Art house secrets

28th February 2003 at 00:00
At Tate Modern students can discover the art of managing a gallery. Jerome Monahan reports

The Tate Modern The Tate's 2003 Paul Hamlyn Foundation schools' programme offers activities, events and resources for primary and secondary levels through the Tate Modern and Tate Britain School and Teacher Programme. All courses are free. Tel: 020 7887 3959 or click on the education link at www.tate.org. ukhomedefault.htm

Participation in a Tate Modern study day begins as soon as you enter the gallery's Bankside home. Confronted by Anish Kapoor's gigantic arterial blood-coloured PVC membrane sculpture - Marsyas - that currently fills the turbine hall of the former power station, it is hard not to wonder at the effort that must have gone into its construction, positioning and preservation.

Such concerns are particularly relevant on a sixth-form What is a Gallery? study day - one of a series of free Tate educational events funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The focus is entirely on the background work and thinking that goes into creating, interpreting and protecting art on display. During the five-hour course, students get the opportunity to quiz those involved in all these backroom activities. It is hoped that this will enrich their understanding of how institutions such as the Tate Modern function.

All participants are asked to bring their sketchbooks and, in keeping with other sixth-form events, study days are teacher-free. The emphasis throughout is on building students' independent capacity for intelligent and articulate engagement with the pieces they encounter.

After an initial "base-line" discussion about the nature and function of galleries, plus some defining of terms, we move to the gallery proper and an encounter with Simon Bolitho, an assistant curator of interpretation. It is his task to bridge the gap between the vision and scholarship of the curators and the need to provide responsible explanations for the public.

This issue is particularly acute at the Tate Modern where many of the works can seem inaccessible.

In front of Max Ernst's surreal painting Celebes we learn of the constraints facing the museum's interpretive staff - restricted to 90 words per wall-caption and hoping always to provide written or aural information that opens up the art works rather than attempting to provide anything too categorical.

Next, we gather with Patricia Smithen of the conservation department before Lileth - a vast multi-media work by Anselm Kiefer, combining oil, ash and copper wire on canvas. She shows us a plastic folder containing all the bits that came off it the last time it was moved. It is a lesson in the problems conservators face given the pressure to lend and to receive items for one-off exhibitions.

Smithen introduces us to some tools of her trade - light and humidity meters - and explains the challenges she faces in protecting works of art from the "dusty and flaky" army of visitors, three million strong, who pass through the Tate Modern each year. Her session is an opportunity for students to reflect on the kind of media with which they are working and the degree of physical contact they want people to have with their art.

The afternoon's events are overseen by the day's facilitator, artisteducator Liz Ellis. The emphasis shifts back to the participants, who are asked first to attempt their own interpretations of the primitive sculptures comprising Germaine Richier's Chess Board and then, in groups, to take on curatorial responsibilities for different rooms. The brief for this final session is to explore ways of arranging or explaining a group of works in ways that might increase the public's interaction with them. One student's feedback was typical of the group's overall enthusiasm: "I did not realise how much effort went into organising a gallery's layout. It made me realise the smallest thing needs careful thought."

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