Pupils as curators make an impression

15th February 2008 at 00:00
It's tough being a curator. You have to be aware of the merits of a constantly shifting and emerging roster of talent. You have to understand the nuances of different styles and genres, and how they might complement each other in a gallery. You have to risk disappointing artists who have their heart set on seeing their work on display.

In short, it's not a job to hand over to people without years of experience behind them.

Yet a group of Edinburgh pupils has successfully taken on these responsibilities. Not only were they curators of an outstanding collection of art - they also created the works. The Spot of Imagination project was unlike any previous schools arts project in Edinburgh, in the unprecedented amount of responsibility given to children.

More than 100 pupils from five schools - St Nicholas Special School and Craigroyston, Prestonfield, St Catherine's and Westburn primaries - started by selecting the artists they wanted to work with from the dozens who wanted to offer their services.

Mainly P5-6 pupils at the primaries and an S1 class from St Nicholas, they also studied art in Edinburgh's museums and galleries - not just to see what was on display, but to find out how to create an exhibition.

"We wanted them to have a bit more control of what they were doing," says Kate Marshall, one of the city's cultural co-ordinators who came up with the project.

The children then got to work on separate projects involving sculpture, printmaking, textiles, ceramics, mosaics, drawing and painting.

"They really wanted to do this, because they were doing things they couldn't normally do at school," she says.

Two children from each school were charged with selecting the art work to go on display in the city council's mobile art gallery - a weighty responsibility since this marked the gallery's first exhibition made up entirely of children's work. They had to make some tough decisions, setting aside their fair-minded instincts to have everyone's work on display to decide instead what worked best together.

The gallery then travelled to each of the schools, as well as the City Arts Centre, and some work is on display at the office of Brodies solicitors, which supported the Scottish Arts Council-funded project.

"The children worked amazingly together," Miss Marshall says. "I think it proved to us that they are always going to exceed your expectations of what they can do.

"It became very obvious that there was no need for adults to intervene and make explanations because they totally grasped things themselves. It showed us that if you take the time to plan and prepare, then dare to take the risks, you get some fantastic rewards."

She was particularly impressed with how well children dealt with the job of curator. "They wrestled with the notion that it's not necessarily to do with being fair, it's to do with great work and the relationship between different pieces. For example, they were interested in looking at how the different textures combined.

"They were exploring some quite complicated ideas about how you present things and what goes well together and what to leave out - when is enough enough? There's a complex intellectual process going on."

Craigroyston Primary teacher, Barbara Wilson, says: "The project helped the children's confidence - they felt very professional and proud. It gave them a chance to use things they couldn't normally get, things that I've never seen pupils get access to in 35 years of teaching. We've never had professional artists work with pupils in this way."

There is, however, a less upbeat postscript: the role of cultural co-ordinator looks likely to disappear from the country as the Scottish Government will not fund the posts after 2010.

Miss Marshall says this "massive blow" will make it impossible to carry off ambitious projects such as Spot of Imagination.

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