Zoom Conversations about Visual Art

How VTS Moved Online, Reached an Even Wider Audience, and Is Leveraging for Social Change

by Kabir Singh (he/him), VTS Trainer & Manager of Online Learning

I am one of the trainers for Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), the arts education professional development program within Commonweal. I am based in Los Angeles and I worked as an art museum educator for close to a decade before joining the staff of VTS in 2018. In addition to being the name of our program, VTS is a facilitation method used by K-12 classroom teachers, college and university professors, museum educators, healthcare professionals, and many others to teach critical thinking through conversations with their students about visual art.

I have used the VTS method in my museum teaching practice since 2010, mostly at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), but also at other museums across Los Angeles County. Now as a VTS trainer, I lead professional development workshops teaching educators how to use the VTS method with learners in their specific contexts. Before the global pandemic, these workshops took place primarily in schools and museums, but our team had to make adjustments to our work to continue to serve our communities during a time of remote learning. We were uncertain how this transition would go, but the results were beyond what we could have hoped: moving VTS events and workshops online not only helped us to continue to serve the communities we already worked with, but it also allowed us to expand our reach across the globe and to parts of the United States where he had not been active before.

VTS Look Club – Online! Image Discussion with Kabir Singh, May 2020. Image from the VTS Curriculum: Aliza Nisenbaum, Las Talaveritas, 2015, Mary Mary, Glasgow, Scotland.

The VTS method centers learners and supports community building through facilitated discussions. A facilitator asks open-ended questions that invite learners to freely share their thoughts about works of art. Through careful listening, a facilitator paraphrases learner ideas, prompts learners to cite visual evidence, and connects convergent and divergent ideas of the group. A facilitator’s goal is not for the group to reach any specific conclusion, or to think like each other, but to encourage learners to listen to each other’s ideas, to deepen their close looking and critical thinking, and to gain comfort with ambiguity. Having participated in numerous VTS conversations with my colleagues at VTS, and with my former MOCA colleagues, I can vouch firsthand on how listening to others’ ideas about a work of art can help form a sense of community.

Prior to March 2020, however, every single VTS conversation I had led or taken part in had been in person. While I had experienced many VTS conversations with digital reproductions of artworks projected onto screens, the participants of the discussion and the facilitator were always in the same room and in each other’s physical presence. As we embarked on a shift in our work, we asked ourselves: how could we maintain that same sense of community if we were to lead VTS conversations over Zoom? 

While we still had much to learn, we also realized that we had some of the answers already in front of us. We are a national team, with trainers located in Portland, Oregon; Sonoma County, California; Los Angeles; Tucson, Arizona; and New York City. Although I have spent time with each of my colleagues in person, when we have traveled together on assignment, or convened in one city for a summer institute, I have actually spent more time over video conference with most of my colleagues than I have been in the same space with them. So our questions actually became: how would we translate the online community building we had already done within our team to brand new online programs for the learning communities we work with over Zoom? And, what benefits or added value might we find?

Robyn Muscardini, VTS Trainer & Interim Director; Em Miller, VTS Trainer & Operations Manager; and I set out to answer these questions with the creation of VTS Look Club – Online. Robyn has hosted an in-person VTS Look Club at her local museum, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, since 2018. Both in-person and online, a VTS Look Club is an opportunity to come together as a community and practice looking, talking, listening, and engaging with art and each other.

Beginning in April 2020, we initially scheduled six sessions of the VTS Look Club – Online. I planned that for each one-hour session, we would have a little time to greet each other, to introduce the Zoom tools necessary for VTS online, and to have two VTS image discussions. Beyond that, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Who would come? Would they feel comfortable enough with the technology to participate in the discussions? Would they enjoy themselves enough to want to return?

VTS Look Club – Online! April 2020.

What followed was beyond my wildest imagination of what a free, weekly space for online discussions of visual artworks could be. Since we began VTS Look Club – Online, we have welcomed 300 new individuals into the VTS community from around the world. Participants have joined from across the United States, as well as from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Zimbabwe. Many participants return week after week.

It turns out that careful listening and paraphrasing to support learners—the skills we teach that are essential to our VTS practice—translate over Zoom. Just like with my colleagues, several of the people who come each week to VTS Look Club – Online are people that I have spent some time working with in person. But many are individuals that I have come to know only online. I frequently say to participants, “It’s good to see you each week!” I have come to feel so connected to this group of individuals, even though I have not met many of them in person.

After we began offering our first online programs in April, I have taken on the role of Manager of Online Learning, and I now develop and teach in our new suite of online workshops and manage VTS Look Club – Online. In June, Em Miller and I co-led our first VTS Beginner Practicum – Online, our first online professional development to teach educators to use the VTS method. Em managed the VTS Online Summer Series 2020 this July, a virtual conference that allowed practitioners in our community an opportunity to share their work with each other. Coming up this October, VTS Trainer Amy Chase Gulden and I will lead our first VTS Advanced Practicum – Online, the second workshop in our professional development series. 

Kris Grey at VTS Look Club – Online! Image courtesy: Kris Grey.

As we continue to build and maintain community online, we are also working on ways in which we can support educators to do antiracist work. I have previously written in Site-Specific: The Journal of Visual Thinking Strategies, that VTS “is not explicitly an antiracist curriculum.” I, however, recently heard and appreciated the words of Kris Grey, Visiting Artist and Assistant Teaching Professor, Penn State School of Visual Arts, in their talk at the VTS & Higher Education session of the VTS Online Summer Series 2020. Kris is a member of the VTS community and also frequent guest host and facilitator of VTS Look Club – Online. They framed the potential power of VTS to support this work in this way:

“Although VTS isn’t necessarily an anti-oppression practice in and of itself, it’s a powerful tool that can support you if, like me, you’re trying to use every platform as a place to leverage for social change.” 

Thus, for educators dedicated to building communities that work toward social change together, VTS can support that work.

Whether VTS is in person or online, we are focused on centering people and their ideas. Everyday we continue to learn about new possibilities for supporting our communities remotely.

Curious about VTS? We encourage you to register for this month’s series of VTS Look Club – Online, which we offer for free every Wednesday. Times change monthly to accommodate different time zones. Use the same Zoom link to join as many or as few sessions as you would like to attend in one month.

If you would like to donate to Visual Thinking Strategies to support VTS Look Club – Online and its other online programs, you can do so here.