Gainsborough for everyone

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Dulwich Art Gallery hopes to change the way we look at the world, with the Old Masters' help. Simon Midgley reports.

IN 1984 the Inner London Education Authority initiated an experiment. Four teachers were seconded to London art galleries and museums to make the institutions more welcoming to college and school visitors.

Museums and galleries were thought to have a slightly haughty attitude to young people, who were made to feel fortunate to be allowed to visit in the first place.

One of the seconded employees was Gillian Wolfe, a secondary art teacher, who opted to go to Dulwich Art Gallery, the oldest public art gallery in Britain.

The south-east London gallery, home to a fine collection of paintings by 17th and 18th-century masters, had a slightly snooty reputation. Mrs Wolfe was not expected to last much longer than three months.

Today, 16 years, 14 national and international museum awards and an MBE later, Mrs Wolfe, is still working at the gallery which houses works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Her outreach art education programme is known nationally for excellence and creativity.

The work includes programmes with adult centres and schools, a series of four-day art courses and an art club for the unemployed and socially excluded.

"England has a very literary culture," Mrs Wolfe added. "You learn so much through words and facts. We don't look enough. We are not very good at the subtleties of what we see in terms of design, architecture or paintings. All our programmes are designed to help you look."

During a recent year-long closure for refurbishment, the gallery's education department developed two additional ground-breaking outreach programmes.

A social inclusion programme, the Art Icebreaker outreach project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to make the gallery's works accessible to those who may never have visited a gallery before.

Lecturers deliver courses in adult community sites and schools. The sites include a residential rehabilitation centre for homeless people with addictions, a residential centre for refugees and asylum-seekers, an adolescent psychiatric unit and a high security prison.

The project aims to inspire creative ideas by showing and discussing large laminated reproductions of the gallery's old master paintings in the adult community sites. Courses, which last at least six weeks, enable participants to produce their own art.

The Does Art Make A Difference? project, supported by the Department fo Education and Employment, is designed to show how learning through the visual arts can make a difference to the lives of individuals in challenging educational establishments.

These include: a children's home with secure facilities for young people who are a risk to themselves or others; a special school for those with physical and medical difficulties; and a secondary school nurture unit for badly behaved children.

"We can communicate with a very challenging and wide audience and that is not always the case in fine art galleries. We are also pretty well known for our economy, of being able to do so much with few resources," Mrs Wolfe said.

"We are always trying to push the boundaries of what can be done in a fine art gallery. We don't sit still. We are always looking for new audiences and thinking: 'Well, how can we communicate with them?' " As far as attracting new kinds of visitors to the museum is concerned Mrs Wolfe realised that the key was to establish continuing relationships with them.

"Every time somebody comes here, it's got to be memorable," she said. "Even if we have not taught them great facts about the history of art the first time they come, it's the coming back that matters more."

Visitors are met at the door by a teacher or guide who stays with them the entire time. When leaving visitors are escorted to the exit, helped with their coats and bade goodbye.

Mrs Wolfe said: "They don't wander. They don't mill, because what would be the point? We try to discourage clipboards and note-taking because our programme is designed to help them look at the pictures and decode them so they can come back and look another time on their own."

The gallery's volunteer helpers consist of guides, state-qualified teachers and museum-trained non-teachers. They lay on educational programmes and tours. The gallery also has 22 artists in residence, including a storyteller, an actor, a special needs teacher and a science education expert.

She added:"They are often asked back to the schools. Children write letters to the gallery and the guides answer them. It's a close relationship.

"When this gallery was in danger of closing some years ago because it was in a poor financial state, the people who cared were not just the art cognoscenti, but also all the ordinary people in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark.

"What we have done is special. We have put these long tap roots down into the community and they think it's their gallery because of the special relationship we have built up."

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