Imagine walking into any federal agency. What would you experience there? Most likely you would experience a security process that has you waiting to be escorted by an employee. While you waited you may view news on a TV or rolling messages on a screen about agency activities--perhaps the only clue you'd have of that agency's culture or mission.
That was the lobby experience in the U.S. Department of Education 10 years ago, with the exception of stereotypical icons of education--cut outs of yellow school buses and crayons. Today, even before entering the building, you would experience windows full of original photographs from school visits announcing "This place is about education and helping students to be successful." Once in the lobby, you would be surrounded with examples of the stellar work students and their teachers are accomplishing in classrooms from around the nation and the world.
In your experience, you would recognize that the works announce the department's mission: "To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."
The Transformative Nature of Collaboration
Jim Shelton, the department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement and an Obama administration appointee, called the student art exhibits in the lobby "transformative." The transformation began 10 years ago when I assumed a new responsibility in the department to supervise the creative team. I thought we could do better than displays of school buses and crayons to represent "education."
I realized that the lobby was a natural art gallery, and that using it as such would allow the department to communicate to employees and visitors the importance of the work that takes place in classrooms. Transforming the lobby would help show that such work is not only the result of talent but rather of rigorous and persistent work by students, teachers, and supportive families and communities.
I envisioned having several exhibits a year with a ceremonial opening for each so that we could invite students, teachers, and families to celebrate their accomplishments and to bring department employees face-to-face with their customers.
My next move was to secure student art. Not so fast! I realized that to successfully implement my vision I needed partners, namely art teachers who would provide student work from the classroom, as well as colleagues. From the conceptualization stage, I...