Roger Dell: Art Full

Entrance to the Farnsworth on Museum Street. Opened in 1948, the Farnsworth Art Museum today engages around 100,000 visitors a year in its exhibitions, events, and on-site and off-site educational outreach programs.

Roger Dell in Julia's Gallery, a space for student artists on the Farnsworth Art Museum campus in Rockland. The "leaves" of a tree painted on the wall are photographs taken by fourth- and seventh- grade students in the "Stories of the Land" project, just one of many programs Dell has initiated at the Farnsworth to encourage the making of art and its integration with other academic subjects.

Dell stands before the Strand Theatre across the street from the Farnsworth Art Museum. The facility has become an important part of the museum's outreach, as site of the popular Farnsworth Forum interviews with nationally known cultural figures, art history lectures, art house films, and live performances.

PROFILE – April 2014 
By Penelope Anne Schwartz | Photography Sarah Beard Buckley

Roger Dell’s lifelong commitment to art education brings all ages to the Farnsworth


Farnsworth Art Museum Director of Education Roger Dell was born in Manhattan and spent his childhood in Queens, often taking the subway into the city to visit some of the world’s most impressive museums. As a boy, the one he loved most was not the Metropolitan, with its mummies and Rembrandts, but the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. AMNH houses the world’s largest collection of vertebrae fossils. “I loved the skull of the Tyrannosaurus rex. I loved the big blue whale,” Dell says. “I loved the habitat dioramas of big sky and northern lights, wolves howling frostily into the night.” This perception of “objects being powerful,” as Dell phrases it, likely formed the commitment he has had over his career to making art accessible to everyone, especially young people. 

Following a degree in education and fine arts from Hofstra University, Dell made an interesting choice for his master’s in art history: the University of Hawai’i. This leap to paradise afforded Dell a special perspective on Asian and Oceanic art, as well as access to aspects of those cultures in the Islands. His first teaching position was at the University of Hawai’i, teaching Asian art as well as European and American art.

From there, it was a heady cross-hatch of opportunity and achievement: Hawai’i (where his first museum position was at the Honolulu Academy of Arts), back to Hofstra (teaching world art history), back to Hawai’i (the Academy, again), then to Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art), Vermont (Johnson State College), Massachusetts (Fitchburg Art Museum), and finally, much to the benefit of the State of Maine, Rockland and the Farnsworth. Since 2007 Dell has applied his very special combination of urbanity and internationalism as well as experience as a museum educator in widely varying venues, helping to create an atmosphere of art in Rockland parallel to none. 

The city has prospered, home now to nearly 25 galleries and studios, with the Farnsworth at the center of it all on Rockland’s Main Street. Dell is integral to the museum’s mission to provide programs for all ages and levels of experience, from preschool/kindergarten through secondary students, young adults, and the burgeoning local population of “lifelong learners.” Many of those in the latter category are retirees who not only flock to lectures, interviews with art world notables, and art house films regularly scheduled throughout the year, but also bring an important level of support and contribution to the city and, more specifically, to the museum. 

Dell initiated the Farnsworth Forum, interviews with prominent American intellectuals whom he addresses in a format borrowed from Inside the Actors Studio, on the stage of the Strand Theatre.  Recent participants have been Philippe de Montebello, director emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; David McCullough, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of such works as John Adams; and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

In the first offering of the Achieving American Art lecture series, Dell presented ten of twelve 90-minute talks twice on each Wednesday for the three months of the series, typically to sold-out audiences in the Strand. Students and teachers were admitted for free. Wherever he has worked in museums, Dell has managed to find time to continue to teach in the evenings at universities, including both the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Extension School. Recently he circled back to his early training and conducted the course Art and Culture of Asia at the University of Maine in Orono.

Believing in teachers is an important tenet of Dell’s approach to total community involvement in art. He devotes a lot of time and energy to working with teachers, demonstrating to them how to use art across their curriculum, in all subjects. The Farnsworth has been the recipient of numerous grants to implement educational programs for teachers. But Dell points out that just because the money is there for busing doesn’t automatically mean that students will appear in the museum’s galleries. Aided by his very capable staff, it’s been his job—and his passion—to work with teachers to make it easy for them to work art trips into their curriculum plans. 

Within two years of Dell’s coming to the Farnsworth, more and more schoolchildren were coming through the museum. Additional grant money was used for school buses to transport students, and to purchase digital cameras for students living on Matinicus Island so they could record their daily lives as part of the project. After-school and summer art programs for students are also provided at the Gamble Education Center and Julia’s Gallery on the Farnsworth campus. Over the past four years, teens associated with Julia’s Gallery have been creating their own films about life on the midcoast, often tackling difficult social issues through Claymation, pixilation, and live action. “Stories of the Land and Its People: An Arts-Integration Project for Midcoast Maine” is a Farnsworth education project that affords teachers the resources to bring arts-integrated teaching and learning into six public schools, reaching 260 fourth- and seventh-grade students. At the end of each academic year, the students’ artworks and class assignments are displayed in Julia’s Gallery as well as the main building of the museum. 

The International Educator Workshop, sponsored by the Lincoln Center Education in New York City, includes the Farnsworth as one of just four locations outside the city for “world-class professional development.” Focused on K-12 teachers and administrators, last year’s five-day workshop afforded educators the opportunity to learn how to incorporate imaginative learning into their classrooms via theater, movement, and contemporary painting. 

Thinking outside the box is a hallmark of Dell’s art education mission. He was the lead person in the creation of a Museum Partnership School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, an arts magnet middle school housed in the Fitchburg Art Museum and an adjacent school building. The blueprint for that project remains a unique and questing model for collaboration between public school systems and private art museums.

Dell walks proudly around the Farnsworth campus, pointing out the six buildings that contribute so vitally to the community. We circle the fanciful Dorothy Gale’s Farmhouse, temporarily come to rest in the Victorian Garden. The playhouse-sized structure is wonderfully quirky and whimsical, and helps celebrate the popular Farnsworth exhibition The Wonderful World of Oz. The structure was created in 24 hours by Resisting Entropy, a group of local artists who work collaboratively within condensed time and shared space. It’s been a big hit with local children and adults alike. 

Dell moves with affectionate familiarity through the museum, Julia’s Gallery, and the Share the Wonder train exhibit at the Wyeth Center. I feel as if he were showing me a treasured family home. On this chilly winter day in Julia’s Gallery, we gaze up at a painted tree in a corner of the gallery that is festooned with flashing colorful leaves, really photographs taken by students in the “Stories of the Land” project. “When we provide youth with some resources and teaching that is inquiry based,” opines Dell, “we are typically amazed by what they bring forth into the world.  Often what they create is original and beautiful.”  

Farnsworth Art Museum:, 207.596.6457

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