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

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

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.

“Ark 1x1 is a meaningful model which may be of value to other counties, particularly rural counties where access to public art facilities may be difficult or limited.”

But, of course, there’s an all too familiar problem in supporting arts education: money. McHugh recently returned from a Fulbright scholarship in New York where, for eight months, she was based at the Lincoln Centre of Education, the educational wing of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts.

The trip clarified many ideas about the arts for her, she says. "We have a high quality of work in Ireland, but we also have a short-term approach to arts education. Funding is rarely available beyond a year. In the US, partnerships with major foundations allow the delivery of arts projects in schools but with the exception of the Ireland Funds that has not happened here. Ireland has an amazing capacity for the arts, but we can't do it with short-term approaches. What stops us from providing more incubation spaces and pilot projects?"

Last month, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer urged NYC's Department of Education to secure a separate budget line for the arts in education. His reasoning was clear: arts education improves the creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills of young people.

McHugh wants to see a clear and dedicated budget line for arts education in Ireland, where a project could be developed over three to five years. What would this entail? “Innovative pilot projects, continuous professional development for teachers and professional development for artists who want to work with children and young people. It’s also important to look at providing this in rural areas where children have less access to cultural facilities; those children have just as much a right to access the arts as children based in urban areas. Access for young people with special needs has to be considered as well.”

This is not just about being nice to children, says McHugh. We have obligations to meet. “Ireland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that children should have a right to the arts. There needs to be uniformity in how we approach it. Some teachers do extraordinary work, but it is too important to be left to the passion of individual teachers.”