A museum is teaching children to enjoy modern art. Jane Norrie reports.
One of many letters from satisfied pupils pinned to the wall in the education room of Moma, Oxford's stylish Museum of Modern Art, reads: "Dear Emma, Thank you for this trip. It was fantastic! super, flabbergasting!" Teachers as well as pupils have expressed appreciation. "Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put in to arrange our school visits. The children thoroughly enjoyed themselves and it was wonderful to see their imaginations unleashed."
Since April a reorganisation has allowed the museum's education department to appoint a schools specialist for the first time. While head of department Ian Cole is in charge of the programme for art students and academics, Emma Thomas has the role of schools and families co-ordinator. The ethos behind all their work is to make the museum relevant and accessible.
"The guiding principle," Ian Cole says, "is to encourage students and teachers to use their own knowledge and experience of the world to make confident responses to works of art."
With the new set-up the schools programme has been firing on all cylinders. Take the events for the current touring show Absolut Vision: Painting in the 1990s. A special preview for teachers, led by The Times art critic Richard Cork, attracted 200 visitors from as far afield as Plymouth.
For sixth-formers intending to apply for foundation courses, an in-depth practical course was arranged extending over three sessions and led by artistteacher Nicholas Hamper. For work at all levels there is an extensive free background pack dealing with exhibition themes, ways of accessing the paintings and including artists' statements about their work.
Featuring 19 artists under the age of 40 - in some cases with the paint still wet on the canvas - Absolut Vision is an up-to-date show of painting now. Including the work of four Turner Prize nominees (Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and Callum Innes) it may not be to the taste of some traditionalists.
I, however, was seeing it in the company of contemporary art aficiandos - a group of 11-year-olds from Year 6 at Millbrook School, Wantage. These children had so enjoyed a previous visit to Moma's Carl Andre exhibition (bricks and all), that their teachers had been inspired to follow up their pupils' interest.
By way of preparation some of the Year 6 teachers had been to the special preview. All in any case were provided with the background pack and given an in-school briefing from Emma Thomas, including a slide show of relevant paintings.
The year was then divided into four groups of 15 pupils, with each group attending on a different day. For their tour of the paintings the 15 were then sub-divided between Emma Thomas, their teacher and an accompanying mother with each child being given a set of seven detective trails to complete. The trails dealt with topics like art and language, reproductions in relation to originals, titles, the types of paint and variety of materials used and different ways of applying the paint.
During their two-hour tour of the three galleries, stopping to sit first in front of paintings selected by Emma Thomas then ones of their own choice, the children sparked off each other with their ideas and enthusiasm. They eagerly volunteered their own responses to the work, answered the questions on the trail sheets and drew in sketch books as they went round.
I was particularly impressed by the quality of their observation and perception, especially the way they responded to a large gallery of minimalist work. Unlike the adults who find abstraction "difficult", they were happy to accept the paintings as objects in their own right and quickly became absorbed in discovering how and why the artists had achieved their effects.
I was also impressed by the amount they learned. How to describe painted surfaces for example - were they shiny or matt, smooth or textured? How had the paint been applied - poured from a height onto a spinning disc, applied with a brush, with a draught-excluder or with the artist's hands? Painted directly on to the gallery wall, canvas or metal? What materials were used? Who could find examples of oil, of ordinary household paint, of glitter, of collaged heads, even in the case of Chris Ofili's jokey but powerful pieces - elephant dung?
With regard to the artist's intentions, did he or she mean to control the finished effect or to leave an element to chance? What parts are played by scale, colour and background? How was a certain mood achieved? What did the artist mean by his subject matter? Take Richard Patterson's picture of a toy bike painted from a blown-up photograph. Did he make the bike life-size to pretend it was real, as children do in imagination games?
Lastly, the students reunited in their original group to give a few reactions to the works that had made the most impression on them, again giving reasons for likes and dislikes. "I liked the way the artist made the Minotaur look tough. Afraid of nothing." Teacher Kathryn Brown summed up the afternoon. "Usually the children have to use reproductions. It's been brilliant to see real art in a gallery, especially the size of these pictures. Coming here helps them to be more critical, and to have greater awareness."
This is not an isolated event in the children's calendar. During their art week in January the same Millbrook pupils will do practical painting work in school involving topics like colour, process and scale. Then in February the groups will return to the museum to see the exhibition again. This session will be spent describing the paintings to visitors and for the final week of the show the children's written summaries will be on view alongside the paintings in the galleries.
To reinforce the experience all the children's parents have been given special invitations to visit the exhibition any weekend. And to encourage all-comers there is a special fun Family Day in February.
u Absolut Vision is at Moma until February 23, then at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Phone 01865 728608 for tour details. For an annual fee of Pounds 50, Moma's Educational Friends Scheme gives unlimited free admission to exhibitions for all teachers and students plus free access to educational services. Various Positions: 20th Century Art in the School Curriculum is a Curriculum Development Project report by Moma and Oxford Brookes University. Fun Family Day, Saturday, February 8, 1.30-4.30. For school visits, phone Emma Thomas on 01865 813815.