Teaching with Contemporary Art

Pre-Teen Wolf

Gallery Education at its very best.

I spent last Sunday morning at the National Gallery with a large group of very small children in front of Sassetta’s early Renaissance painting of St Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. Magic Carpet storytelling at the National Gallery is an enormously popular weekend activity; as the name implies, a large and magical carpet is rolled out in front of a chosen painting and an educator tells a story directly or indirectly related to the subject of the painting.

While inciting the group into a collective fist-thumping on the carpet (to simulate the wolf’s nocturnal scampering around the walls of the city), it occurred to me to consider the differences in using representational and abstract art within a gallery education context. Working with the modern and contemporary art collection at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, it became clear to me that the freedom with which children were able to engage with works of art was appropriate to the openness of the works themselves. Very young children, in particular, responded with ease and enthusiasm to many works that teenagers found more challenging. Art made out of splashes and drips to them was the very definition of art in any case. Interpreting its relation to the real world was occasionally a matter of somewhat impatient explanation (“that’s a fox, obviously“).

The National Gallery collection, however, which spans about 700 years of Western European painting, is entirely concerned with representational narrative work, to which children respond in very different ways. As an educator, it can be challenging to encourage children to think creatively about evidently devotional or didactic works of art, especially those of the early Renaissance. There remains in both cases a desire on the educator’s part to facilitate a measured response to a work that respects an object’s historical context and apparent intention.

As difficult as these things are to assess, I suspect that most educators would see their role as enabling children and teenagers to gain both comfort and confidence in approaching art from any period, which necessarily involves directing them towards appropriate responses via observation and conversation. To what extent, though, are interpretations ‘guided’ by educators – and is this their role? I’d love to hear other educators’ experiences of working with art of all periods and the challenges involved.

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