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MA Contemporary Art alumna Lisa Black-Cohen is Executive Director of The S.E.L. (Social Emotional Learning) Art Project, an educational company with the mission of providing disabled students with access to the art world. We spoke with Lisa about her path from education to the art world and how the synthesis of these two sectors can make for an innovative learning environment.

What drove your decision to apply for a Sotheby’s Institute MA program?  

From 2013 to 2020, I volunteered and worked exclusively with disabled and underprivileged students through the New York State Department of Education. As an educator, I noticed that when I incorporated images of art in math, English, or other lessons, the moods of some students showed improvement. 

Once Covid closed schools and work was temporarily put on hold, I decided to continue my lifelong learning journey and enrolled in online art history courses, which led to my eventual enrollment in the Sotheby’s Institute MA program. This period of learning inspired me to remain creative when the world around me was restricted by the pandemic. The opportunity to learn at Sotheby’s Institute of Art meant I could arm myself with world renowned credentials which would allow me to legitimately introduce art to my disabled students. 

Looking back, how did the MA contemporary Art Program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art equip you with the tools and knowledge to navigate the art industry?  

Having entered the art world with an undergraduate degree in economics and no background in art, this MA program provided me with an understanding of the fundamentals of art business. From understanding how social and political factors inform artists and art movements, to developing the skills necessary to engage with art in its variety of mediums, my studies have allowed me to speak intelligently about art, and most importantly, to learn how to respect what artists are trying to convey. This experience has taught me to look at art through a more informed lens. 

Can you tell us about your educational company, The S.E.L. (Social Emotional Learning) Art Project? What motivated you to begin this project?  

As an educator who incorporates art in my classes with disabled and underprivileged students, countless discussions with Sotheby’s Institute faculty and staff offered ways to consider organizing my art education idea to bring art into the classroom in meaningful and educational ways. These discussions culminated in a comprehensive business plan for an educational art business, The S.E.L. Art Project, which also ended up being my thesis.  

Collaboration appears to be a key aspect of The S.E.L. Art Project. Can you discuss any partnerships with artists or cultural institutions that have significantly impacted your students?  

Collaboration is an essential part of The S.E.L. Art Project – it is only in partnering with artists and institutions that I can give my students full access to art. Claes Oldenburg’s Estate and Pace Gallery generously granted me permission to utilize images of the late artist’s sculptures for my thesis. As a result, I was able to introduce my students to five of Mr. Oldenburg’s food sculptures through prototypes of an educational children's book I authored and prototypes of online games I developed. In 2023 our programming expanded to include music and dance, and through a weekend program at Lincoln Center, my students now have access to jazz concerts, ballet productions, and classical concerts.

These ever-evolving relationships with cultural institutions in New York City are integral to the work I do through The S.E.L. Art Project. I am enthused by the many positive responses I have received and humbled to know that decision-makers recognize the value of this project and its potential impact on marginalized communities. 

The S.E.L. Art Projects’ recent expansion into music and dance suggests a holistic approach to the arts. How do you envision integrating other art forms or disciplines in the future?  

The pivot to include music and dance seemed like a natural progression given the intersection of the art and music worlds, and my students embraced it with the same welcoming and focused enthusiasm as they have for visual art. Parents happily provided feedback that their children continued to discuss, sing, and dance long after attending jazz and classical concerts. I hope to incorporate poetry and plays as ways to encourage students to use their imagination, embrace the power of words alongside art, and expand their appreciation for the diversity of human creativity. 

What advice or tips would you give to Sotheby's Institute applicants?   

Be grateful for the incredible opportunity to attend such a stellar institution. It will be an incredible experience in expanding your appreciation of art and the creative works of artists from around the world. 

Be unafraid of seeking out academic or social support, as it is a demanding curriculum. Once you’re in, know that you deserve to be there and swat aside any imposter syndrome. Reach for your goals with passion and enthusiasm.  

Lastly, enjoy the journey that Sotheby's Institute affords you, as it is an incredible journey that expands your appreciation for the diversity of expression and understanding that no matter where art comes from, it belongs to us all. 

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