exciting, because a few of us would stay after school hours to do our projects.

Rail: It’s a good way to remember the narrative, as well.

Cahill: Absolutely. Also, as my high school teacher in history he always encouraged us to ask questions, and he also took us to ballet performances. Brother Jonathan Ringkamp was a multi-gifted individual, had a dynamic personality, and was a Fulbright Scholar, in addition to being an amazing painter and a playwright. He was also a gifted director and taught at Strasberg. Then there was Dolores Cregan who often took us to the movies at MoMA.  She would drive us in her Mustang to MoMA to see the Picassos, Mirós, Rothkos, Pollocks, and other great works at the collection or to see a foreign film. So I had teachers that were immersed in the arts. They believed it was important and that opened up worlds for all of us. In fact, two of us in the group got scholarships to go to School of Visual Arts later, which was great at the time because most of the teachers were practicing artists and art critics.

Rail: This would have been in the early ’70s?

Cahill: ’71. Robert Pincus-Witten, Douglas Crimp, Mel Bochner, Brice Marden, Dale Henry, Robert Mangold, and Fred Sandback, among others were teaching there. Pincus-Witten taught modern art history and several classes on civilizations, which was not only art history, but also about social/political context. Curator Lois Katz taught a whole class on Chinese bronzes, and related to the whole context of Chinese history. We were taught how to look and learned to look with all of these references in mind.

Rail: Were you a painting major?

Cahill: Yes.

Rail: What sort of work were you making then? Was it abstract or representational?

Cahill:  A little bit of both on the basis of material exploration or experiments.  Of course, Minimalism was pretty dominant at the time. Like some of my friends at the school, I was interested in exploring the materials and the idea of serialization and repetition. Actually, I remember one time I walked into a gallery and I saw someone that was doing work very close to me, Marcia Hafif, who is a wonderful artist, whose work is not as well known, as it deserves to be.

Rail: I also admire her work and I agree that it should be more celebrated.

Cahill: In fact, I was devastated when I saw her work, because I realized that what I was doing she had done with more gravitas. So then I became interested in reintroducing imagery in painting, mostly exploring to see what happens when you develop a system of layering and building up surfaces in encaustic.

Rail: Were the surfaces uniformly smooth or irregular?

Cahill: They were very irregular in many cases. And I love all of the alchemical aspects of mixing your own encaustic pigments, and how the various surfaces evoke different kinds of physical presences. Early on at SVA I was fortunate to have a work-study internship at the Brooklyn Museum, where I taught in the education department, which led to being hired as an instructor. In fact, I kept on working there throughout college. It was the experience of teaching with the collection that allowed me to bring everything together that I was interested in ever since I was younger. For example, in my high school and early college years, I was very interested in the intersection of visual art and theater. In fact, I had been involved in a company called the Chalk Circle Players—an offshoot of Every Man Street Theater, which was formed by my art teacher Jonathan Ringkamp. There was an approach to the theater that was at heart about the social uses of drama. It was teaching art and about the works in the collection that brought my creative interests together. It was a real surprise because I never would have defined myself as a teacher, but for me and many of the artists that I work with at Studio in a School it was so rewarding. I remember when I first brought my students to see the Egyptian sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, which is among the finest in the world.

Rail: And you must have come across the great Bernard Bothmer?

Cahill: Who was totally amazing. He left Germany before World War 2. He was an anti-fascist and a great scholar who had helped build the collection. In fact, whenever I go there I miss his dramatic and elegant installation of the collection.

Rail: Me too. Anyway, you were saying about the kids.

Cahill: Like many teachers, I had my own formalist ideas in my head, but when the children looked at those Egyptian sculptures, they were talking about something completely different. They could see them in the context of family, and how they related to one another in a sort of social, political hierarchy. For me it was a magical moment because I realized that I could learn just as much from children as I was trying to teach them. The experience of teaching at the museum, teaching to different ages is something I have brought to this job at Studio in School. That experience made me understand that a made object could tell you a thousand things, and that each expresses that artist’s particular point of view.

Rail: A worldview or value system.

Cahill: Exactly. That early experience made me recognize one, I had this deep love for art, and two, there was a real need in public education for art. If children could be taught that things are made through a process and with an idea in mind, they would relate to the world differently.

Rail: Most definitely. Anyway, where did you go to graduate school? 

“Through the visual, sensorial experience of creating artworks, even if the child may not grow up to be an artist, he or she could establish a fundamental rapport with their work and discoveries.”

Cahill: I ended up getting a fellowship at N.Y.U. in the theater department. I took an intensively focused studio program in printmaking. I studied drama, stage design, and performance theory, as well as courses on folk art and managing theater. At the same time I developed a series of projects for public schools, which eventually and indirectly led me to this job. When I got this job, I chose to leave the degree in the visual arts program and pursue a degree in art and humanities education.
Rail: The position was created in ’77. Were you in graduate school when you learned about it?

Cahill: Yes. I applied through a search firm that provided leaders for cultural organizations called “Opportunity Resources for Arts Professionals,” and then went through an interview process. I remember thinking, this sounds interesting. I really believe in public education, I have a commitment to teaching. I think the combination of raising a son, and having seen how art and learning unfolded in his development made me even more committed to children and sensory learning in all the arts. I was excited about how a child can learn to see the world through art making.

Rail: Did Aggie (Agnes Gund) interview you?

Cahill: Yes, along with Patricia Hewitt. 

Rail: Who Aggie came to see for advice as soon as she read the article in the New York Times about cutting art classes in public school in the mid-’70s.

Cahill: That’s right. And Aggie and Patricia had run this as a pilot program for two years in N.Y.C. schools. For me, this work was essentially a happy accident and the result of my teaching experiences at the Brooklyn Museum. I, like many of the artists who teach here, never would have defined myself as a teacher, but we all love what we do. Not to mention that I had no idea of the extent of the partnership I formed with Aggie would last this long and be so rewarding.

Rail: 33 years, which is quite amazing. What was your experience during the formative years?

Cahill: The thing about this job that I loved from the very beginning was that you could see how artists were catalysts in school communities, which varies from place to place, and the amazing creative results that came out from the kids. I learned so much from watching artists teach. I consider it the most extraordinary educational opportunity because I got to visit and support them at their schools and learn directly from teachers and the school principals about what was going on in education on one hand, and then to listen to what the artists were telling me on the other. From the very beginning, when I came to this job we had monthly meeting with artists and we would share ideas and problem solvings. A lot of Studio’s thinking really grows out of the community of artists.  One could be amazed at the sense of industry that the artists had and the kind of immediate impact they had on people, on children, on curriculum, and other teachers they meet in those different schools. These artists that were in schools really got to permeate the whole school and everyone got to be involved. Wherever we went, people did notice that something different was happening in that building. You would always see kids producing things that were informed by their own ideas. That is the thing: We’re all aware that kids think as artists, not just make things. If all of us can encourage that awareness, then the schools would begin to see art differently. It was really amazing, those early years, from when the program got started in 1977, then through the late ’70s and early ’80s when the city was really challenged economically and communities were really struggling. It was great to see what could happen in those school buildings because of the artists, they have made significant contributions in the children’s lives.

Rail: In that first year or two, how many artists did the program enroll?

Cahill: The program grew in multiples that were manageable. We began with six artists in the first year, then there were nine in the second year, and then there were 12 in the following year, and so on. Then all of a sudden there were 20, 36, 40 artists working. Now we have 75, but it grew very organically because each time you had to change the way you work with each school and a growing group of artists. In other words, each system has to adapt to different needs. But the important thing was, from the very beginning, Aggie insisted that there would be plenty of materials for the children to use for experimentation. Her idea was that you couldn’t make art if you’re being too frugal and that you need to have more than just exposure. Yes, we grew in a kind of organic way with ties to communities.

Rail: How do you monitor those different needs?

Cahill: In smaller meetings where artists would meet. They would bring in students’ work as the topics for discussion to see what works and what doesn’t. What really makes it work here are my wonderful colleagues, Fran [Van Horn] who has been here 30 nearly years now, Aline [Hill-Ries], Lauren [Brandt Schloss], and Jonas [Stigh], who you’ve met.

Rail: Through his wife Daniela who was the former assistant director of the Department of Communications at MoMA.

Cahill: Yeah. Plus many other colleagues who have managed whole programs and nurtured partnerships over the years. It’s amazing how Aggie saw the potential in partnership with the schools and the value of the visual arts in education. Her vision was way ahead of the curve.

Rail: When I interviewed Aggie, we talked about John Dewey’s reform ideas of education, especially his book Art As Experience, which was more or less not so contingent on the material “work of art,” but rather the development of an “experience.”

Cahill: Absolutely. Which is what is distinctively characteristic about American education—there’s a kind of optimism and pragmatism. And that through the visual, sensorial experience of creating artworks, even if the child may not grow up to be an artist, he or she could establish a fundamental rapport with their work and discoveries. This stimulates something they could later analyze and reflect upon in class. I believe that the visual development of your early perceptive years will give you a sense of how you can read situations and people, and so on.

Rail: It’s so true. Because as small children we always remember how we were encouraged or discouraged from what we were doing for the rest of our lives [laughs].

Cahill: Absolutely. That’s why we’re indebted to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It begins with “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” Similarly, any material we try to get a child to work with—it essentially refers to what is the primary motivation? Is it just a self-expression? Does it relate to observation and memory? And all of these questions were the basis of Maxine Greene’s belief that art serves as a conduit to meaning, the way in which a child begins to make sense of the world. This implies of course the social aspects of imagination, which may lead to envisioning what’s possible including social change. For example, when a child is being taught to make a collage. It might be a sensory experience, but primarily collage is an experience about composing and arranging that requires different sorts of explorations of space, and the freedom in which he or she can undertake it is so different than, let’s say, drawing or painting. But then each medium provides different experiences for the children, and it’s our goal to encourage them to see and feel those differences through the use of the materials and the process.

Rail: How do you go about sending artists to different schools?

Cahill: The principal of each school should have a choice in which artist/teacher they would like to work with in an extended partnership. It’s been always a partnership from the beginning.

Rail: How many schools are you working with in this partnership?

Cahill: 177 schools this last year.

Rail: Do all of them have the same schedule?

Cahill: Some might teach one day a week in some schools while others may teach four days a week for an entire year. Our involvement is driven by the different schools—how much they want to be involved, and what level of commitment they’re willing to make. For example, a school would like to have an art studio program then they should provide a room. And if they commit a room to this program and are committed to involving their teachers, then that school will get quite a bit of support from us. We pay 85 percent of the program cost initially. Then they increase their contribution over time. At a certain point, we say if you like this, you should do more of it; hire an art teacher or pay for more of the program costs. But in the case of schools that might not have room we have shorter residency programs or age specific programs like our early childhood program. In these programs we meet in whatever classrooms were available as temporary outposts.

Rail: Would you say that the fundamental aim is to reach out to schools that are in impoverished economic conditions?

Cahill: Yes. 90 percent of the schools we serve are high poverty schools, mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

Rail: How would you figure out who would teach what grade?

Cahill: We have a great team. Aline Hill-Ries and our program team work with our artists in professional training. Our great program managers determine placements, which match our artists’ interests and expertise to teaching at different levels. We also prepare them to work in schools and get the results they want to get in the school community. One important thing that we’re also very conscious of is making sure that these teaching jobs complement their lives in the studios.

Rail: Have there been kids who have gone to the program, then later come back as teachers? Or those who have taught at the program then went on to become well known artists?

Cahill: Yes! Alex Talavera taught here and was a student when I first came here at PS 164 in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He taught at Studio and became a N.Y.C. art teacher in another school in that neighborhood. Pepon Osorio taught here. He taught at P.S. 1 in the Bronx for several years just before his career took of in the early ’90s. There are other examples. But one thing that people have noticed about our program is that the focus is on the kids as creators, not us. In addition, I think we have had an impact on art education and policy in the city. We are glad that there are more art teachers today and we hope every child will have regular art instruction. To support art teachers, we partner with N.Y.C. DOE in organizing an annual competition called P.S. Art that highlights student artworks in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2004, when the city was thinking about creating an art curriculum, I co-chaired a committee with my dear colleague from the N.Y.C. DOE, Barbara Gurr, to create the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Visual Arts.  It’s composed of a series of frameworks, pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, that set up what benchmarks each school should expect kids to achieve and what an on-target activity might be. It is designed to develop a local and global perspective on art-making, recognize the power of arts, and communicate beliefs and values. And then over time, describes progress from being able to manage very basic experiences at first, to being able to actually be almost semi-professional at graduation from school. We’ve created a booklet and a poster with a chart that shows in each level the use of different mediums and concepts, along with increasing levels of arts literacy, including the use of community art resources. The plan is that students will also make connections through art to other disciplines, and then finally how they would relate to art in their community and larger cultural context, which inevitably directly relates to their goals in the future. As a side note: As a high school student, perhaps they’ll be able to understand the controversial nature of art, which isn’t all beautiful and sweet. On the contrary, some art can be very challenging and provocative, which is part of art’s function in society.

Rail: Have there been schools from other cities across the U.S. who are interested in emulating the Studio’s program?

Cahill: There’ve been quite a few calls, but what we’re thinking more about is how we could share what we’ve learned about artists and schools. The important issue is not whether or not the kids may end up being artists. For example, in our high school apprenticeships there’s a sense of expectations and rigor that comes out of art learning that is transferable to any kind of career development. Teens that work in the apprenticeships “give back” as interns through their work in N.Y.C. summer camps, teaching art to youth. They learn to plan and organize, and develop programs working under the guidance of an artist and college art student mentors. So they see how art fits into young people’s lives and contribute in a social context. Hopefully they will end up understanding they need to give back to the community. We also have a program called Arts Intern that introduces college students to museum professions. Through paid summer internships, they do real projects, not just filing papers, and so on. In any case, we need to encourage people to understand the rigor that’s involved in the visual arts, how essential the arts are, and how that personal motivation when making, sharing, and responding to art could be the fundamental element that gets you to see your life differently. The exhibition Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900­­ – 2000 at MoMA (July 29 – November 5, 2012) was a good occasion to speak about how modern artists and designers were involved with the well-being of children and was of utmost important to all of society. It reminded me of Freidrich Fröbel, the founder of kindergarten, who believed that kids should have these certain kinds of initial experiences; he also developed all sorts of educational toys known as “Fröbel Gifts.” And when you look at those “gifts,” consisting of simple sphere-shaped objects or geometric wooden blocks, you can really see how it may have had an impact on an artist like Frank Lloyd Wright. Or how Frank Gehry has spoken about his experience as a kid watching a fish swimming, and how this fascinated him. I wonder if that early experience had a great influence on the way he thinks of his fluid, curvy, yet adulating forms or wonderful fish sculptures. Ultimately, it’s not about the product you make in the studio, but rather about exposing kids early to different kinds of art experiences that stimulate their thinking.

Rail: And it wasn’t until the beginning of the century that we came to appreciate children’s art as we do with prehistoric art and the art of other cultures.

Cahill: It’s true. And it’s even better now that we have more resources and deeper understanding of how the initial experiences of children will shape who they are later in life. 

Contributor

Phong Bui

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