A Spotlight on Wex Educators: Dionne Custer Edwards

Diana Gerber

Apr 07, 2015

Our Education team is integral to extending the reach of our multi-disciplinary programs to audiences both in and out of schools. We are delighted to shine a spotlight on our educators as part of the Wexner Center’s 25th anniversary celebration.
Dionne Custer Edwards is a writer, artist-educator, and our educator for school programs. She runs the Wexner Center’s Pages, WorldView, and Expanded Classroom programs, among others. She and Development Assistant Diana Gerber jumped into a conversation about arts education.

DG: Describe your goals for the programs you run.
DCE: That’s huge! Where do I start? The objectives are ongoing. There’s never a point where I say, “OK, I’ve done all I need to do in arts education!” [Dusts off hands.] Arts- [and] text-based literacy are both running through my mind. I like to program with a bit of a justice mindset, if you will, and I’m constantly thinking about how to create these spaces of equity and justice within these arts spaces or these creative spaces.

DG: What to you is going to indicate that your program is successful?
DCE: There are multiple indicators. I look around the room: are folks engaged? I think you can know if someone’s engaged. Are they talking to each other? Are they excited? I want to see folks laughing or smiling, crying. I like to stir up emotion in programming. And I like to be emotionally overcome, or in awe. I like students and teachers to get stuck. I like them to be stuck and get unstuck.

DG: When you say “stuck,” do you mean stuck on an idea, or…?
DCE: Mmhmm. Yeah, like stuck [freezes, then continues], “this is what I thought about this particular idea, this concept, this thing, even an image.” Then all of a sudden…I can see in the galleries when they are stuck, they’re really processing, they’re critically thinking. I see a student stuck on an idea that an artist is stuck on, using their medium—their paint, their film, their bodies, their sounds—to think their way through something. So maybe being stuck in something is being still for a moment. That, to me, is an indicator of success. You don’t reach a point where you’re done!

DG: “Now I’m a successful Art-Looker.”
DCE: Exactly! It truly is a process, and it is ongoing, and I hope that the programming we do here in the Education Department reinforces that in some way for the audiences we serve.

DG: I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about a top moment, and I’m sure that there are many.
DCE: Oh my goodness. There’s a lot. One of the things that stands out maybe most recently is our process in Blues for Smoke. [Editor’s note: the Education Department ran a series of café roundtables for staff and docents devoted to creating respectful, aware, and healthy gallery conversations about depictions of race and African-American experience in Blues for Smoke artworks.] We are really not used to having some of those conversations around diversity and around difference in the way that Blues for Smoke presented. And I was moved by the collaboration, the amount of heartfelt growth. We all got stuck. Blues for Smoke felt like a catalyst to continue to think about a culture of inclusivity. It was moving, the way we said, “We want to talk about this work the way it deserves to be talked about. We want to honor this work.” These artists are very critical!

DG: Yes, it’s interesting to pull that out as a highlight because it was difficult to go through a process of being humbled and admit to needing to learn about conversing about something. I agree, we did get stuck there, and very positively.

I’m curious to know how your understanding of art education has shifted during your time here at the Wexner Center.
DCE: I came to the Wexner Center as a writer. I had worked with the Wexner Center beforehand as an artist-in-residence. Coming here deepened my understanding for the profession. We’re a year out from programming, and we’re researching right now, things that we’re interested in, based on what’s happening around us in life, based on some of the artists and what they’re thinking about, and working on, and questioning. Arts education—my work in grad school, my work here at the center—all underscored the value of research. All of the programs I do are heavily researched. We’re here at the university, so that’s foundational in my program area. Art education is about thinking about themes and concepts and ideas, wrapping them in and around an exhibition—or performance or a film, in our case. Pushing through that art work, through that experience, in a way that is just multi-faceted. And you’re not going to get tested on this. Right? And we could say “oh no, we’re not doing brain surgery here.” But we’re doing some brain work! Brain work, heart work, mind work. [There is] depth.

DG: What artworks in any medium would you want others to see?
It’s been quite a few years, but I will never forget the mesmerizing and poignant solo performance by Bill T. Jones. Other memorable Wex moments include performances, films, and exhibitions respectively: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal’s Chico & Rita, Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, and so many brilliant visual artists and exhibitions including the artists in Part Object Part Sculpture and Shiny, Glenn Ligon’s Some Changes, Mark Bradford, many of the artists included in Blues for Smoke, and works by artists Kara Walker, Félix González-Torres, William Kentridge, and Elliot Hundley.