Zane Zajančkauska, Culture Theorist
Educational programmes in contemporary art institutions: experiments and traps
“Here we can see an apparently empty landscape,” a man in a bright blue polo neck sweater and a casually slung scarf tells a small group of visitors eyeing Zarina Bhimji’s photographs at London’s White-chapel Gallery. If not his appearance, then the badge under his scarf reveals that he is a museum employee. “The photo was taken in Cairo, but we don’t know that, as nothing in the photo indicates it, because here we see... we actually see nothing but a vast emptiness, a free space for thought,” the man continues. I have joined the group by accident and it sounds to me like complete rubbish, nevertheless the speaker is surrounded by a gaggle of earnest visitors craning their necks with interest, no doubt hoping to better “understand art” through the guide’s narration.

The many different methods for “helping people to understand art” have evolved over time into an entire separate branch that has even undergone cardinal changes. What was once termed “museum pedagogy” or “education in museums and galleries” is now described in the contemporary art context using fancier words: mediation, art outreach, kunstvermitlung.

In addition to these two impulses – the natural evolution of museum pedagogy and the “natural” interest of contemporary art in education as one of the structures weaving throgh – the spread of diverse mediation practices has also been spurred on by a more pragmatic tendency to demand that art fulfils ever more tasks: to educate (more actively than merely creating and exhibiting works of art), socialise (more actively than the mere fact of the artwork and any discussions surrounding it), and develop the urban environment (more actively than the mere fact of art and the existence of art institutions).
Art Space The Showroom in London. Views from the exposition and reaserch activity. 2012
Publicity photos
Today you would be unlikely to find an art institution (museum, gallery or art centre) in London, Berlin, New York or Paris which doesn’t offer an extensive range of educational or mediation services1 in addition to regular exhibition programmes. Moreover, mediation is increasingly shifting away from traditional exhibition texts and curator-led excursions through exhibitions, and sometimes it seems to be moving away from the artworks themselves. Nevertheless, this is territory worthy of exploration, particularly in borderline cases where it is hard to tell if the phenomenon is an attempt to address new audiences, or participative art practice, or an artist’s experiment using the public as guinea pigs.

This article is based on a study of mediation practices at the Leipzig Contemporary Art Museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum and the NGBK art centre in Berlin, London’s Whitechapel Gallery and Camden Art Centre, as well as discussions with art mediators and artists.(1)

The curator as mediator

In preparing the annual exhibition from her museum’s collection, Leipzig Contemporary Art Museum curator Julia Schaeffer invited people from various groups to become curators. Each group – residents from nearby houses, artists, students, the museum’s technical workers – was entrusted with creating a section of the exhibition, which was later given the name Puzzle. “All the persons addressed learn about the curator’s job and the museum collection, and they are forced to think and develop an opinion about the art works and get into discussions,” says Schaeffer about her mediating role. There was an unprecedented buzz of activity in the collection depository and the curators of Puzzle may have thought about and discussed the works and the role of the art institution more intensively than ever before. In other words, a relationship was formed between the curators and the museum beyond a casual acquaintance, which is the dream of any institution. Schaeffer formulated her interest thus: mediation as curating practice.

A similar approach was adopted by the curators’ group for the exhibition The Pilgrim, The Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker) at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven(2) (The Netherlands). The exhibition brings together great masters from various periods (Picasso, Abramovic, Narkevich, Beuys etc.) and is based on the maxim that there is no single “right” way to view a work of art. The viewer is invited to choose one of four different roles, each with a specific model of behaviour (perception). The Pilgrim sets off on an intimate, personal search of enlightenment, in which the journey is as important as the destination. The Tourist, having broken away from daily routine, is in search of the unfamiliar, often relying on guidebooks to pronounce what is authentic or unusual. The Flaneur wanders around without a set objective and is open to everything but at the same time never really becomes attached to anything and keeps a distance. Meanwhile, the Worker is prepared to encounter difficulties, is ready to get involved and understands reality through the prism of action. The exhibition also employs “game masters” who help viewers to get into their chosen roles by offering challenging questions, instructions and advice. In this way, viewing and perception become the centre of attention rather than the works of art (or not only the works of art). In the case of Puzzles, the museum curator was just a directorcoordinator, giving the stage to the interpretation of the artworks and the art institution by the guest curators. Despite the fact that (unlike in Puzzles) the curators of The Pilgrim, The Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker) do not disappear behind the scenes and the sharp insight into viewer types is in itself the curators’ message, it functions at the same time as a staged situation, allowing perception of the artwork to be the centre of interest of the exhibition.

The successful curator will always be a mediator and interpreter, whether it is in choosing the works of art, and where and how they are exhibited, or by informing about the works in their descriptions, the name of the exhibition and publicity materials. However, both the Leipzig Puzzle and The Pilgrim, The Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker) at the Van Abbemuseum go a few steps further, and prove that the curator or viewer can be central to the exhibition concept alongside the work of art and the artist (some would say – by pushing the artist to one side).

The standard set

One of London’s principal public galleries, the Whitechapel Gallery was established in 1901 in a district of immigrants and workers to bring art into the city’s “darkest corners.” Staying true to this mission, since the 1970s the gallery has sought, in addition to its exhibition programme, to create situations for bringing local people into contact with contemporary art. Today the example of Whitechapel is a good place to examine the “standard set” of educational programmes, from exhibition excursions and materials for schools to street projects outside the gallery premises and longstanding artist residencies in local schools.

In spring 2012, a personal exhibition by Gillian Wearing was on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Among the exhibited works was a series of photographs titled Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, 1992–1993. Wearing had approached random passers-by and invited them to write down their thoughts at that moment on a piece of paper, then photographed them holding the result. For Wearing this was an attempt to overturn the logic of documentary photography, because instead of allowing the photograph, its context and its viewer to assign an interpretation, here the object of the photograph was involved in creating the message.

The Whitechapel Gallery mediators offered excursions through the exhibition, explaining the work’s ideas and talking about the artist’s life story; “teaching materials” also were produced, posing challenging questions (Do the signs really reflect what the people think? Is it easier to confess to a stranger than a friend?). On Family Day, the artist’s mediators encouraged families to share their secrets by wearing masks, writing, speaking, drawing, marking a map and so on. The teenager programme participants used the internet to publish their filmed interviews with the exhibition curator, and their own reports of the exhibition. Taking into account that the public airing of deepest thoughts encouraged by Wearing in her series in the 1990s has gained an entirely different meaning in the Twitter age, gallery mediators organised a discussion on social networks and the concepts of the public and the private.

Most education programme developers stress that they try to work with the content rather than the form of the artworks. For example, a happening connected with the Wearing exhibition in which everyone was invited to photograph themselves holding signs inscribed with their thoughts at that moment, with the whole thing then published on Facebook (thus copying the artist’s action while ignoring her idea), was arranged by the Marketing rather than the Education Department, says Jean Tormey, the Whitechapel Gallery educational projects curator.

Alongside the “exhibition standard set,” Whitechapel Gallery also carries out mediation ideas that are not tied to any particular exhibition. For example, the project series On the Street called on artists to take an interest in the gallery neighbourhood, resulting in art happenings at the local market and in shops, while the Writer in Residence programme invites an author or a collective to spend a year getting involved in or adding to the gallery programme; every year an artwork is commissioned by children (the work evolves from a series of meetings and cooperation between the children and a selected artist), and several artists spend a year-long residence in a school. In this way artist Ania Bas and a class of 9th graders studied space: how the corners of a space are used or unused, how everyone uses space and what it means to them, what are the secret places, and how space can help or hinder a thought or action. The main benefit from the residency is the process itself, as the pupils are enticed into an artist’s way of thinking and acting which, quite possibly, may differ from the methods of acquiring knowledge pursued by the school’s curriculum. The result is also an exhibition or a work of art, but the extent to which it is a free-standing value, independently of the educational project, depends on the artist’s strategy.

In summary, it can be said that the Whitechapel Gallery’s mediation services encompass attempts to: 1) understand the language of art and think about what can be seen in a work of art; 2) develop artistic skills (drawing, shaping etc.); 3) encourage thinking about processes within the individual and society, thus indirectly demonstrating that art also has this potential; 4) promote associative or critical thinking, thereby approaching the methods of artistic practice.

A deception convenient for all

If we attempted to map today’s mediation efforts in an art institution, we would find that they drift somewhere between the roles of educator, curator and artist. Some of the most interesting border-line cases are those where educational programmes merge with participative ones, or to use Bourriaud‘s term, art practices with a relational aesthetic.

For example, the London art space The Showroom has named its educational programme Communal Knowledge and every year it invites a number of artists to collaborate with a group of local residents for the whole year. In 2012, German-Swedish artist Annette Krauss worked with one of the schools near The Showroom and took an interest in the “hidden curriculum” – the knowledge and skills that teenagers learn and share during school, but which are not part of the school curriculum. Krauss regularly meets with groups of teenagers to create a video archive of the hidden curriculum, and to discuss what is permissible/ forbidden, and which kind of learning process – the hidden or the visible – is the more essential. During the project, video works, installations and articles are being produced, which are then made public in the context of both art education and art itself. Another Communal Knowledge fellowship recipient, Emma Smith, has an interest in oral history, and together with local young people she collected stories which were turned into a play which was then performed at the 2011 Survival Kit festival.

Both projects have resulted in works that sit very comfortably in the artistic context and are exhibited in The Showroom, and later in other galleries and art institutions. For the project participants, teenagers living in vicinity of The Showroom, the connection with contemporary art may possibly fade in the course of the project, as it is more relevant for them to acquire knowledge in non-traditional ways (reading, learning at school, watched on TV). The teenagers consciously or unconsciously participate in creating art and experience the world they live in a different way, but perhaps they do not trouble themselves with reflections about contemporary art. In other words, if it can still be considered to be an educational programme, then it is more of an attempt to understand oneself better rather than art.

Asked whether The Showroom’s Communal Knowledge programmes are educational projects or rather a way of bringing together artists interested in participative practice, Communal Knowledge curator Louise Shelley is slightly taken aback and acknowledges that the Communal Knowledge projects mostly differ from others through their financial logic i.e. they receive support as educational activities. Thus the strategy (cunning?) of The Showroom is to bring funding closer to the creation of artworks and not (only) for events connected with exhibitions.

Where is the artist?

Returning to the completely “outdated” view that art is something created by an artist, I would like to take a reality check by asking: what is the artist’s place in the ever expanding territory of mediation?

Many artists are part of the mediation services industry. They lead workshops, hold residencies in schools, work with children and teenagers, try to motivate senior citizens and so on. However, the majority of artists interpreting works are not the same artists whose works appear in institutional exhibition halls, while the bulk of those whose works are on view often have no say (or even information) about the mediation activities surrounding their works. Moreover, no matter how broad or clever their content, art institution educational programmes are still widely perceived as a kind of nursery of the respective art institution.

“I have had conversations about that in the past with artists who say they have become very successful in their careers working with education projects, but there are, of course, also those who are concerned that their reputation will get labelled as “education artist“ (..) As an education programme curator I see sometimes an advantage if another artist interpreting an artist‘s work – something different comes around when you have one artist responding to the other artist’s work,” said the curator of the education programme at Camden Arts Centre, Greygory Vass. While it cannot be denied that extensive art education programmes have created new cooperation opportunuties for art institutions and artists (or to use the language of economics, new jobs have been created for artists), but at the same time – in a typical present-day conundrum – the artist is more likely to be compensated for rendering “additional services”, than for doing their real job of creating art.

Such barely concealed power structures and hierarchies within art institutions indicate once again that, paradoxically, as art becomes increasingly more potent in revealing various other power structures in society, the art world itself is dominated by all of the “values” that get criticised in exhibition halls: conservatism, a lack of self-criticism, patronage, new forms of colonialism and similar.

Concluding remarks

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is all splitting hairs – who cares, after all, who educates whom, why and with what motivation, surely the more activity in art or about art the better! Yet there are at least two reasons. Firstly, seeing as contemporary art institutions have become temples of criticism, to avoid being blatant hypocrites they should at least thematise the critiques (acknow-ledge them and make them visible), i.e. if artists are being sent into schools to “uncover” the hidden hierarchies of the education system, then the light ought to be shone on their own power structures as well. The second reason is closely linked to mediation as an activity based around art. Museums and galleries that manifest an ambitious, creative passion for mediation are often criticised for having too much mediation and not enough art. That is, if you are going to make art take on additional mediation tasks, you should make sure that the art doesn’t lose out in the process.

Educational programs a and the subtler forms of mediation are a way of breaking down misconceptions about the elitism of art; wide-ranging art education programmes not only result in regular exhibition visitors, they also help answer the question “why is the taxpayers’ money being spent on art institutions” and show why the institution can be a reasonable place to spend free time. At the same time, getting carried away with making art accessible may lead to what the Hungarian-Canadian sociologist Frank Furedi calls “dumbing down”. He writes: “There is now a barely contested consensus within the cultural and education establishment that access and so-cial inclusion should be at the heart of the missions of cultural institutions. (..) In Britain, there is a systematic attempt to reorient the cultural institutes from dealing with serious subjects to mounting exhibitions that are directly accessible to people. (..) This approach is vigorously pursued by the DCMS, and all the projects it funds now have to publish access targets and detail measures by which they are “widening access to a broad cross-section of the public for example by age, social class, and ethnicity.”(..)It is now never clear whether museums are masquerading as drop-in centres or community centres pretending to be museums.”(3)

It would be an exaggeration to say that an art institution which takes on ever expanding educational and explanatory functions runs the risk of “primitivising” the appreciation of art. Nevertheless it is important to determine what place and role is given to educational or mediation activities, and what is their content.

Translator into English: Filips Birzulis

(1) With thanks to the Contemporary Art Centre and the Robert Bosch Foundation for their support.
(2) Exhibition The Pilgrim, the Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker), Van Abbemuseum, curators: Charles Esche, Christiane Berndes, Galit Eilat, Steven ten Thije, Diana Franssen.
(3) Furedi, Frank. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st century philistinism. Continuum (London, New York), 2004, pp. 115–116.
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