Letter to a Future Arts Educator (2021)

Letter to a Future Arts Educator

To be delivered on June 30, 2121

Dear friend,

I am writing to you from a place of unknowing — in the sense that I am not able in the least to predict what might happen in the future when you will be reading this letter. I do not know what new technologies might be developed, or what paradigm shifts will take place in the decades to come. I am also not certain whether there will be a future— so in a way this letter is hopeful.

I have thus pondered how I can speak to you, an interlocutor who does not yet exist, someone whose grandparents have probably not even been born. I probably belong to the generation of your great-great-grandparents. With that in mind, it is almost certain that my insights about museum education will be useless to you, but I still hope there is something I might offer that can contribute to your thinking. I will present it to you in the form of two reflections. One pertains to the autonomy of arts education, and the other pertains to the unexpected aspects of the role we play in constructing our future.


I want first to acknowledge the fact that, if history is any guide, the time I live in today will be seen from your vantage point as a quaint, perhaps simpler era. The past always looks flatter than the present, and perhaps given that the way nature conditions our way of understanding time as a process of development, we all in the past look a bit like children to those in the present. It is in essence a perception constructed by our projection of lack of knowledge. I am at a disadvantage with you because I do not know what will be known in your time, but you will very well know what was known to us, the last generation of artists who produced art in the XXth century. For you, who now live in the 22nd century, that world must feel as distant to you as the 19th century is to me today.

What you will never know is what it felt like to exist in this moment. We all are like the character in the thought experiment known as “Mary’s Room.” The thought experiment is this: Mary is a scientist who has never been in the color world. She lives in a black and white room, where she studies and learns everything there is to know about color. The question posited by the thought experiment is: if Mary steps out of the room and sees color for the first time, is there something she might learn that she didn’t know before?

I make this analogy only to explain I may not be able to convey those feelings but at least I hope you can read my words with the understanding that I am communicating them from the standpoint of that incommunicable experience. This is another way of saying that in fact this letter that I am writing is based on a principle of mutual unknowing — not only of me not knowing who you are but of you not knowing also who I truly was.

What seems important to me is to articulate what our main challenge has been in terms of communication. I am part of the last analog generation in the world; the last generation that experienced a world without personal computers, without the internet, without social media. We currently live at a time when interconnectivity, in a technological way, has never been easier. At the same time, we have never felt more alienated. We can speak to each other anywhere in the world in an instant; yet we have never felt more misunderstood. The vehicles of technology, inasmuch as they allow us to manage an existence as avatars, embolden those who are otherwise timid to express their most violent and cruel thoughts. We have learned, the hard way, that translatability has nothing to do with understanding.

In the meantime, art institutions are run by leaders whose values were built in the 20th century. Whenever I, as museum art educator, advocated for socially engaged practices, I would be told by my museum director that instead I needed to think in terms of a “relational museum.” At best what that meant was that I needed to give priority to artists who still operated under the philosophies of late Modernism, Postmodernism and process art to create experiences, ostensibly more interactive, but which in general continued to use the public as a consumer — or in its worst cases, a vehicle for the artist’s purposes. The entire conversation made me realize the extent to which museums, as the historical institutions they are, have difficulties adjusting to new times.

We feel we have made slow progress in terms of social and racial equity, but structures of status based on white supremacy in our world constantly stall us. We are instructed to bow to royalty in its many forms and to the ideas of supremacy because the amount of time they have been around make them tradition, and one should not question tradition. In other words, something that is unjust, or plainly a lie, is difficult to tear down because it has such deep roots in the social history of the world.

Because I often felt myself unable to dismantle these structures, I once confessed to a friend, in a moment of brutal candor, that I felt that art education is a failed profession. Something that is meant to be a form of dismantling systems of power often tends to perpetuate them under the guise of learning. It is so difficult for us right now to distinguish critical thinking from indoctrination because our blind spots are so ingrained in our thinking and our acting. It will take decades for us to gain clarity. I sincerely hope I am wrong in that sentiment— one that surprises me when I utter it, and yet one that feels so authentic and sincere at this time. I also hope that, as you read this, you will have that clarity and will be able to smile about the concerns I am expressing right now.

Given those concerns, and I hope your generation might have resolved them by the time you read this letter, I now understand that the true challenge of art education is how to foster and nurture thinking that is independent from and even critical of the institutions that need it, instead of being something that is produced from within them and subject to their internal hierarchies. We should consider ourselves successful if we can raise a new generation that will make our generation irrelevant.


When I was a teenager I wrote a diary to myself, meant to be read in an imaginary future age. Many decades later I found those diaries and read the pleas of my younger self, asking me to understand him, to forgive his romanticism and his naiveté around the ideas he then had about art and life. I read those lines with embarrassment, but I do not laugh. Instead, I feel great compassion.

I do hope that you read my lines with similar spirit here, as I leave you with a reflection on the role that, in my view, we write and act in our own social art scripts through the passage of time — again, with the hopes that this might be useful to you.

I often think of Mrs. Wilson, a character in Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park. She is the head housekeeper in an English mansion, and she says the following words in a climatic moment of the film:

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.

When we say that an artist “is ahead of their time,” we are revealing a series of assumptions about art and the future. One is that the artist has that “gift of anticipation,” that the artist instinctively captures the zeitgeist of a particular period and anticipates much of what will be thought or felt.

Artist thinking is not methodical but instinctive, and its hopefulness is rooted not in the promise of the future, but in the end their true concern is making sense of the immediate past, of the circumstantial present. The artist, in this sense, strives to become the perfect servant of futurity; trying to learn the gift of anticipation, and thus write the next chapter in the conversation of art.

This connects with a story in my life as an educator and the future.

In 1969, curator Edward F. Fry organized a series of lectures at the Guggenheim Museum. The invitation read: “A look at the changing ways of understanding and interpreting art and communications from the viewpoint of the Artist, the Critic, the Art Historian, the Psychologist, the Architect, the Sociologist, and the Historian.”

The lectures included philosopher Herbert Marcuse, behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner, sculptor Jack Burnham, theorist and writer Annette Michelson, historian Arnold Toynbee, architect Louis Kahn, and artist James Seawright. These lectures were compiled and published as a book entitled On the Future of Art. A future, one might add, envisioned entirely by white people, six men and a woman.

This book happened to be translated two years later, into Spanish, by a small publishing house named “Extemporáneos,” which in English means “extemporaneous,” which literally means “out of time.” The small edition had little success, and it quickly disappeared from circulation, with only a few copies making it into used bookstores in downtown Mexico City.

In 1985 there is a violent earthquake in Mexico City. This event propels a teenager to explore the city’s downtown as a volunteer for relief efforts. He is an eager art student and, as he wanders around the old streets, going into used bookstores to search for gold, trying to find anything connected to the subject of art that he can learn from, he finds a book entitled “Sobre el futuro del arte.”

The teenager looks at the book and, for the first time, sees incomprehensible yet fascinating images of contemporary (white, male, anglo American) art: works by Sol Lewitt, Dan Flavin, and a piece by Dennis Oppenheim entitled Pennsylvania Wheat Field, 1968, that looks like an open field; there isn’t much of an explanation. Is the artwork just a photograph of the field? What is to be read in that landscape?

It is unclear — but in history one never knows what the definitive cause is of what— if the geological shifts caused or were a defining force in the series of events that followed, insignificant except in the life of that teenager, but representative perhaps, of what the future of art is thought to be, what it actually becomes, what happens in an original time and place and how it is translated or mistranslated.

The teenager holds on to the book and many years go by. He travels far and due to the usual serendipity of related events in life, he moves to Chicago to study art, becomes an artist and an educator, gets a job in a museum, and later, wanting to move to New York, lands a job at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where his job is to organize the museum’s lectures. At some point he is working, doing research in the museum library, – and he finds a book entitled “On the Future of Art.” He recognizes the title, unaware, or perhaps having forgotten, that the book was published by the Guggenheim Museum. As he opens the book and rereads the introduction, a chill goes through his body: he realizes this book is the result of a series of lectures organized at the museum by someone who had the job he now has. He holds in his hands a book that through the circumstances of time, translation and distance carried a message that landed in the hands of a teenager who initiated a trajectory that eventually landed him, as if in a circle, at the exact place where the message had been created, indirectly and invisibly helping complete a future.

So, I became the future of that past, and the collection of fulfilled or unfulfilled expectations that that past had of us; the confirmation or negation of things those lecturers imagined we would be. At the same time, we are also the past of a yet undefined future in which many of us will be invisible. I am the past of your future. What brings us together is our mutual intangibility. You, who do not exist yet, are invisible to us as we will be invisible to you. This is because the future of art will include a handful of facts, names and things, but for the most part will be, as it always is, forgetfulness.

My larger point is this:

We of course can’t predict the future. We only know that it will eventually, hopefully come, with or without us, and so we need to choose to prepare ourselves for that fact, for we have no need to prepare for a world with no future. And because our efforts will be wasted on making predictions, we need to focus our learning on developing as many languages of action and methods as possible, on becoming versatile, so that we can adapt to the changing world in the best possible way. Our survival is dependent on our adaptability, not on the certainty or falsity of our beliefs.

There is one last, crucial thing that I have learned from my education colleagues over the years, particularly those who are not artists like me, and who have shown to me their selflessness, their generosity, and the acknowledgment that they are not better than anyone else; and particularly while they recognize that knowledge is power, they only seek a democratic, not individual, kind of empowerment as the basis of progress.

The great weakness that we have as artists born in the 20th century is that we still carry the baggage of Romanticism. We have a great difficulty not seeing the world without ourselves at the center, and by extension, it is hard not to see knowledge as a way to be above others. Furthermore, old ideas about education keep the perception that learning in art is dependent on fixed objects, ideas and people. When we attach ourselves into those fixed objects, learning instead becomes religion, and education instead becomes theology. We thus need to abandon objectivity and turn into faith. We are told, coerced to believe that art that today appears to us racist, sexist or in violation of other values that we subscribe to in our contemporary life needs instead to be accepted as great art due to the canonical articles of faith.

The role of education in this sense is to never succumb to the self-centeredness of the artistic self, nor to the servicing of those canonical articles of faith. Instead, our role is to promote a collective sense of self, valuing every individual perspective, while at the same time promoting a critical reflection on the art of the past. We need to do this with compassion (as I previously illustrated while referencing the voice of my young self) but also without justifications, such as saying that those who were before us were simply “people of their time.”

It is my hope that you will read these lines from a world where the constraints that were once placed onto the transformational discipline of human learning are no longer in place. And if you feel they still trap you, I hope that you might be able to translate my thinking and my concerns to your present moment to help pave the path for future generations to correct this wrong — an unfortunate legacy of our complex cultural history.

Sincerely yours,

Pablo Helguera

One Response to “Letter to a Future Arts Educator (2021)”

  1. Cathie Behrend says:


    Thank you for this provocative and thoughtful letter to a future art educator. I wanted to hear you and Tom in person tonight but I have another event.

    You had the critical book experience in the Mexican book store, I met art educator Victor D’Amico when I was five years old. Every month my mother and I would come over to MOMA from Philadelphia to take Victor’s collage class for very young children. Teachers and parents would watch us from behind a rear view mirror. We were provided with the most exquisite materials to play with and to imagine our own shapes and objects. The materials I recall were scraps found on the streets of nyc as left overs in bolts
    of colorful punched metallic pieces, fabulous feathers, yards of felts squares of assorted hues, pipe cleaners, shiny papers and glue. At that time the garment industry and others threw out these incredible “scraps” To this day I cherish that memory and that sensation of making art.

    PS: Victor had been my mom’s teacher at Fieldston ethical culture school before coming to MOMA to start its art education dept. little did I know that when I was getting my MA in Art at NYU decades later, Victor would be teaching art education there. Full circle.

    So yes I know personally the lifelong impact of childhood art educational experiences and exposure.

    Question: what policies programs funding priorities do we need to advocate for and hopefully implement if we do not want to wait 100 years?

    As a long-standing Boardmember at the 92Y and other organizations, a past Deputy Director at Percent for Art, an economic developmemt and government operations professional appointed under 6 Mayors and a recently retired adjunct at FIT and NYU, how can I assist you and your proclaimed values for art education?

    Thank you for taking the time to write this challenging letter.

    Please let me know if I can assist you in your current and future endeavors.

    Cathie Behrend