I’m back home in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ), visiting family and enjoying some much-needed sunshine. On previous trips I haven’t made contact with museum education peers, but having had such a positive experience of interviewing practitioners in the US, I felt this was too good an opportunity to miss. I moved to the UK 17 years ago and have never worked in the NZ cultural sector, so I can’t claim any homeground advantage. It’s been fascinating – and a bit strange – to be in a part of the world that is so deeply familiar to me, yet learning about a whole other museum and gallery education context. I lined up a few meetings before coming home and I’m looking forward to sharing my learning over my next few blog posts. First up, the City Gallery Wellington.
The City Gallery was established in 1980. It changed venue twice before taking root in the old public library on Civic Square in 1993. It doesn’t have a permanent collection so the focus is on a rolling, ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions. I can still vividly recall the Robert Mapplethorpe show I saw there in 1995/96 when I was an art history undergraduate. It was thrilling to brush up against the New York art world and see ‘the real thing’, not something you can take for granted when living in a far-flung corner of the Pacific. The City Gallery has always punched above its weight and has presented solo exhibitions by artists such as William Kentridge, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring, and Cerith Wyn Evans. This outward-facing interest in international practice is complemented by programming that looks closer to home, showcasing Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha (of European descent) talent.
It was pure luck that my visit to Wellington coincided with the City Gallery’s current show, Cindy Sherman (19 Nov 2016 – 19 Mar 2017), who I’ve admired since I was a teenager. The exhibition focuses on work made since 2000 and includes 52 large-format photographic prints, grouped by theme. The richly-saturate colour and crisply-defined imagery, achieved through the use of digital photography, give the eye so much to explore. It’s possible to examine every strand of hair, every artfully-applied shadow and every prosthetic addition that dramatically alter the artist’s appearance. Not surprisingly, the ‘Clowns’ room is the most creepy, but ‘Society Portraits’ are also pretty unnerving. The main exhibition is accompanied by a display of archive material from Sherman’s own collection of found albums; it includes “over 200 photographs taken by and for guests to Casa Susanna, a 1960s upstate New York retreat for cross-dressing men”. These images of stereotypical femininity, constructed through the use of bouffant wigs, glamorous ballgowns, heavy makeup, and playful poses, are in fantastic juxtaposition with Sherman’s own construction of female types.
A show like Cindy Sherman is an absolute gift to gallery educators. The work is immediate enough to grab the most reluctant of gallery-goers, yet complex enough to hold those who want to go deeper and explore meaty topics such as identity, gender and feminism. I met with gallery educators, Claire Hopkins and Helen Lloyd – half of the Learning team at the City Gallery – to find out about their programming. Claire and Helen devise and deliver the primary and secondary schools’ offer at the gallery. Their posts and programme are funded by a Ministry of Education scheme called Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC).
This funding is awarded on a three-year cycle, and it supports a huge range of activity across the country, including sites such as museums, zoos, performing arts venues, science and outdoor centres, and historic parks. I was gob-smacked at this level of government support for the arts and it’s amazing that the scheme has weathered the post-2008 economic downturn. Such commitment to getting kids out of school and learning in alternative contexts is impressive. The emphasis of the funding is on broadening access, and attendance targets are an important measure of success. This isn’t the whole story however, and evidence of impact is also valued; every visit is evaluated by the teachers, and their feedback informs the reflective practice of refining and developing programmes. The schools’ offer is also tailored to meet specific learning outcomes for teachers. Interestingly, there is no funding for early years’ provision – hopefully something that can be amended in future planning cycles.
In New Zealand, every primary school selects a theme each term that will be used to scaffold all subject delivery. Claire and Helen clearly have a good relationship with many schools and work closely with teachers to structure their programming and tap into whatever themes schools are using. Cross-curricular programming, especially at primary school level, is common practice so there are opportunities to make connections between Art (as a subject) and English, Science or Maths. Claire and Helen also promote interdisciplinary programming and have worked with a dance educator to run dance/art workshops. Their teachers’ resources, known as ‘resource cards’ are available online. The print version is an attractive A3 exhibition poster on one side, with key exhibition notes on the reverse, including pre- and post-visit activities, information on the artist, terminology, and some headline concepts.
Claire and Helen have the use of an Education Studio, currently set-up for photography workshops responding to the Sherman exhibition. It’s a good-sized room with plenty of natural light. Claire explained that they place the emphasis of their practical workshops on process, critical thinking and ideas. When the kids are creating their own characters to photograph, they are encouraged to slow down and really think about what will make a successful image – the use of colour and layering textures in clothing, how the pose, expression, costume and makeup all have to come together, and how to generate psychological depth, and not just a funny face. Concepts and ideas drive contemporary art practice, so it stands to reason that the talks, tours and workshops that Claire and Helen programme are also looking to get under the surface of the work; one of the key learning intentions of their programmes is to stimulate and facilitate critical and creative thinking.
In addition to the education programme for schools, there is also a public programme for general audiences. I didn’t get the chance to meet Tracey and Meredith who run this offer, but the concept-driven, interdisciplinary ethos of the education programme appears to run across the whole organisation and shape the public programmes too. The current events brochure promotes a huge range of activities including: monthly ‘Lates’, evening openings that celebrate all my favourite things, “art, music, film, books, beer, wine, food”; a film series selected by Sherman and City Gallery curator Aaron Lister; a talks programme that explores topics such as celebrity culture, transgender rights, photography, costume, and mise-en-scene; and a panel series on contemporary feminism, with evocative titles such as ‘Feminism: The Morning After’ and ‘Ageing and Agency’. There are also monthly exhibition tours, titled ‘Gallery Babes’, for parents and carers who are welcome to bring their babies along too.
And finally – if that wasn’t enough! – there are some really wonderful interpretation offers also available. A large resource area, located outside the Education Studio and adjacent to the archive displays, has plenty of comfortable seating and tables for further study. There is a film of Sherman talking about her practice, a ‘magazine rack’ presenting copies of Harper’s Bazaar alongside the gallery’s print material about Sherman’s show, and an ‘art cart’ with free drawing materials. One of the large tables has a set of ring binders and cards; each card has a large thumbnail image from the exhibition and the invitation to ‘create a story with these characters, then add it to our collection to share’. I loved flicking through what others had written; it was so interesting to see how much humour and pathos Sherman’s work inspired.
I also picked up a gorgeous piece of print (which I assumed was for me to take…) of a poem written by Hera Lindsay Bird, responding to her favourite work in the exhibition, ‘Untitled 404’. It was commissioned by the gallery and read at the opening. I felt this was a really generous act by the gallery, to want to give a poem to audiences to supplement their viewing of the exhibition. The whole place has a thoughtful and positive energy about it – open to a variety of artforms and ideas, and actively looking to provide many routes into the work. A capital city should have cultural offers of this calibre and it’s great to have something so wonderful in my home town.