Staff at Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery in Coventry took something of a gamble on their latest educational project: turning over the Rugby Borough Collection of 20th century paintings and one of their large galleries to nine and ten year olds in their penultimate year at St Andrew's Benn Primary School, Rugby.
Fifteen children had the task of curating the gallery's annual public exhibition with exhibits chosen from the collection housed at Warwick University.
The gallery offered the project to Rugby schools, and St Andrew's Benn responded immediately. Headteacher Carol Etherington saw this involvement with works of art as a chance for the children to learn skills which are difficult to teach in a didactic way, She has not been disappointed. "The children have had to evaluate their own ideas against others' suggestions", she says. "They have been able to express feelings to each other which the paintings have provoked and listen to the different responses of their classmates. They have had to work as a team, and sometimes abandon their own choice to fit in with the team's objectives."
But what of the results? For someone entering the gallery, it is a vibrant and enticing exhibition, drawing you into a variety of spaces and beckoning you round corners into a new, and different, atmosphere.
The variety of media and artistic styles is wide. Together, the 42 works seem to give a kaleidoscopic impression of 20th century life from such artists as Ruskin Spear, Paula Rego, John Minton and Carel Weight. An early task was to find a theme. This took place in school, where Amanda Daly, assistant curator of the Mead Gallery and Brian Bishop, Warwick Arts Centre's education officer, looked at photographs of paintings with the children and helped them develop a sense of how images are grouped by theme or style. Pupils worked in groups to curate a mini-exhibition from postcards and select one image for a poster explaining the rationale for their selection.
Then the great moment came: a day's visit to the university where 100 paintings from the Rugby Collection were arranged on the floor around the walls of the gallery from which the exhibits had to be selected.
Amanda Daly said: "Pupils put forward possible themes and the idea of looking through a window began to emerge in discussion. This led to the thought that windows can be in the memory or the imagination as well, thus allowing a wide range of work to be included."
Working in groups, each student selected and argued for three works that they felt should be included. In the afternoon, the selection had to be pruned and refined. Arguments became impassioned at times but, says Carol Etherington, "They listened to one another with respect and learnt that 'I like-don't like' wasn't enough, 'because' was important, too, and in justifying their ideas they learnt a lot of new things from each other." Their ideas have been incorporated in the form of accompanying texts: short poems, or prose pieces mounted beside the paintings: "the oranges, reds and yellows bounce off and jump out at you", says Matthew Ingram of Brad Davis's "Mountain Hen". Paul Nash's "View R", provoked two short poems from Alison Carter and Kamram Malik, both catching the mood of the painting.
While the young curators were writing their texts and choosing a title for the exhibition (Seek and Find), their classmates were working with dancer and choreographer Louise Katerega to create their own interpretation of the paintings.
Four individual short dance pieces were presented at the opening ceremony, echoing the diversity of styles in the exhibition, from the witty, family picnic sketch, suggested by Leon Underwood's colour lithograph, "Hyde Park", and the progress of the seasons inspired by Peter Coker's, "Forest IX", to purely abstract patterns of shape and movement. It brought three months of work to a splendid climax. AF Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, until December 7. Enquiries: 01203 524524.