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Curator Diary - 100 years of creative working with schools

07 Jan 2021

Nicola Freeman, Director of Engagement & Learning, reflects on the central role of learning and a relationship with local schools within the history of Wakefield’s art collection.

Learning was central to the mission of Wakefield Art Gallery from its opening in 1934, with its early directors Ernest Musgrave (1935–46) and Helen Kapp (1951–61) passionate campaigners for the necessity of a creative education. Musgrave supported a number of pioneering educational projects including Pictures for Schools from 1936, a lending scheme for schools to display art. He initiated a series of exhibitions specifically designed to ‘create interest among younger people in objects of artistic importance’, and during the Second World War, promoted the Wakefield Art Collection as an educational aid for young soldiers. Helen Kapp publicly expressed frustration that art history was not part of the school curriculum and saw regional galleries as playing a fundamental role in connecting young people with culture. In 1975 Kapp wrote the book  Enjoying Pictures to engage young people in art.

The Hepworth Wakefield has continued this legacy, with school children being the first visitors to the museum. Building Bridges saw students introduced to the collection by curators during the museum’s construction, culminating in a display of their sculptural responses in the new galleries prior to opening in 2011 – and informing the earliest displays of the collection.

A succession of innovative schools projects since have sought to connect young people to original art and artists, including those shaped or led by artists exhibiting at the gallery. Most recently, artist Jamie Hawkesworth photographed over 100 Wakefield school children wearing high-fashion items. The resulting photographs, Wakefield Kids, were included in the exhibition Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield and featured in the accompanying book. The experience offered the children invaluable insight into an artist’s creative process.

Before the first UK lockdown in 2020 interrupted activity, photographer Hannah Starkey was working with young women in Wakefield on a major new commission for her retrospective, which will now be held in 2022. Meanwhile, during ongoing lockdowns, we have been inspired by the resilience and creativity of local teachers and pupils who we continue to engage and support through digital programmes. This has included a unique new collaboration with artists and young people in New York who have been sharing creative challenges and their experiences of lockdown with school children in Wakefield.

The West Riding School Museum Service  was set up in the 1940s under Sir Alec Clegg, the county council’s innovative Chief  Education Officer from 1945 to 1974. Clegg firmly believed that ‘the life of the child can be enriched by the development of his creative powers’. He spoke about the ‘division that exists between the education of the mind and what I do not hesitate to call the education of the spirit’, qualifying this with concrete examples, such as ‘the difference between lessons on perspective and giving the child the urge to draw or model or paint what he sees in his way’.

When a UK-wide Education Resource Service (ERS) was introduced in the 1950s to give children the opportunity to learn through a direct experience of art, it was administered in the West Riding by the School Museum Service. Staff visited London galleries each year to bring back a selection of artworks, which were then chosen for purchase by a committee of education officers and Helen Kapp. Schools could then select up to three artworks to borrow and display in school each term. Wakefield acquired 120 artworks through the ERS, including lithographs by Elisabeth Frink, a screenprint by Eduardo Paolozzi and a number of ceramic works by artists including Barbara Cass, Ruth Duckworth and Magdalene Odundo.

The educational philosophies of Musgrave, Kapp, Clegg and Yorkshire poet and critic Herbert Read in the 1940s and 1950s have particular resonance today, when arts education is in decline. In 2018 the importance of an ‘education  through art’, as promoted by Read, and a creative education for all children became the focus of an ongoing campaign with the launch of our flagship project, School Prints. The revival of a simple but brilliant 1940s scheme, The Hepworth commissions leading contemporary artists to create original works for display in schools, with sales from limited editions funding an extensive engagement programme in which the prints are used for teaching across the curriculum. The original scheme was steered by Read and included prints by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Henri Matisse. The following artists have participated so far in the project’s revival with original prints by each of them joining Wakefield’s art collection: Fiona Banner, Sir Peter Blake, Sir Michael Craig-Martin, Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller, Anthea Hamilton, Helen Marten, Haroon Mirza, Laure Prouvost, Linder Sterling, Francis Upritchard, Richard Wentworth and Rose Wylie.

The new School Prints for 2021 by an exciting range of well-established artists and rapidly rising stars will be unveiled soon.