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10,000 Elementary Schoolers Enhanced by Art Education Through Cooley Gallery

They come galloping across the canyon bridge in a shrieking tidal wave of enthusiasm—two-dozen third-graders on a field trip to Reed’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery. As they approach the entrance to the Hauser Library, they swarm around Greg MacNaughton ’89, the official shepherd of the Open Gallery program.

“Greg! We saw a heron in the canyon!” “I told you it wasn’t a pelican.” “Yeah, it was a blue heron!” A word from Greg renders them instantly silent. He welcomes them back to the gallery in a calm, lilting tone, explaining that they’ll be building on the introduction to the calligraphy of Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929–69] that he gave them a day before. Stepping into the gallery, he leads them into another world—a world they might otherwise never venture.

Gallery director Stephanie Snyder ’91 founded the Open Gallery program in 2004, with the goal of offering free, rigorous education in art and art history to local schoolchildren at a time when public schools were slashing their art programs. The gallery has since engaged more than 10,000 students from Portland public schools. The program is primarily grant funded by the generosity of Oregon Cultural Trust, the Jackson Foundation, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the Robert Lehman Foundation, and the Reed College President’s Fund.

“The Open Gallery program offers K-12 students the chance to engage in close, sustained observation of a wide variety of contemporary and historical works of art,” Stephanie says.

Stephanie and Greg first met as students at Reed. Years later, when she was looking for someone to help with the gallery’s outreach efforts, she thought of him. He worked for many years as a case manager for homeless youths, often using art as a way to broach ethical and philosophical issues and a way to rekindle their interest in returning to school. Stephanie succeeded in securing his position as the Cooley’s education outreach coordinator thanks to Reed’s commitment to reaching out to Portland kids.

This day’s students hail from Grout Elementary in Southeast Portland, which offers no art classes at all. They spill into the gallery with impressive familiarity, sitting on the floor to discuss the myriad objects representing Reynolds’s life and work. It was their third visit to the gallery that year. By building close ties with local schools, Greg brings students back to the gallery again and again, cementing the principles of Reed’s conference-based approach to exploring art.

There is something about Reynolds’s mastery that captures the imaginations of the students--the drawings of skulls, the delicate scripts, the reed pens and hand-carved puppets. One asks what happened to Reynolds. “Did he die,” she asks carefully, “or retire?”

Greg explained that he did both, though in reverse order. But in his hands, simple queries such as these can be used as departure points for deeper questions. Does a work of art end with the artist? Is art always beautiful? How can two rectangles look like a barn? Soon the dialogue begins to sound a bit like a freshmen humanities conference—a model Stephanie and Greg kept in mind when they designed the program.

“We’re hooked,” said Grout teacher Jonathon Fischer. “We’d never be able to do something like this at our school—there’s just no money. But we can walk 10 minutes across the soccer field and get this amazing experience!” Fischer is particularly impressed by Greg’s ability to talk to students from a wide variety of backgrounds—72 percent of Grout’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and 22 percent speak a language besides English at home. “I’ve seen other teachers flounder,” Fischer marvels, “but he never loses it.”

By providing serious, hands-on engagement, the program challenges the conventional exclusivity of the art world. “I’m extremely proud of that,” Greg smiles. In an era where public school budgets are cut to the bone, it is hard to imagine where else these students would get a chance to experience extraordinary works of art—not to mention the library’s Dr. Seuss bathroom.