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Learning from Contemporary Artists

Are your students learning about artists working in the 21st century?

Art 21 highlights the importance of introducing students to contemporary artists saying, “Bringing contemporary art into schools and communities enables educators to promote curiosity, encourage dialogue, and initiate debate about the world and the issues that affect our lives.”

By setting aside time in your curriculum to view contemporary artworks and respond through artmaking will give students the chance to see the dynamic nature of contemporary art practices. Introducing students to artists working in the 21st century will cultivate a diverse creative community and challenge their thinking around their own artistic processes.

Each year, established and emerging contemporary artists are showcased at an extraordinary art fair, Art Basel Miami, where “…leading galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa show significant work from the masters of Modern and contemporary art, as well the new generation of emerging stars” ( This fair presents an exciting opportunity to educators. Why not introduce students to artwork that is being created right now? Incorporating notable contemporary artists into your art curriculum will demonstrate the dynamic and ever-changing nature of contemporary art.

When introducing students to contemporary artists, focus research around the big ideas the artist addresses, rather than mimicking the artist’s process or aesthetic. This investigation will spark creativity within students and help them establish their own ideas and unique processes.

Art 21 recommends taking more time to discuss artwork in art class, using themes and big ideas to frame discussion and investigation saying, “Integrating contemporary art and themes into teaching requires a shift from predominantly technique-driven instruction to idea-driven instruction. Many artists do not work in a single medium or technique and instead try to explore an idea, event, situation, or question through multiple media and visual strategies” Art 21.

Here are five featured artists from Art Basel 2017 whose ideas and processes could inspire lively discussions and dynamic artmaking in your classroom.

Elisbetta Benassi, ‘Mimetica,’ 2016, artificial palm tree, steel, resin, natural fiber + polypropylene

“On one hand, nature is reconstructed in artificial terms; on the other, the use of machines hints at a fascination with things that are obsolete or consumed by use" Magazzino.

Big Idea: nature represented through the artificial


Liza Lou, 'Relief 1,' 2017, woven glass beads

“For me, the best part is the making” (Liza Lou).

Big Idea: Labor and the nature of the human hand


Yinka Shonibare, Material I, 2017, bronze sculpture

“Shonibare’s work explores issues of race and class through the media of painting, sculpture, photography and film. Shonibare questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions. His trademark material is the brightly coloured ‘African’ batik fabric he buys in London” (

Big Idea: Representations of race and class


Spencer Finch, 'Bamboo Grove, 2017,  fluorescent lights, fixtures + filters

“Finch carefully records the invisible world, while simultaneously striving to understand what might lie beyond it. Whether he is relying on his own powers of observation or using a colorimeter, a device that reads the average color and temperature of light, the artist employs a scientific method to achieve poetic ends” (Excerpt from Susan Cross, What Time Is It On The Sun pp. 9-17, 2007).

Big Idea: Observing and recording the invisible


Ernesto Neto, Enquanto tecemos... sonhamos (While we weave... we dream), 2016, cotton voile crochet + wooden knobs

“Since the mid-1990s, Ernesto Neto has produced an influential body of work that explores constructions of social space and the natural world by inviting physical interaction and sensory experience” (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery).

Big Idea: Inviting physical interaction and sensory experience


Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.