There is a no-nonsense touch about Gillian Wolfe, a hint of steel behind the welcoming manner and elegant dress. Her success as head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, where she is celebrating her 20th anniversary, owes as much to determination and economic rigour as it does to innovation and a passionate desire to share the treasures of this delightful space. She is, of necessity, a stickler.
Ms Wolfe walks through the gallery shop, where her latest, beautifully illustrated children's book, Look: body language in art, is on display, then leads on to a studio in the gallery's award-winning extension, the Sackler Centre for Arts Education, where a class in architecture has just finished. The original building, designed by Sir John Soane, is itself a resource. Indeed, it features on the A-level history of art syllabus. It houses a collection assembled by two London art dealers, Noel Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, for the king of Poland in the 1790s. Political upheaval left the dealers with a collection of 180 paintings, including notable works by Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin and Le Brun, which were bequeathed in 1810 to Dulwich College.
The top-lit gallery, with its vista of arches, also houses a mausoleum containing the bodies of Desenfans, his wife, Margaret, and Bourgeois, who left money to pay for the building of the gallery. On a table in the studio are the components of a demonstration model.
Ms Wolfe does not miss a teaching opportunity. "This is exactly how Sir John Soane would have designed an arch," she says. "See if you can put it together." The specially made wooden bricks fit neatly into a curve and, miraculously, when the keystone is put in place, the supports can be removed and a perfect arch remains. Ms Wolfe does not let you off or show you how it's done; with encouragement you work it out for yourself.
When asked about her own background, she is likely to wave in the direction of some printed material and tell you instead about the three strands of the education programme for all parts of the community: daily sessions in the gallery itself; practical, creative art activities in the Sackler studio, opened in 2000; and a wide-ranging outreach programme that has included long-term projects with the elderly, young psychiatric patients, Wandsworth prison, a centre for women and girls in Brixton, a remand home, a hospice and a residential drug rehabilitation centre. As Ms Wolfe puts it: "We have a presence in places where you wouldn't expect to find any sort of art, let alone a posh fine-art gallery."
So how did this all begin? With an MBE, five award-winning children's books and 14 major education awards to her name, Ms Wolfe has come a long way since she started as a primary teacher in 1974. She sits on countless committees and is a sometime adviser to government departments. "I knew quite soon," she says, "that I was not a fantastic artist; that my creativity would be expressed through other people."
She had already moved to the secondary sector,and been appalled at the way galleries treated visiting groups from her school in nearby Deptford, when, 20 years ago, she was one of four experienced teachers invited by the Inner London Education Authority to change things. They were each seconded to a gallery of their choice. She picked Dulwich and started with an idealism that remains undimmed.
In 1817, Dulwich was the first gallery to open its doors to the public, seven years before the National. Students flocked to it from the beginning, mainly to copy paintings. These days Ms Wolfe heads a team of 35 volunteer teachers, who are assessed, trained and supported, and 40 associated artists, all constantly inventing new ways of relating to the community.
Over lunch in the gallery cafe she points out highlights in exceptionally well produced brochures.
The architecture tour is one of several regularly offered to secondary schools. An "Introduction to Baroque Art" and a "Contextual Study Tour", which considers the social, political and cultural climate of the 17th and 18th centuries, are others. Schools can also request a specific theme for their visit. Primary schools can book whole art days, or attend short sessions led by a storyteller or on such topics as the science of art or buildings, or they can follow themes such as animals in paintings, Bible stories or costume. Children can learn techniques; collage, figure drawing and landscape are options. "We don't have people milling about," says Ms Wolfe. "They are greeted at the door, looked after and taken to the door at the end. It's like being a visitor in someone's house. And they learn to look at the paintings with the help of someone, not with printed sheets and labels." Unemployed and elderly people, families, art students, teachers doing Inset: all kinds of groups find their way into the gallery.
Slim in her black leather skirt (which even her teenage daughter has pronounced "cool"), Ms Wolfe talks animatedly about the latest project: digital gallery interactive teaching (Digit), in which students will use palmtop computers to preview works before following individual learning programmes at the gallery. She is understandably proud that Dulwich is taking a lead once more. A one-year interactive pilot scheme with Warren comprehensive school, in the London borough of Barking, at GCSE, AS and A2 levels, linking school, gallery and home, has been a great success. It will be extended in a two-year partnership project with Smartzone Excellence in Cities action zone to four primaries in the London borough of Southwark.
Visits are free to schools, but the gallery has no government funding, so money, including sponsorship, has to be found for each project. But this, too, has a positive side. "We are light on our feet. It is one of the benefits of being an independent institution." And that rigorousness comes to the fore again. "We print on both sides of the paper. We switch off lights. We look at the budgets all the time."
What next? For Gillian Wolfe there is already another book to think about, "something about light probably"; for the gallery, with which she seems synonymous, a continued desire to do nothing less than "change people's lives".