Sitting down with Linda Friedlaender

Linda Friedlaender is the Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and head of the YCBA Student Guide Program.  Friedlaender attracted international media attention in 2000 when she unveiled a program called the “The Observational Skills Workshop,” the goal of which is to hone the art of observation in students at the Yale School of Medicine.  The program has since served as the template for similar programs around the world.  Her most recent initiative is an art class for children on the autism spectrum and their parents.  The Herald sat down with her to talk about these art initiatives, her interest in British art, why you should be into it, too­—and, of course, the pleasures of Downton Abbey.

YH: The Yale Center for British Art is a very specialized. What led you to art, museums, and British art?
LF: When I was a freshman in college, I discovered art history, and I loved it. I did think about becoming a judge, but that was a time when there weren’t as many role models or mentors for females in those high-up places.  But luckily, art history became my passion, and I took as much of it as I could in college. I took a particular interest in the way that art history was taught. That led me from one museum to another, and I accumulated responsibilities along the way. When I was starting to get involved with museum education, it was a field still in its infancy. Today, there isn’t a museum worth its salt that doesn’t have a museum educator or a museum education department. It has really taken off as a field—the number of graduate schools that offer museumology or museum education programs has proliferated across the country, and each museum has its own approach and philosophy to its museum education.
I was attracted to the YCBA because I got a taste of what its like to be in an academic community at Mt. Holyoke College’s art museum. Being on the board of a museum, you have a lot of input on how decisions are made, so you can effect a lot of change.  When I first arrived at the YCBA, the education department was extremely small. I’ve really tried to boost the program offerings of the department since then.

YH: One of the programs that you started was for Yale medical school students. How did that come about?
LF: Thirteen years ago, I started it with a professor at the medical school. Both of us wanted to do something to enhance the observational skills of medical students.  Shortly before we started working on this program, I visited a friend who was going to have surgery. She was clearly upset: she was running her hands through her hair and she was restless. But when the resident walked in, he stood by the door and didn’t recognize her agitation or try to calm her or engage with her on an emotional level. That really upset me, and motivated me to plan the Art of Observation program. The works of art that we use have a lot of gestures, a lot of facial expressions and a lot of body language so that there is a lot to read and analyze. It fortunately met with success, and has been replicated all over the country and the world. And not just in medical schools, but also in places like Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where the faculty are trying to instill more sensitivity for how to observe and interact with a diverse clientele. The basic premise is to apply a very scientific process to reading paintings—making nonjudgmental observations about paintings is both harder than you would expect and more revealing about the actual nature of a visual work. And it works for everyone, from medical and business school students to children.
YH: Is that the same principle that you are applying to your autism initiative?
LF: The autism class is a weekend activity for children on the autism spectrum and their families. A large part of it is to teach parents exercises that they can use to interact with and stimulate their children at home. In the classes, we receive a very dramatic spectrum of kids with autism—some kids have IQs of 140 but have numerous social disabilities, while others are completely nonverbal.  We try to split up the kids so that we can adjust the teaching style to best address their needs. But some diversity is always good: I find that all of the children and their parents get a lot out of hearing from and interacting with other children on the autism spectrum. 

We always try to engage them with art in a multi-sensory experience. For example, for a painting of a forest, we try to find smells that would go well with that piece of art, such as the musk of moss or bark. We bring an actual piece of grass for the children to feel, and play sounds of the forest while we talk about the painting.
YH: A lot of people scratch their heads when they learn that Yale has a Center for British Art. What do you think is the value of a museum dedicated to British art on an undergraduate campus?
LF: British art has come a long way in terms of making a name for itself on the world stage. In the 1990s, British artists really burst onto the international scene, and for the first time in a long time, London became the go-to center for cutting-edge outré, and it still enjoys that status today. Perhaps that will change. It will probably come and go. But that Yale has such a comprehensive collection of Britain’s artistic heritage, in such a beautiful building, no less, is a great resource for students. It’s a center of groundbreaking scholarship, and it’s an international attraction.
YH: The up-coming exhibit at the YCBA is called Edwardian Opulence—have you ever seen Downton Abbey?
LF: Yes! The way I got hooked was when some YCBA staff took a field trip to Philadelphia to look at the new Barnes Collection, and on the way back, a colleague started to play Downton Abbey on the DVD player. After that, I made a business of watching it. Downton Abbey will provide a great backdrop and general awareness for Edwardian Opulence. The manors, grounds, imports from the Empire, dresses, class structure, all of that makes a huge impact on the art and style of the period.
YH: If you could have one painting from the YCBA for your personal collection, which would it be?
LF: [After a period of deliberation.] One of my favorite pieces in the Center is Whistler’s “Nocturne”—although I know a lot of people will say that Whistler was born in America, he spent a lot of time in Britain, and people consider “Nocturne” to be a British piece. I love the color, I love the way that he ventures into the abstract by making the physicality of the paint so apparent, but still gives the painting a concrete subject matter. I just love looking at it. It’s requested a lot for loans, but I always fight for it to stay in the Center!

—This interview was condensed by the author.

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