Education: We need to talk about art

With arts education at school level massively depleted and deprioritised, art galleries in the UK and Europe are filling that gap with an exciting range of engagement and education activities aimed at broadening and diversifying who gets to talk about – and make – art. Veronica Simpson reports

Words by Veronica Simpson

Arts education in the UK has reached a watershed moment. After more than half a century of leading the world in the creativity and ingenuity of its visual culture, from art through every conceivable kind of design to architecture, the UK’s talent pool is being impoverished by the lack of opportunity to encounter art, design or making at any stage through childhood to young adulthood.

Thanks to the policies of former Conservative education minister Michael Gove and his culling of ‘soft subjects’ in order to force schools to prioritise maths, English, technology and science, many children – especially those in the least affluent parts of the UK – will barely encounter the disciplines of art and design.

A major piece of Crafts Council research from 2014 showed that, over the previous seven years, the number of UK GCSE students studying design and technology had dropped by 41 per cent. As of 2017, the number of participating students in art, design and media GCSEs was at its lowest in a decade. A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) concluded that the Government’s decision to leave the arts out of the ‘core’ subjects is leading to ‘lower pupil attainment, less funding and more teacher recruitment challenges’, and it predicted a fracture in the UK’s pipeline of creative talent.

Image Credit: Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo
Image Credit: Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

But the UK’s galleries, museums and institutions are stepping into the breach, offering an extraordinary diversity of outreach and education programmes in schools and beyond, to offer opportunities to encounter art and design to a much wider range of people than the white, middle-class, metropolitan gallery-going norm, and ensure that audiences coming through their doors are more diverse, socially, ethnically and financially. Arts Council England (ACE) has paved the way, requiring those organisations in receipt of its funding to be delivering programmes designed to expand traditional audiences.

‘There is a massive diversity push,’ says Sarah Coffils, head of the South London Gallery’s education programme. Having been in the post for a decade now, she has seen how much more integral to both her organisation’s work, and the aims of ACE, this mission has become. As one of ACE’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), the South London Gallery has to deliver. Coffils says: ‘The bigger the organisation and the more funding it gets the more answerable it is to ACE, and the more we have to prove that we are a centre for all people and not just catering for the usual gallery-going public… You have to show you are giving back to the community.’

Participation and engagement is not new in the art world. They have been buzzwords for a while and the emergence of art’s so-called Social Turn, a phrase coined in 2006 by art historian Claire Bishop to describe the trend towards more collaborative, participatory art works. Taking place often outside of the gallery environment, such works rely on the involvement of ordinary civilians and their engagement becomes both the medium and the message. Such work, says Coffils, ‘gave people certain freedoms, freedom of facilitation and curation, letting other people program with you’.

For the art world at large, that movement has ‘fizzled out’, according to Coffils and her colleague Ben Messih, the South London Gallery’s heritage education manager. ‘Setting something so ambitious up now would not be possible,’ he says. ‘The art world’s attention has largely moved away from the social turn but education teams have not.’

Messih, Coffils and the rest of the SLG’s education and community team are now immersing themselves in a new programme of activities aimed at bringing in a wide range of local people to discuss the meaning of heritage, to animate and update the gallery’s archive activities ready for the launch of an accessible archive space in 2018, in a new facility across the road from the Victorian original: a semi-derelict fire station donated to the gallery and is currently being revamped for both gallery and community use, by the go-to gallery architecture practice of the moment, 6A.

Space makes a huge difference when it comes to engagement, says the SLG team. With the new Fire Station there is a large kitchen and communal dining/events area. There is the hope that people will embrace them in a way that formal galleries don’t necessarily encourage – local groups can book them, children may well drop in after school to use their art and design facilities (see case study). Says Messih: ‘Having the Fire Station – which is more residential in style, more informal – enables us to set up a space for people to come and use that’s more welcoming and friendly.’

One of the ongoing issues with education teams is that, no matter how brilliantly they and their artists engage with local communities – both in the gallery space and outside of it – it doesn’t always result in those same people becoming regular gallery-goers. But the achievements of these teams out in the field should not be disregarded by the data crunchers whose eyes are only trained on visitor stats (ACE is too gallery-directed, they feel, at present). Says Coffils: ‘Working with people where they live isn’t necessarily going to get people to come to us, but now we realise even if we’re not getting people through our doors, but we are coming to them and showing all the fantastic things we do – that in itself can be enough. It’s an experience. Children going to Art Block (the gallery’s after-school club on a local housing estate) every week is just as valid.’ Messih adds: ‘It’s about reframing the concept of impact. It’s not about one visit to a gallery but the fact that a positive relationship to art may have come from just one amazing art teacher.’

In other parts of Europe, education and outreach have also been identified as crucial to art institutions’ ongoing validity, as populations and demographics shift. Axel Rüger, director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, told a group of UK journalists recently that, despite passing the 2.2 million visitor figure in 2017 – a milestone in its history – it is launching a major new initiative aimed at ensuring that the museum and its programme remain relevant as Amsterdam changes: a five-year research project called Van Gogh Connect. Says Rüger: ‘We have chosen the Surinam, Turkish, Anatolian and Moroccan communities. We have an advisory board from them and we have someone running it who comes from them. We are exploring how we can make our museum more relevant and interesting. We will experiment with different projects to see if we can make some sustainable connection between our museum and them in Amsterdam. Ultimately so many of the things that we represent as a museum are global human values and qualities. Van Gogh’s life is a story that inspires people almost regardless of what background they come from.’

Case Study
Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

Designed by Claudio Silvestrin, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is a monolithic, 3,500 sq m modern art gallery built on the site of the old Fergat factory in Turin, which once provided wheels for Italy’s automotive industry. Here, collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has prioritised the work of young and emerging artists, especially those using time-based media (sound and film). From the moment it opened in 2002, the gallery has championed education, training a large team of ‘mediators’ to engage visitors in conversation around the art and its themes, on a daily basis, and assist in the Fondazione’s ambitious education programme. Some 20,000 students have attended educational tours, talks and workshops at the Fondazione, says Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, ‘Educational activities happen every day. We welcome children from 18 months old (with their carers), all schools, families, teenagers, adults, teachers, university and art-academy students.

Image Credit: Alfonso QuagliaImage Credit: Alfonso Quaglia

Once a month we organise Family Sundays: workshops for children three to 10 and their parents, where we invite guests – artists, musicians, illustrators, dancers, performers and photographers.’ One of the most remarkable groups the Fondazione regularly engages with is the visually impaired. For these groups, members of the specially trained ‘art mediators’ team start by describing the gallery space, its dimensions, where the artwork is and then they describe the work. Through questions and answers, these visitors come to their own understanding of what the work might be saying.

Image Credit: Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re RebaudengoImage Credit: Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

These interactions have played a key role in highlighting listening and other sensory skills for the gallery’s mediators, bringing aspects of a work to life that might otherwise be overlooked by the visually able.

The Fondazione also has a large e-learning project, called I Speak Contemporary! Artworks on show are investigated and interpreted using the English language. And in February this year, an important agreement was due to be signed between the Fondazione and the Ministry for Education, about work-based training for teachers and secondary school students that will create opportunities to gain professional experience at the Fondazione.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s pioneering approach comes from a belief that ‘opening a space and making your collection visible is not enough’, she told Apollo arts magazine, on receiving its Personality of the Year Award last year. ‘Collectors have to give visitors the tools to approach, interpret and understand what they see; otherwise it’s just a showcase of their property.

Case Study
South London Gallery, Peckham

The South London Gallery punches above its weight as an arts institution, in pretty much every respect. Tracing its origins back to the South London Working Men’s College in Blackfriars in 1868, it moved to Camberwell as the South London Fine Art Gallery in 1891, showing work by local as well as national artists. Since it turned its focus to cutting-edge contemporary art in 1992, it has clocked up exhibitions by many of the UK and international art scene’s leading names, often long before they hit the mainstream.

Tucked into a densely residential and very diverse area of Southwark, one of the things it does best is education, reaching out to the community – especially children, families and young adults – to broaden participation. This it does through a varied programme, including Art Assassins, a long running weekly scheme for teens and young adults which brings them into close contact with artists and their different media and skills; and Art Block, a dedicated space on the adjacent, post-war Sceaux Gardens housing estate, which offers four days a week of after-school art activities.

As of last September, a year ahead of the opening of a new facility over the road – the formerly derelict Fire Station, currently being redeveloped by 6A Architects to house SLG’s substantial archive, along with new gallery and community space – the SLG team has developed a rich new strand of archive-related activities aimed at bringing a different and contemporary perspective to the idea of heritage.

Image Credit: Andy StaggImage Credit: Andy Stagg

Supported by the Arts Council England, Evidence of Us seeks to involve multigenerational groups of local people in contributing and also enriching their own knowledge of the area, through workshops and participatory art commissions. Artist Rory Pilgrim is currently developing a work together with a small group of local people, which incorporates personal histories of the neighbourhood, to be unveiled at the launch next month.

Meanwhile, Studio OOMK has joined forces with the SLG’s neighbouring Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, to develop a child-led printing programme and archive – Big Family Press. The SLG is installing a Roto Graphic printer in the school for three months, which will then become part of the community resources at the Fire Station. The resulting prints and publications will be exhibited at the SLG and become part of the archive.

And Peckham-based artist and film-maker Jenn Nkiru has been developing a film together with children and young people living on the Elmington Estate, engaging with ideas of place and memory. Two further archive-oriented films have been commissioned, one of them from young film-makers and graduates of the SLG’s own RE:creative film school.

Case Study
Crafts Council, Make Your Future

Alarmed at the disappearance of design and making from UK schools, in 2017 the Crafts Council launched a three-year programme of engagement in secondary schools called Make Your Future. Focusing on craft as a ‘cross-curricular bridge’, it embeds elements of making within core topics such as science and technology to enrich understanding and spark curiosity.

Taking a layered approach, it involves training teachers in craft techniques and methodologies in six CPD workshops at leading higher education institutions. Teachers and selected makers then work together with students to realise projects, on school premises. Where necessary, new equipment is provided and existing equipment upgraded to ensure that such projects can have a legacy for the school beyond the scheme’s lifespan.

In year one, nearly 1,000 pupils received four days of making workshops each. Six Birmingham schools teamed up with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery to explore techniques such as saw piercing and 3D printing. Elsewhere students and makers from Leeds University’s School of Design and Leeds Arts University hosted workshops that flagged up the region’s textile heritage, with sessions on hand-dyeing, screen-printing and CAD in five Leeds schools. And five schools in west London teamed up with Central St Martins, for demonstrations of ceramic techniques, ranging from traditional hand-building and glazing to innovative digital processes.

During the workshops makers enjoyed chatting with pupils, discussing their career paths and demonstrating craft as a viable career option. At Braidwood School for the Deaf, classes were assisted by jewellery MA student Maral Mmghn, who is also deaf. Teacher Robert Young commented on how inspiring it was for students to work alongside an artist role model who shared their challenges. He also felt that the four-day workshop format was extremely useful in getting students to loosen up their ideas of what they might be capable of, and developing new skill sets. Young himself was so inspired that he has bought jewellery-making tools so that he can continue his own practice.

With the second year now under way, a second cohort of eight schools per region has been identified in London, Leeds and Birmingham, and new makers and teachers contracted to expand the knowledge and range of techniques. In Leeds, for example, lecturers from the School of Design will lead CPD and school sessions exploring themes of bio-mimicry and e-textiles through colour, structure and form via digital technology and knitting machines.

Case Study
New North and South, UK and South Asia

New North and South is a network of 11 arts organisations from across the North of England and South Asia, which began a three-year programme of exhibitions, co-commissions and encounters in 2017 to celebrate shared heritage across continents and create opportunities for both artistic and audience development. Events and exhibitions included one by UK-based artist Raqib Shaw at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. Calcutta-born and Kashmir-raised, his own intense, highly decorative and personal works are infused with Eastern and Western elements, and were presented along with his curated choice of textiles, paintings, prints and objects from The Whitworth’s collection. These included prints by William Morris, whose designs were very much inspired by the elaborate textiles of South Asia. The event demonstrated shared visual and cultural history, as well as sensibilities, and drew a sizeable audience from Manchester’s South Asian community.

The work by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman on display at the Manchester Art GalleryThe work by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman on display at the Manchester Art Gallery

Ruth Edson, community programmes manager at Manchester Art Gallery already runs many schemes with the city’s South Asian refugee support and English language groups within the gallery, but saw NNS as a way to further strengthen connections with this important demographic. She says: ‘When the New North South programme was announced, it made us realise we had to think about the relevance of our exhibitions if you are coming from South Asia. Some 13 per cent of the Manchester population is South Asian and our visitor figures don’t reflect that at all. It made us think: how do we learn and strengthen our relationship with these countries and have more of a global perspective?’

Edson applied to the NNS network for funding for an initiative called We Make the City, featuring workshops to explore conversations in Manchester, Lahore and Karachi on how people and art contribute to where they lived. There were workshops in schools, one of them in Manchester’s Rusholme area, asking for the children’s perceptions of Karachi, resulting in an exhibition of pictures, and parallel workshops in a Karachi school reflecting on their ideas of Manchester. For the Manchester pupils there were also visits to the gallery, and its South Asian Design wing, where works by three leading South Asian artists were discussed, including one by Adeela Suleman, described by Edson as ‘an artist who responds to death and violence in contemporary Pakistan, and works with craft makers from a variety of disciplines’.

Suleman was later invited to Manchester to give a talk, and members of the We Make the City workshops met her. Companion events were held in Karachi where families were invited to discuss the role of art and how it mediates their sense of identity in the city.

Says Edson, who flew out to participate in some of the Karachi workshops: ‘One thing I didn’t realise before I went is that art is so much a part of their ordinary lives. It’s on the streets – the way drivers decorate their trucks – it’s in parks, in a different way to how we experience it here. It was a real privilege to be in Karachi and talk with these people.’ A digital online platform for We Make the City has been proposed to keep these conversations going.

Supported by the National Lottery and Arts Council England, the participating New North and South organisations include the Manchester Art Gallery, The Whitworth, Manchester Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry Manchester, Liverpool Biennial, The Tetley in Leeds, Colombo Biennale (Sri Lanka), Dhaka Art Summit (Bangladesh), and the Karachi and Lahore Biennales (Pakistan).

Case Study
The Showroom, London

The Showroom is one of London’s leading non-profit art spaces. Established 30 years ago, it moved from Bethnal Green to the Edgware Road to a dedicated gallery, workshops and studio space where the programme has been refined and consolidated. Established artists are invited to exhibit here, but there are also five community projects a year, where artists are invited to create collaborative projects.

Placed at the intersection of several very different communities, including local long-term residents and more recent arrivals from the Middle East and Bengal, the gallery is flanked by several large housing association- run estates, whose residents are keenly affected by the Government’s austerity measures of the past decade. Changes to housing benefits and childcare have a massive, visible impact here. So the showroom has set out from the start to generate projects that reflect the reality of local people’s lives.

One of the first projects The Showroom ran was with Peruvian artist Andrea Frank. She was studying for her MA at Chelsea College of Arts, and at the time had her toddler looked after at Chelsea’s crèche. Then the crèche closed, so Frank decided to create a collaborative work around the ‘invisible spaces of parenthood’ – who does the caring, and where? Spending time with her child at local children’s groups, Frank drew together participants for workshops at The Showroom where the issues were discussed and expressed through making. Research, insight and art works were compiled into a ‘manual’ that was then distributed to the local library and family health centre, as well as through contemporary art media.

‘That was super productive,’ says collaborative projects curator Louise Shelley. ‘The work is conscious of who gets to speak for whom, it’s conscious of what gets left behind in neighbourhoods, around [social] sustainability… and it has a very strong relationship to contemporary art practice, and what is relevant for art to be doing today.’

The Showroom has become very embedded in its neighbourhood, which – being largely housing association-run – has an unusually stable population, for London. Shelley has got to know it well, having been in her post since 2010, and The Showroom has come to be seen as a real resource. ‘We’ll let people use this space or borrow equipment, or help them to fill out forms. There is a real sense of shared networks and contacts. Quite often you have a job in a gallery and you will move on fairly quickly. I couldn’t imagine going to another neighbourhood,’ she says.

The Showroom receives nearly a quarter of its funding from ACE, with the rest raised from a raft of supporters, including corporate and art-world sponsors, the Esme Fairbairn Foundation, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the John Lyons charity.

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