Aleks Sierz visits the Whitechapel Gallery and finds how easily children can relate to contemporary art.
The Whitechapel Art Gallery, in London's East End, draws inspiration from that driest of sources, the evaluation form used for gathering feedback from workshops.
But after Whitechapel workshops, students tend to wax lyrical. For example, Shah Argandawi, aged 14, wrote: "I enjoyed experimenting with different ideas using perspective, texture, light and many different shapes and materials. We also had the freedom to do what we wanted."
The aim of the Rev Canon Barnett, a philanthropist who set up the gallery in 1901, was to bring art to local people. "Education remains at the heart of our way of working," says Jane Sillis, head of community education. In the past 20 years its programmes have been much admired and last year some 4,500 children took part in them, about 2,000 coming on school visits, 1,300 to workshops, and the rest on other projects.
Jane Sillis says: "For lots of youngsters, GCSE art can be the most important exam: it's the one that many do best at." How do you explain that? "I was talking to the head of Stoke Newington school and he thinks that a lot of bilingual kids do better at art than at language-based work. St Angela's Ursuline school in Newham does best at GCSE and A-level art, well above the national average. Even if it isn't valued much by society, art's a popular subject."
The core of the gallery's programme for schools is practical workshops. "Each year, we offer about 32 workshops for Years 1 to 9," says Sillis. "The two-hour events are led by a pair of artists and have 15 participants. They involve discussing the exhibition and then making something in response to it."
For example, at the moment there's an exhibition by German conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel, whose work is "very difficult for adults" because she uses a wide range of different materials. "But primary school kids don't have a problem with conceptual art," says Sillis. "They find it easy to use different materials."
For example, they've taken the egg form trockel uses in her work - a fertility symbol - and they make eggs out of soap. "They're echoing the process the artist used, but without direct imitation. It's something they'd never do at school."
In another workshop, called Krishna the Divine Lover, children from Ellen Wilkinson primary were told about Krishna, Hinduism and miracles, and then shown the gallery's exhibition on these themes. Dividing into small groups, the children performed their own "miracles" and then illustrated them with life-size paintings.
Last year, the gallery's big success was a careers day for 13 to 16-year-olds. "We wanted to show that if you do GCSE art, there are lots of opportunities - you don't have to be a lonely artist in a garret. We got youngish professionals to talk about what they did: a fashion designer who'd worked for Vivienne Westwood, a video-maker, an artist and a documentary film-maker."
The event attracted about 70 children. "It was wonderful - we got excellent feedback from teachers who'd sent them and the students were really positive." Those evaluation forms glowed with praise.
Sillis's own career has been quite traditional "I did art history - but we wanted to demonstrate that there are lots of different options."
One of the Whitechapel's basic aims is "helping teachers deliver art in the national curriculum". Its GCSE workshops and A-level discussion sessions are very popular. "St Angela's Ursuline says it felt that students who came to our GCSE workshops were doing better than their peers," says Sillis. Part of the stimulus comes from "treating them as young adults, they come by themselves, and meet kids from other schools.
"But the message we get is that GCSE students are good at practical work; they still find it hard to talk about contemporary art - as we all do," she says. "So we're developing a method of discussion which is very open-ended. We feel that what the students think is valid."
Who uses the gallery? "About 60 per cent of our users are from Tower Hamlets schools. For many it's within walking distance. But what tends to happen is that at a certain age children stop going to galleries. So we've spent a lot of time building links with the University of East London, Guildhall University and Hackney College. We have contact with youth groups and they come to workshops. For the past two years, we've run video residencies for university students."
At the start of each new exhibition there's a teacher's preview, as well as about four in-service sessions a year. Run by one of the artists from the workshop programme as well as a teacher - "it carries much more weight if a teacher talks to their peers," says Sillis - the INSET sessions involve teachers helping create teaching materials. Every pack of teacher's materials is different. And so are those evaluation forms.
For further information about workshops and teaching materials contact Whitechapel Art Gallery Community Education department 0171 522 7855.