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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 engage young people and advocate for ‘a wider and more free approach to art in the training of the child’, 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 encourage young people to look closely and critically at art, concluding that in this way ‘our eyes and minds are opened to all sorts of new thoughts and ideas. We widen our experience’ and that ‘the feeling and understanding we have gained through our eyes…will help us all to make good choices.’ 

The Hepworth Wakefield has continued this legacy, with school children being the first visitors to the museum. The Building Bridges project saw curators introduce students to the collection during the museum’s construction, as well as engaging them with the process of creating a new building for art. The project culminated in an exhibition of the children’s sculptural responses in the new galleries prior to opening in 2011, which informed 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 clothes by leading designers featured in the exhibition Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. The resulting photographs, Wakefield Kids, were displayed in the show and published in the accompanying book. The experience offered the children invaluable insight into an artist’s creative process and the collaborative work of exhibition-making.

Before the first UK lockdown in 2020 interrupted activity, photographer Hannah Starkey was working with a group of young women from Wakefield schools on a major new collaborative commission for her retrospective, which will now be held in 2022. We look forward to restarting this project as soon as it is safe. In the meantime, throughout the pandemic, the learning team and our artists have continued to engage with local pupils and teachers – as well as the Art Social group of young people we miss seeing each week at the gallery – who have all been inspiring us with their resilience and creativity. This has included sharing artwork they have created at home and their personal experiences of lockdown with each other, and in one unique collaboration for our secondary school programme Burberry Inspire, with artists and young people in New York – a positive example of the digital connectivity prompted by our physical isolation.

‘It is refreshing to find an education authority that believes the painter and sculptor are an integral part of our daily life and that their contribution can not only give delight but can also heighten the understanding and sharpen the vision.’

Helen Kapp, 1952

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, became the focus of an ongoing campaign by The Hepworth Wakefield for a creative education for all children with the launch of our flagship project, School Prints. The revival of a simple but brilliant 1940s scheme, The Hepworth Wakefield commissions leading contemporary artists to create original works for display in primary schools, with sales from limited editions funding an extensive engagement programme in which the prints are used for teaching across the curriculum. The aim is that every child in Wakefield will grow up with original contemporary art on their school walls. The 1940s scheme was steered by Read and included prints by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Henri Matisse. We are hugely grateful to the following artists who 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.

An exciting new set of School Prints for 2021 will be unveiled soon.

100 Years of Creative Working with Schools