Paper at International Standing Conference for the History of Education, Porto, 19 July: Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

I am delighted to have had the following paper accepted for the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto next week.

Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

Pictures for Schools was founded by the artist and educationalist Nan Youngman (1906-1995) to sell affordable works of art by contemporary British artists to educational establishments across the country, including schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities.

One aim of the scheme was to change the physical spaces in which children’s education took place by making them visually stimulating. Another, equally important motivation, was to develop children’s skills as critical observers, which could then be applied to the places which surrounded them, and the consumer choices they would make as the citizens of the future.

At the first Pictures for Schools exhibition, which took place in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, children who visited were asked to express their preferences by voting for their favourite exhibit. These preferences were later discussed in accounts of the exhibitions by the organisers, and received with great interest by the press. At later exhibitions, which took place annually at various London art galleries until 1969, visiting school groups were given questionnaires which aimed to encourage them to look closely at the artworks on show, with the questions varying slightly each year. Some questions placed the artworks in relation to children’s own experiences of creating art, encouraging respondents to identify and compare elements such as technique, media, subject matter, styles and genre. Others positioned children as critics, asking them to discuss the artworks they felt were most successful. Children were also encouraged to imagine themselves as future patrons and consumers of the arts, by stating which artwork they would like to take home with them if they were able to.

This paper will explore the ways in which Pictures for Schools offered children a critical education across two types of educational spaces, the art gallery and the classroom. It will visit a series of educational spaces where, in the decade leading up to the Second World War, Youngman established the value of the active, participatory form of art education which would be promoted through Pictures for Schools. These include Youngman’s teacher training at London Day Training College, her time teaching art in girls’ schools in the 1920s, and the decade she spent as peripatetic art advisor to Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, from 1944 onwards.

The critical education offered through Pictures for Schools will then be placed within a wider context of post-war Britain. After the Second World War, the formal education system was extended. At the same time, opportunities for informal education and cultural experiences went beyond the school, museum and art gallery to encompass public and leisure spaces such as town centres, shopping centres, libraries and housing estates, where citizens were asked to be critical observers of the places and objects which surrounded them every day. This paper will explore the role of artworks as a pedagogical tool and argue that Pictures for Schools played a part in developing the skills of future citizens who were required to play an active, critical part in post-war reconstruction and society.

For more information about the conference visit http://www.fpce.up.pt/ische2019.

I will be taking part in session 4.10, which takes place on Friday 19 July from 9am-11am.

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Jake Chapman describes taking children to galleries as ‘a waste of time’

Though I’m loath to fan the flames of publicity for a celebrity artist, some of the comments surrounding Jake Chapman’s recent assertion that taking children to art galleries is ‘a waste of time’ saddened and dismayed me (even in a poll run by the Guardian, one in five people agreed with his statement).

Whilst I don’t believe anyone who describes his children as ‘not human yet’ warrants much of a response, I find Chapman’s comments wrong-headed on a lot of levels. I find it strange that Chapman reduces the value of an art experience to mere ‘understanding’, ignoring the potential for art to be something which can be ‘experienced’ even if not fully grasped (the artists cited in press coverage of Chapman’s statement, Rothko and Pollock, seem to me to be a perfect example of this. Do I find their work intricate, interesting and worthy of spending some time with? Yes. Can I, or do I want to, tell you what they are ‘about’, and I do I think that this is important? No).

There is clearly a great deal more that an eight-year-old can get out of visiting a gallery than, say, a one-year-old, yet I’ve seen first-hand that valuable work is being done by education officers in making collections fun, friendly and accessible to families and providing a way in to what can sometimes be an intimidating environment.

I believe Chapman patronises children’s abilities to take visual interest in artworks, or to enjoy details of artworks: the way art looks can still provide visual/intellectual interest, enjoyment and stimulation even without being ‘understood’ on an intellectual level. For children who experience making artwork of their own in school, furthermore, seeing the work of practising artists can provide a talking point and a comparison, as demonstrated by Pictures for Schools, which gave children visiting its exhibitions questionnaires to complete as they looked at the artworks to ensure they really thought about and engaged with what they saw. Some of the responses indicated that children had given some deal of thought to how the artists whose work they were looking at had achieved their effect, and identified similarities with their own approach to making art. Pictures for Schools did not aim to replace the creation of art by the appreciation of art, but its organisers believed that being able to see original works of art could help children approach their own art with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.