Utah Museum of Fine Arts sends 1,500 ‘art kits’ to help students finish their school projects

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The UMFA learning engagement team members Katie Seastrand, left, and Annie Burbidge Ream assemble "UMFA Art Kits," to provide art supplies to high school students to help them complete end-of-year course work. The volunteers filled 1,500 kits with colored pencils, postcards and art activities on Friday, May 4, 2020, to help kids in the Granite School District and Whitehorse High School in San Juan County, to finish school projects and get excited about home projects during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a normal time, when a global pandemic hasn’t shut down schools and cultural venues, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts would have hundreds of schoolchildren visiting on field trips, admiring its art and learning the stories behind each work.

This week, staffers at UMFA found a different way to connect with students during the coronavirus pandemic, by putting art supplies and inspiration inside a brown paper bag.

UMFA is assembling and distributing 1,500 “art kits” to students in need in the Granite School District and at Whitehorse High School in San Juan County.

The idea was hatched during a conversation between Katie Seastrand, UMFA’s coordinator of school and teacher programs, and Noemi Hernández-Balcázar, the Granite School District’s art curriculum specialist.

“She asked me, “What were the biggest needs?’” Hernández-Balcázar said. “I said that right now, the biggest concern of teachers is resources.”

UMFA, like many cultural entities in Utah closed since March, has offered educational resources online. Seastrand was looking for ways to make physical resources available.

“They had some seniors who were at risk of not graduating if they didn’t get custom materials and projects that they could do for their art classes,” Seastrand said.

So UMFA staffers put together the art kits. Inside each bag is a sketchbook, a pencil, a sharpener, an eraser, colored pencils and watercolors.

Also in the kits is a set of cards, each one featuring a picture of an artwork from UMFA’s collection — from the ornately beaded “King’s Hat” in the museum’s African art collection to Chakaia Booker’s modern sculpture “Discarded Memories,” assembled from strips of car tires. Information on the cards is printed in English and Spanish.

The idea, Seastrand said, is “to use the cards as inspiration to then do their own projects.”

The museum “could not have gone more out of their way to help our students,” Hernández-Balcázar said. “It is more than we could have asked for.”

Assembling the kits was an adventure, said Annie Burbidge Ream, UMFA’s curator of education, K-12 learning and engagement. The museum’s home on the University of Utah’s campus, the John and Marcia Price Building, is closed during the pandemic, inaccessible even to staffers without special permission.

Three UMFA staffers, spaced well apart and wearing masks and gloves, assembled the kits outdoors on the building’s loading dock.

“We had to do kind of a delicate dance back and forth to make sure that we weren’t in each other’s space,” Ream said.

The museum made 1,250 kits for the Granite School District, for students in grades 7 through 12. Hernández-Balcázar said she distributed kits to her teachers as soon as she received them. Those teachers compiled lists of students who needed the resources the most, she said.

“When I delivered the first ones, teachers couldn’t believe what the packages included,” Hernández-Balcázar said. “It was really awesome.”

Another 250 kits are being sent to Whitehorse High School, in Montezuma Creek in far southeast Utah. That school has many students who live in the Navajo Nation, and sometimes travel two or three hours to get to school, Ream said. “Sending our kits [there] is a small step in the right direction,” Ream said.

Both Ream and Hernández-Balcázar said they hope the art supplies will help students beyond getting this semester’s course work finished.

“Art is very therapeutic,” Hernández-Balcázar said. “This is a very stressful time for our kids and families. … The ability of creating art projects is also going to keep them more level-headed.”

Ream said that “artists often create their very best work in times of crisis. It pushes us to think differently about the world we’re in.” She added that the kits can help students “create artwork of their own, to express themselves and what’s going on with them in their lives right now.”