Artist in Residence

Students from two Valley high schools get mentored by a world-renowned artist—thanks to an innovative program at the Getty Center.

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    Karen Jordan

Few artists reach the accolades and acclaim that Barbara Kruger has achieved. The conceptional artist, known for her large-scale installations that address social and political issues, was honored at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual “Art +Film Gala” held in November. Director Quentin Tarantino was another honoree at the glamorous event, which was also attended by celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Kanye West.

But it was students—a group from Chatsworth Charter High School—who captivated Barbara’s attention one afternoon in December. The students sat silently as she peppered them with questions.

“What does advocacy mean to you?” she asked the crowd. “What about fear? What do you fear?”

The class of nearly 40 juniors and seniors initially seemed reluctant to respond. “Everyone was shy,” senior Robert Zolfaghari explains. “We’re not used to an adult of that high prestige coming.”

The visit was part of a project that Barbara designed after being chosen by the Getty Center for its annual Artists Program. As the selected artist, she was asked to create and implement a “passion” project, which the Getty project team would help organize. Barbara chose to work with LAUSD students on a series of critical thinking projects, naming her project Whose Values?

The Getty project identified the humanities programs at both Chatsworth and Grover Cleveland Charter high schools as excellent matches for the themes central to Barbara’s work—including social justice, race and identity. She has been working with the students since November.

“I just really believe in the importance of public education,” Barbara says. “I do believe when you work with young people, you can suggest possibilities that really make a difference.”

“She’s been such a seminal figure in the art world for many years,” says Cathy Carpenter, education specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “She’s a fixture. Everybody knows her. We are very fortunate to be working with her.”

Eventually the students spoke. “Fear of failure,” replied senior Ivan Matias. Others chimed in with concerns of letting their parents down or struggling in the future.

Barbara, who avoids being photographed, urged them on, stressing that there were no right or wrong answers. She also spoke of the importance of avoiding stereotypes and thinking out of the box.

“Art is a form of commentary,” she explains. “Those pictures of mine on the wall, that’s just one way to do it. There are a million ways to be an artist.”
The students from both high schools will experience perhaps the ultimate thrill for an artist on May 5 when their projects from the program go on display at the Getty.