My participation on the IMLS 21st Century Skills Task Force was at once intense and transformative. Intense, insofar as nearly two dozen museum and library professionals from around the nation – with widely varied backgrounds, job responsibilities, and social attitudes – were thrown together for multi-hour sessions of sometimes heated debate in a windowless room somewhere in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. The heat and intensity of those meetings were byproducts of our daunting challenge: to connect our institutions and their missions in a positive, ameliorative way to a national issue of profound strategic import, namely, the ever-widening gap between the skills our workforce brings to the marketplace and the skills that are needed to keep America competitive in the global economy. And we quickly realized that this is not simply a strategic workforce issue; it is a quality of life issue, to the extent that an increasing mismatch between the skills our society needs to function well and the skills of its workforce will necessarily take a toll on individuals and on cities. At stake is what America is to become in the 21st century.
Many of us on the taskforce followed a similar path as we learned more, and as our collective perspective evolved from one meeting to the next. Yes, this is a serious strategic issue and yes, as public institutions, we do bear an obligation to enter the fray. But at that point, each of us was obliged to confront some fundamental questions: Is this new strategic educational agenda for my library or museum consistent with its mission? Does my institution have the hard assets and the professional capacity to play a meaningful role in addressing the 21st Century Skills challenge? And if not, how can those assets and skills be acquired? And even more importantly, what is my role, as the director of a museum or a library, in creating an institution-wide “culture” in which a deeply felt sense of obligation and urgency will compel us collectively toward critical self-assessment and a strategy for change?
Out of this crucible of critical thinking emerged for me a vision for the Walters Art Museum. Immediately I saw free access, rich historical collections, a public mission, and a superb education staff already attuned to the importance of the 21st Century Skills challenge as real pluses for the Walters. And certainly, Baltimore City, to which the museum was gifted in 1931 “for the benefit of the public,” is as needy as any city in America. We clearly have work to do, and we have assets in place to bring to bear on that work. But even with all of these positive ingredients in place, my work was, and remains, daunting and varied: first, to build a broader and deeper sense of ownership of the 21st Century Skills issue across all facets of the Walters, from security officers to trustees and then to integrate the IMLS self-assessment tool into our strategic planning; and second, to build institutional alliances across Baltimore City in order to leverage the Walters’ assets though partnerships with those who can contribute in ways we cannot, so that together we can effect deeper and more systemic change in our community.
We are now in conversation with two Baltimore institutions whose talents and assets we believe will converge with ours in the service of young children at risk – through formal, art-infused education in the classroom and through informal art-infused education at the museum. One partner is a regional nonprofit called AEMS (Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance), which has been a national leader in arts integration. The other is the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which, in collaboration with the university’s School of Education, set a visionary agenda to be a national leader in bringing neuroscience to bear on issues of early childhood development. This is a work in progress, but my hope is that the Walters, AEMS, and the Brain Science Institute along with the School of Education will come together in a truly exciting and innovative collaboration for addressing 21st Century Skills among the challenged children of this challenged city.