Before Broad museum opens for business, L.A. students have it to themselves, and the poetry flows


It’s early in the morning in the house where Jean-Michel Basquiat lives down the hall from Marlene Dumas and not far from Ed Ruscha. And now some visitors are at the door.

One group of students is from Belmont High’s Multimedia Academy. Almost three dozen ninth-graders.

Another group has bused in from Animo Leadership High in Inglewood. More than 60 11th-graders.

What a deal they’ve got.

Before the Broad Museum opens for business, this coliseum of creativity is theirs. No crowds, no lines, no noise but the echoes of their own voices.

But the free pass has a few strings attached. The students can’t just wander off on their own. They have to take seats in front of provocative paintings, learn something about them, discuss.

And then write.

Since the program began in January, 3,200 students have ogled the art and Picassoed the images into words. The Broad Museum teams with local schools and 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center, to tap creativity that is too often idled by lack of exposure.

These students have never been to the Broad.

Many have never been to a museum.

“I’ve actually been wanting to come here for so long, but I know tickets are overbooked,” says Juleny Duenez of Animo. “Once I knew we were having a field trip here, I was ecstatic.”

When elementary school students visit, they study Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog,” Robert Therrien’s “Under the Table” or Ruscha’s “Norm’s La Cienega on Fire.”

Then they write a story.

The older students study works including Roy Lichtenstein’s “Mirror #1,” Barbara Kruger’s “(Untitled) Your Body is a Battleground,” Glenn Ligon’s “Double America 2,” and Basquiat’s “Obnoxious Liberals.”

Then they write a poem.

The range in quality is vast; the bar is high.

On an earlier visit, a student named Astrid took a hard look at Basquiat and wrote:

Obnoxious liberals

You stand in the middle

Of racial suffrage and rich

Insufferable men

Holding hands high

While Samson is chained

Against his will as time

Passes by

Scrawled in the lower center of “Obnoxious Liberals” are the words “Not For Sale.” Kristin Lorey, an 826LA director who helped design the program, says one student keyed on that phrase in an earlier visit.

“It was  someone well-versed in art history who knew what it was like for Basquiat to sell his own artwork,  and [the student] talked about obnoxious liberals as people  who might buy artwork and turn it from something special into something commonplace,” Lorey says.

“That’s not my take, but what I love about this program is that … there are no wrong answers. They respond to what they see, their interpretation of it, and that’s what we want.”

Art can be intimidating for all of us, especially  for youngsters who don’t frequent museums. Ed Patuto, director of audience engagement at the Broad, is trying to blot out the fear factor.

Students are handed prompts to get them thinking and talking. With Ligon’s “Double America,” in which the word “America”  is both upright and inverted, Patuto says the prompts are along the lines of:

“Why did the artist make one of them upside down and backwards? What is he saying about America?”

An Animo student thinks on that for a moment and then volunteers an answer.

“Maybe,” she says, “America has two faces.”

A Belmont 9th-grader named Yancey examines Lichtenstein’s “Mirror” and quickly catches on.  It isn’t a mirror,  but a set of questions: What do you see? What do you want to see? What do you not want to see?

Yancey sees the future.

“I have my job. I have my family. My hair is curled.”

Animo teacher Erin Woods brought her history class to the Broad because “in history we talk about art” as a trip to another time. “I think they can relate more to a different period if they can hear the music and see the poetry.”

Stephanie Lopez, one of her students, sits on the floor in front of Kruger’s “Untitled (Your Body Is A Battleground).” It depicts a woman’s face split by positive and negative exposures, and the image was an emblem in a women’s reproductive rights march on Washington in 1989.

“We’ve been talking in Miss Woods’ class about civil rights, and this has a lot to do with the feminist movement,” Stephanie says. “In my opinion, women should have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies. There’s society’s expectation that you should be a certain way or look  a certain way. But you  should be the things you want to be.”

Lopez tells me she wants to study political science in college and run for office.

Maybe governor, I ask?

“I want to be president of the United States,” she says. “I tell everyone that and they say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I think I have the potential.”

At Dumas’ “Wall Weeping,” nine men stand facing a wall, their hands up. Are they praying? Are they under arrest?

Manny Villanueva guesses this is a scene from Jerusalem because the blocks of the wall look ancient. Another student knows it’s not in America because the men don’t have baggy pants. Several students say they’ve seen similar images in their neighborhoods during arrests.

“I’m a minority in which being a majority is the big priority,” writes Ismael Rodriguez.

Juleny Duenez writes:

“Weep weep because you aren’t free. Speak speak because you aren’t free. Pray pray because you  aren’t free. Don’t stop don’t stop until you are free.”

The Art+Rhyme and Art+Story program is now on summer vacation but will continue in the fall. To apply, teachers should send an email to

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