Sheetal Prajapati

MoMA educational programming professional reflects on 2015 Study Tour to Paris, Lyon

April 3, 2015

Sheetal PrajapatiSheetal Prajapati, Assistant Director of Learning and Artists Initiatives Museum of Modern Art in New York, joined a group of cultural administrators from New York, on the reciprocal study tour to Paris and Lyon March 16-20 as part of the Fostering Creativity & Innovation: Arts, Education & The Economy program. The 2015 study tour took place in Paris and Lyon, France featuring successful initiatives that foster creative (and cultural) entrepreneurship; socially responsible, sustainable, and innovative creative businesses; interdisciplinary approaches and collaborations across academic institutions and fields of practice; and innovative educational models and ecosystems. The study tour was part of the Courants exchanges of French and American cultural administrators, organized for more than ten years in partnership with the French Ministry of Culture and Communication and with the support of the Florence Gould Foundation and Air France, to bring together cultural professionals from the two nations to examine priorities and trends in their field of expertise. To learn more about the Courants program, click here

Sheetal Prajapati is a museum and arts professional with over 13 years of field experience and currently serves as the Assistant Director for Learning and Artists Initiatives at The Museum of Modern Art (New York). In this newly developed role in the department of education, Sheetal spearheads new initiatives and programs, exploring experimental pedagogical strategies for learning and public engagement. Her practice at MoMA includes artist collaborations, field research, and process-oriented interpretation.

Sheetal has served in advisory and consulting capacities for institutions across the United States including the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (California), the American Alliance of Museums (Washington D.C), Museum of Fine Arts Houston (Texas), and the Montclair Art Museum (New Jersey) amongst others. She regularly sits on grant panels for a range of institutions including the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Washington D.C.), Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (Ohio), The Joyce Foundation (Illinois) and the Department of Cultural Affairs in Chicago.

Currently, Sheetal is a member of a national consortium of advisors for Open Engagement, an annual international conference on art and social practice. With artist Ariana Jacob, she has curated the conversation series for the 2014 and upcoming 2015 conference. She was an invited teaching artist in residence at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India in November and December 2014 and is currently developing an artist book based on her time there.

Sheetal has spoken and led workshops at national conferences and institutions on topics including art education, audience development, social practice, creative pedagogy, management, and career development. Prior to her position at MoMA, she was the Director of Educational Programs at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). Sheetal earned her MA in Arts Administration and Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BA in History and Gender Studies from Northwestern University.

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Can you tell us about a memorable meeting or exchange in France, and the insights it generated? 
The most memorable meeting in France took place on the last day in Paris. We spent an afternoon in an open and interesting dialogue with representatives from the government ministry and the French delegates who traveled to New York in December 2014.

Sitting together, we had a rich conversation about the important role that culture and creativity play in creating active citizenship, community building, and economic development. I was especially struck how common our goals for art and innovations were between France and the United States. We spoke about how to make the arts more accessible, ways in which innovation can invigorate communities, and how the arts can play a critical role in developing the next generation of innovators.

The conversation was exciting and invigorating, and the most memorable part of the afternoon was finding colleagues and fellow instigators in the France delegates – educators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders all working to situate the arts and innovation at the center of economic and social development.

How did participating in the Foundation’s Courants program complement your work at MoMA?
The exchange program addressed new ways for me to consider best practices in my current work at MoMA.

Primarily, it reinforced the criticality of interdisciplinary collaboration for innovation and engagement. In work at the museum, collaboration is a foundational element of our process in the development of experiences for public engagement. Equally important in our thinking is the connection art can make to the world around us – these touch points can connect creativity to disciplines like math, science, and technology.

The most exciting instances of innovation during the trip were the people and places particularly interested in fostering collaboration amongst a wide range of fields. For example, I was excited to hear about the Ministry’s Plaine Commune project. This cooperative project amongst nine towns in the Greater Paris area aimed to foster growth in the region by addressing issues of urban development, city planning, and economic growth through culture and creativity. The project in many ways was responsive to the makeup of the region – collaborating the artists and creatives living there, making a strong tie to the community. Plaine Commune, through its cooperation, is creating an important space for expertise in a range of fields to come into dialogue with one another for community development.

The exchange program also addressed the great potential for informal learning environments in the 21st century. Museums in the United States offer a range of programmatic experiences for the public through education. Working in the area of public programs, we are largely free of any standardized curriculum for developing learning programs. This allows us to experiment and stretch what and how we faclilitate engagement in a non-traditional learning environment. For art museums, their collections and exhibitions provide an important framework for programming, but we also think about the larger field of creative practice, celebrating and fostering creativity in all disciplines. We believe our mission is to foster the “lifelong learner” – to encourage everyone’s own sense of curiosity at any age. From peer learning and mentoring to co-working spaces and networking events, the exchange program provided a number of examples of organizations offering diverse frameworks to foster business development, production, design, and even skills building. Parallel to the work I do in the U.S., it was great to see the many ways these programs and experiences were structured, offering a multitude of learning platforms (from social to technical) for the curious and ambitious creative entrepreneur.

Can you briefly expand on differences between France and the United States, in terms of cultural/artistic innovation and entrepreneurship?
The most salient difference between the Art and Innovation industry in France and the United States centers around funding structures for art and design. In the United States, there is a robust and long tradition of private sector investment in creative non-profits, start-ups, and more recently technology and innovation- from corporations and foundations to individuals. Today, museums, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and even the most prestigious universities continue to draw a majority of their support from private entities for new initiatives and projects.

In France, we learned that the challenge is in fact the opposite in many ways. Government funding seems to be at center of financial support for the arts and business development. The organizations we visited were largely focused on creating a new culture of private and corporate investment in arts and culture by making connections between entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic development. The aim was to move away from public funding models in favor of more focused, less restricted support from the private sector. In some cases, these institutions were founded with public funds but actively working to privatize their revenue stream over time.

These differences can be partially attributed to the cultural, political, and social understandings about the role and responsibilities of government in these respective countries. The trends in art and innovation however is a common one across the globe. No matter the existing structures, communities, states, and nations are looking to arts and innovation as a significant area for potential growth. The difference in funding and support structures only emphasized that we, as creative leaders in enterprise, still shared common goals for development.

The Courants program aims to foster an exchange of best practices and networking opportunities for French and American cultural professionals. In what ways do these types of exchanges benefit current cultural/artistic fields and professions in the United States?
Globally, the space between us is shrinking while the potential around us is expanding. Technology has bred new levels of connectivity – amongst people, content, and causes.

Programs like this present professionals in the field of Art and Innovation with the possibility of creating sustained dialogue around best practices, resource sharing, and so much more.

For the field in the United States, these types of exchanges provide professionals a way to understand how arts and innovation can be both cultural and geographically specific while also offering windows into shared opportunities and challenges.