Teaching and learning about art/visual culture occur within an array of formal, non-formal, and informal contexts with a variety of purposes: educational, religious, therapeutic, recreational, cultural, social, political, and commercial, among others. That art education takes place within many different social and economic arrangements means that the field as a whole is characterized by multiple practices and complex relationships among providers, making it difficult to conceptualize overall. My goal is to contribute to a conversation about how one might envision the field of art education in a way that embraces its multifaceted and sometimes unruly and fractious landscape. In addition, I consider ways in which macro and micro conditions frame educational contexts and therefore possibilities for practice. Arguments draw on sociological perspectives and empirical evidence.
I take the work of art educator June King McFee (1986) and her discussion of an art education "network" as a starting point and suggest that she both raises important issues about, and establishes a premise for, viewing our field with a wide lens. I then extend and embellish an understanding of such a network using, among others, the work of Pierre Bourdieu on the field of cultural production (1993) and Etienne Wenger (1998/1999) on communities of practice. Finally I use research from a study conducted in a non-formal setting, a community recreation center, to illustrate the extent to which internal and external conditions influence the nature of practice within a particular site. I suggest on one hand that there is much to be gained from taking a broad view of art education, and particularly from acknowledging the vast number of out-of-school domains for art learning. On the other, I assert that the diverse contexts of our field do not merely offer a selection of alternative locations for art experience, but rather they provide a set of unique orientations to practice in which art education takes on distinct meanings. These practices in turn delimit possibilities for learning.
More than 15 years ago, McFee (1986) posed the question, "What is art education and what constitutes it as a field of inquiry and practice?" (p. 7). She suggested that the realm of art education could be construed as a kind of network composed of many sites, including but not limited to the institutions of schooling. Prior to McFee's article, "Describing the Network Called Art Education" (1986), the field's literature focused primarily on K-12 art education in public schools. McFee's conception, however, targeted art activity for all ages and included museums and galleries, community and recreation centers, and rehabilitation settings (such as prisons, nursing or seniors' homes, and sites of art therapy), as well as formal schooling. The list might also include informal and non-formal art educational activities that occur through child care services; social groups and clubs; night schools; the media; private businesses; self-directed study; community-based programming generated by artists and artists' organizations; and those fostered by family members, mentors, etc. In any case, McFee charged art educators with the task of describing all aspects of this network and chastised us for getting caught up in insular and often competitive positions:
Such describing needs to be continuous. The fact that we have done so little of it may be the reason we are having such a hard time defending the field today. We have spent too much time arguing from our different points of view, rather than identifying what we include. (McFee, p.7)
McFee notes six categories that need description: the operations we share, the common and distinct goals that characterize our work, the range of disciplines from which we draw, the methods and strategies we use, the agencies that frame our practice, and the social currents that influence operations. She argues that acknowledging this broader network and understanding the various institutional roles and social patterns that affect art education will ultimately strengthen our field. …