Marilyn Russell eats, sleeps and drinks art appreciation.
When you walk with Russell through the galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Art, it’s as if she knows every individual painting, sculpture and piece of furniture.
She engages whoever is with her with questions and history about the pieces of art. On a recent field trip for students from Environmental Charter School, Russell observed as each of the groups of first-graders made their way through the “Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk” exhibit. That’s part of her job as curator of education for the museum. But those who know her realize it’s more of a passion than an occupation.
Russell’s mission is to get everyone — from all walks of life and ages — to stroll through the museum and experience it through their own eyes. Preschoolers are going to learn differently than millennials or senior citizens, she says, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy and take something from being there that they can use in life.
Russell oversees all education functions, including school and teacher programs, youth and family programs and adult programs. Members of her staff oversee day-to-day details of those broad areas, from program coordinators to teaching artists to volunteers.
These areas include programs like evening screening and performances, artist talks, art-history classes, professional development workshops for teachers, training volunteer docents — who guide adult and school groups — guiding in-gallery interactive, developing school group curricula, Saturday art classes for kids and young adults, and summer camps.
More than 14,000 children make their way through Russell’s programs annually, from summer camps to programs throughout the school year.
“Among the smartest, most dedicated and creative museum educators I know, Marilyn Russell’s work impacts the entire region,” says Lynn Zelevansky, the Henry J. Heinz II director of Carnegie Museum of Art. “Pittsburgh is lucky to have her.”
Russell dreams of giving everyone access to the museum, no matter their situation, says Cara Ciminillo, interim executive director of Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children with locations in Homewood, Hazelwood and Squirrel Hill. She, Russell and Marijke Hecht, of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, are founding organizers of the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative.
Russell’s work with them emerged out of the “Playground Project,” an exhibit that was part of the 2013 Carnegie International. The collaborative has grown into a group of 17 organizations around the region that support the importance of play as a critical element in the lives of people of all ages.
“Marilyn helps people engage with the museum,” Ciminillo says. “I adore her. She has been a very trusted partner. She has a bigger vision, and she is the epitome of collaboration. She helps make people feel comfortable in the museum.”
Russell is not a person who is territorial, colleagues say. She enjoys the back-and-forth of the team process of coordinating with schools, organizations and individuals, Ciminillo says. She understands that play is an essential part to children’s learning and that it’s important to introduce art to children at a young age.
Part of her goal is to bring the museum out to the community.
“I have learned so much from her,” Ciminillo says. “She has her values in the right place. She is not just an ideas person. She makes things happen.”
Russell says she is thrilled to make things happen. She says the tours are about sharing with youngsters everything from the aesthetics of an object to its function and foundation — the material from which it is made.
“It gives them a sense of design,” Russell says. “It helps them understand the kind of thinking it takes to make something. Everything in life has a design to it, and how something is designed can have an effect on our well-being. It can be an integral part of our identity. It can be what makes us function.”
Russell is thoughtful and organized, says Hattie Lehman, assistant curator of education at the museum.
“She is brilliant,” Lehman says. “She is so good at talking to people about art. She is a warm and genuine person who is comfortable with every audience because she is such a good listener. She is a good leader, and she also volunteers outside the community, which a lot of people don’t know about her.”
Russell is a behind-the-scenes kind of person, but you always know she is there if you need her, Lehman says.
Russell has a strong vision of how education works, says Sally Cao, administrative manager for education at the museum.
“We are inspired by her every day,” Cao says. “She has energetic ideas and is open to new things. She’s captain of her department.”
Being able to interact with people of all ages who offer so many different points of view is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, Russell says.
“I like to see what they want and what they think and incorporate their ideas into whatever we are doing,” Russell says. “That’s the best way to really be collaborative. I love what I do. It’s not a job to me. It’s my passion.”
Russell is involved in community projects, like the design of a new park and playground with Braddock-area kids and residents, and participates within larger efforts, like Play Day, which encourages the use of play to teach higher learning concepts.
Russell was hired in 1981 to be in charge of the docents, teaching and training them. She became curator of education in 1989. The Scott Township native who lives in Mt. Lebanon has an undergraduate degree from Chatham University and a graduate degree from the University of Michigan, both in art history.
Russell is continuing Andrew Carnegie’s vision of wanting all people to be able to see art from all over the world, says Sarah Tambucci, director of the Arts Education Collaborative, Downtown, a nonprofit that’s under the umbrella of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
For Carnegie Legacy Day, for example, Russell and her department teamed with the Women’s Committee in November to offer museum memberships to 522 young girls who might not have been able to get to the museum.
“We tried to relate art to what these girls were experiencing in their life,” Russell says. “To appreciate art, it’s important to learn how to make art. That might inspire you and can be a form of communication and exchange.”
“Marilyn is amazing and a systems thinker, Tambucci says. “She is a strong advocate for children. She has a passion for all of the arts, and she understands art from a unique perspective. She strives to make the museum experience available to all students. When we are all talking about a project or program, Marilyn is the one who digs three layers deeper than everyone else. She has a deep perspective about art.”
Russell sees everything from the big picture and the smallest details, Tambucci says.
“Art is a way of making sense about everyday life,” says Russell, sitting in front of a poster in her office that reads “Art is Power.”
“Art is powerful,” she says. “It often represents real life and can be the conversation starter. We can connect with an image. It’s not just something you hang over your couch.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7889.