Twenty years ago, Renee Taaffe, now 61, walked into the Missoula Art Museum to investigate an ad they’d put out for a front desk person. At the time, the MAM was still in the Florence building on Higgins, in the intimate space where the Red Bird restaurant now operates.
Taaffe had taught some art classes at the MAM as a guest artist, and was familiar with its mission. She had a master’s degree in art, and had spent five years working as an art educator for high school and middle school students.
When Taaffe came in looking for a job, Laura Millin, the MAM’s executive director, told her they were also in need of an education curator: someone to develop and lead the educational programs at the museum. Taaffe took the job, she remembers, while the Canadian artist Miriam Schapiro's gallery was up.
Twenty years later, with the museum in a much larger, upgraded building, and Miriam Schapiro’s art on display again, Taaffe is retiring. Over the years, she’s helped to transform the way the museum teaches people to connect with art, and has developed educational programs for the public that make it accessible to people of all ages and abilities. She plans to leave in April.
“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve watched kids grow up,” Taaffe said. “I do have reasons to feel good about how I’ve spent my last 20 years.”
Taaffe’s job is different from teaching people how to make art. Instead of teaching processes, she taught people how to look at art and inquire about what emotions it evoked in them, building from there to the more historical and analytical pieces.
“You're teaching people ways of entry into a sometimes difficult piece of abstract, contemporary art,” Taaffe said.
During Taaffe’s tenure, the art world made a major shift, led by the education curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He realized that, despite tours with in-depth history and information about each art piece, people often didn’t remember any of it. He developed a new method, called “visual thinking strategies,” which turned the focus on the viewer.
“This way, if you can get it so there’s a real connection with what the viewer already knows, it just makes for a more meaningful experience,” Taaffe said. “And for me, getting people to relax and open up a little bit, so that they can really take some time and see the art, that works really well.”
Taaffe retrained the museum’s art guides under the new method, which wasn’t necessarily a popular process, said Millin, the MAM director.
“This VTS shift was seismic in terms of our approach, and Renee did that so gracefully,” Millin said. “I think she has a particular talent there in terms of just helping people open up to see and to experience the emotional impact of art. It’s a real talent that she has. I just love watching it. She never gets tired of it. She’s kind of youthful herself when she’s in that role. It's new for her with every single group.”
The key phrase in visual thinking strategies, Taaffe said, is, "So what’s going on in this picture?'' After answering that question, she begins to introduce people to her own background knowledge of a piece.
Over her years at the museum, Taaffe started several programs that have become staples of the MAM: the 5th grade art education program, after-school teen art workshops, weekend family art workshops. Taaffe estimates 20,000 5th graders have come through the program in the last 20 years, plus another 50,000 in the other programs.
She’s also made it a priority to expand their reach from just Missoula to surrounding rural counties, like Lake and Ravalli. Taaffe said she’s learned a ton about American Indian culture and experience through working with Native artists at the museum, and she hopes kids in her education programs gained more perspective as well.
“I think the schools still kind of think more in terms of history rather than what the Native experience is right now, and that’s something contemporary art can convey, does convey,” Taaffe said.
One of her last contributions to the museum before she leaves is a new art education program for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. Taaffe’s mother had Alzheimer’s for the last 15 years of her life, which got Taaffe thinking about how the disease progresses, and people's experience with it.
The program, which is currently monthly, invites people with Alzheimer’s and their caregiver to select several pieces of art to look at and study, and then make their own piece.
The goal is “To try to find a piece of art that’s not going to be threatening, that will be kind of welcoming, and will allow people to access their memories and their stories, and have a different type of experience than they would staying in their home,” Taaffe said.
The common thread in all of Taaffe’s programs is a desire to help people feel an emotional connection to art that might otherwise feel abstract or inaccessible.
“I always make the analogy that looking at an artwork is like meeting a new person. A person that might be from a different culture, or look differently, or be unfamiliar to you. We know with people and with art, some people immediately build walls against those people and against that artwork. And so it’s a way of kind of chipping away at that a little bit. What is an entryway into that kind of artwork? How can you start to look at it? Open your mind to it?”
After Taaffe retires, she plans to spend time with her new grandchild, focus on her own artwork, and maybe teach some classes at the museum as a guest artist. She wants to "have more fun," she said.
“She leaves a mark on a big part of what we do, and what I hope we’ll always do,” Millin said. “We’re really going to miss her. I’ll probably have to replace her with two or three people.”