If the children can’t come to the gallery ...

A new project from The Ark sets a template for arts education

When the school is a gallery: Pupils from  St Mary’s National School, Drung, Co Cavan consider  From an Abandoned Work VI by Diarmuid Delargy, as part of the Ark 1x1 project

When the school is a gallery: Pupils from St Mary’s National School, Drung, Co Cavan consider From an Abandoned Work VI by Diarmuid Delargy, as part of the Ark 1x1 project

Tue, May 20, 2014, 02:00

How can you engage children with art? And does it even matter what they think of paintings? Eina McHugh, director of The Ark, the cultural centre for children based in Dublin’s Temple Bar, sees a bigger picture. She says arts education is not only crucial for a healthy functioning economy, it is a basic human right.

It’s now over a year since the Arts in Education Charter was launched to great fanfare by the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and the Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan.

The plan, for the first time, put arts education at the forefront of learning. It promised the creation of arts-rich schools, €5 concert and theatre tickets for schoolchildren, and an aim for every pupil to visit a national cultural institution at least once in secondary school. More controversially, it declared that artists in receipt of public funding or tax exemptions were obliged to donate time and skills to a local school.

The foundations for this ambitious plan have now been laid by an implementation group led by NUI emeritus professor John Coolahan, and it is expected to begin making an impact from this autumn and into 2015. But there have been few practical examples of how the charter could work.

Until now. The Ark may have found a model that could transform how we approach the visual arts in education. Last year, it began a project, Ark 1x1, to bring art to primary schools around county Cavan. The idea is straightforward: 13 artworks by well-known Irish artists visit a Cavan school for three weeks at a time and are then rotated with a different picture. The exhibition includes 10 pictures from The Ark’s own collection and three on loan from the Arts Council’s collection. The children can explore the art at their own pace and have their own take on what the linking theme is.

“For some of the children, this is their first engagement with an original work of art, not a computer generated image,” says McHugh.

“Children are bringing in their parents and grandparents to show and ‘explain’ the artworks. Spontaneous corridor conversations about art have been overheard between older and younger children. Interactions between classes are organised. This really is a whole school project.”

Some teachers were initially daunted by the project, but many say they have learnt new skills and garnered insights from the reaction of the children.

“It’s a ground-breaking project, with rich potential,” says McHugh. “Children and their teachers are encouraged to respond to the artworks at their own pace and leisure, to take time for reflection and contemplation. Every participating child is given a personal Ark 1 x1 journal for imaginative drawings, responses and thoughts. The approach is a ‘slow seeing’, immersive engagement with art. The Ark provides free classroom guides, with support material on every artwork and stimulating questions. These are intended to enrich a range of interpretation of the work, not to lead children to some pre-determined outcome.”

Non-Dublin centric
The Arts in Education Charter aspires to place creativity at the heart of our future as a country. McHugh says that it is important to develop new, non-Dublin centric models of arts education.

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