#WeAllDeserveArts: Noël Bella Merriam – San Antonio Museum of Art

April 2, 2021

Building Community through a Bilingual, Culturally Responsive School Partnership Program

What benefits can students gain from visiting an art museum every year that they are in elementary school? At the San Antonio Museum of Art, students from five area schools learn to connect to their own culture more deeply by learning about other world cultures, an essential foundation for building empathy. Students in SAMA’s START School Partnership program are engaged in culturally responsive learning—the partnership is specifically tailored to their needs in order to develop lifelong lovers of art and museums. Their time at the Museum is focused on close observation of art, student-centered dialogue, and tours that focus on students’ choices in each gallery.

Educators and docents are flexible, touring with small groups of 10 to 15 students to maximize each child’s opportunity for interpretation and selection of the artworks seen and discussed in the galleries. Multi-modal learning is encouraged through built-in time for drawing and writing in the galleries for older students, while younger students engage with tactile models to reinforce concepts discussed in artworks such as line, shape, and color. A key component of the START School Partnership Program is the emphasis on hands-on studio art projects completed at the Museum. This allows each student to immediately respond to their museum experience by creatively expressing big ideas they’ve investigated such as identity, power, and stories in art.

The START program is bilingual and participating students are 80% Latinx, a reflection of the city’s demographic makeup. START introduces our partner students and teachers to the transformative power of art using a multi-faceted approach that integrates art into the schools’ core curriculums. Each year SAMA coordinates with START educators to design programs for each grade level that emphasize social-emotional learning, critical thinking skills, and creative expression. Based on feedback from students and teachers, time for self-guided exploration is built into each half-day museum experience.

With an encyclopedic collection spanning 5,000 years of history and artwork from Asia, Latin America, Europe, Oceania, and the ancient Mediterranean world, SAMA provides students the opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of artistic practices, expression, and ideas. When START students bring their families to SAMA for free partner Family Days, they happily tour them through the collection on their own. This sense of belonging at the Museum is invaluable for our students and community. The START program evolved over the years—it began in 2012 and grew to serve approximately 4,500 students in nine schools. After conducting a five-year evaluation funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) SAMA scaled the program back to serve nearly 2,500 students in five schools. This smaller partnership program size allows SAMA to focus on customized experiences for START students. We also learned from the evaluation that supporting the core curriculum was not only benefit of the START program.

When surveyed, fifth-grade students recalled the story of Herakles and the Hydra that they had heard in the second grade and could describe the artistic skill required to paint a portrait. They drew pictures of artwork that had not been on display at SAMA for several years from memory, and connected the colors of a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture to their emotions. These findings helped us to realize that the true value of the START School Partnership Program is the individual and community art experiences of each student as they look at, think about, and discuss our artworks before making their own art in response. It is our responsibility to keep holding space for their wonder and imagination to flourish. 


Noel Bella Merriam is the AT&T Director of Education, Diversity, and Inclusion at the San Antonio Museum of Art. She is also the Museum Commissioner for the National Art Education Association’s (NAEA) Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission and a member of the Education Advisory Committee for the Smithsonian Latino Center. She was recently awarded Western Region Museum Education Art Educator of the Year by NAEA for 2021. The grandchild of immigrants from Nicaragua, she has devoted her career to creating equitable and inclusive spaces for arts access across Texas as a museum educator, multidisciplinary teaching artist, and instructor of visual art, creative drama, and poetry.

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