Learning on the Job
Laura Ould, Exhibitions Assistant
Over the past six months, I have been employed as a student intern at Peninsula Arts Gallery. I had just completed the last year of an Art History degree and I knew that this would be a great opportunity to get some practical experience working in an art environment. My main task has been to create educational activity packs for school children to use when visiting the gallery. I also have had the chance to experience the day-to-day running of the gallery space and the preparatory stages behind each exhibition.
Initially as someone who has little experience working with children, I was apprehensive about my ability produce publications that young people would find engaging. You may remember a news story from January last year that derived from a photo of a child climbing on a Donald Judd sculpture at the Tate Modern. It caused a fair amount of controversy, mostly by avid art aficionados who were appalled that a $10 million artwork was being used as a substitute climbing frame. At the time, I remember sharing a similar stance; less so about the monetary value of the work but more about the parents’ decision to visit a modern art gallery with a young child. My opinion was that the minimalist works of Judd and the conceptual emphasis of the works at the Tate Modern are too multifaceted for a child to understand. I did not expect children to have an appreciation and understanding for abstract thought. I was sure children could only appreciate artworks through doing; that their interests could be better meet by involving them in arts and craft activities. This was about the depth of my exposure to children in galleries.
Through creating the educational packs I have been able to challenge the above attitude. The questions I have come to deliberate during this internship is ‘why does it matter that a child might not understand the conceptual meaning of an art work?’ and ‘what can adults do to help path the way for them to understand in the future?’ I now realise that a child’s visit to an art gallery is more about the experience and exposure to this type of environment than an in depth critical analysis of the artworks.
I was not expecting how creative the process of writing this type of publication was. I was responsible of researching about the exhibitions and corresponding topics: including, at one point, spending a couple of weeks investigating the science behind soil, something completely alien to me. Then I had to plan and write the pack from front to back cover. The most challenging aspects of the role was creating activities the children could get involved since there is no formulaic structure in how to do this. The majority of the activities decided in the educational packs are designed to engage the children in a conversation. Arguably, the underlining reason why art is important is that it helps us understand the world, our lives, our experiences and the experiences of people before us. It is a whole network of conversations. I was always aware, that just because I was producing a publication for an art gallery, the target audience would not all be necessary interested in art. For that reason, I made sure to include scientific information or activities based around other disciplines. This is a surprisingly effortless task as many artworks are related to other disciplines and ideas. With hope these conversations will eventually lead to critical analysis and expansion of abstract thought whilst the child grows older. Developing these skills early in life can only be beneficial as it is considered a valuable skill in many occupations.
This internship was not only eye-opening in terms of generally challenging my view an aspect of the role of galleries but also in the terms of practical work experience. The skill I consider to have gained the most from this experience is how to write for the public and children. At the beginning I had only ever written academic essays and so I had to completely evaluate how I write. This was an awkward process because by the nature of trying to write in an assessable language; keeping in mind that the national reading age for adults in the UK is apparently nine years old this felt patronising and was surprisingly difficult. This was not a skill I had previously ever considered was necessary, especially considering the stereotype of what Grayson Perry has termed ‘art language’ which has a reputation of being undecipherable and nonsensical. I now realise how un-true that is or at least how efforts are being made so it is not like that.
As a recent graduate I feel that my experience at Peninsula Arts, through observing the staff and having a chance to participate in some activities, has given me a professional grounding of what a career in art entails. I feel far more prepared in my progression after university and it has been an invaluable work experience. I encourage students to consider finding an internship or at least volunteering at a relevant work-based company because you may find yourself being surprised by what you do and don’t enjoy doing.