Dr Steph Hawke, MPA’s Creative Learning Programme Manager, reflects on an action packed week in Helsinki…
As arts educators we find ourselves working in a shifting milieu of economic and political change both nationally and internationally. How are our roles becoming more dynamic? What does it mean to mediate? At the end of May I spent a week in Helsinki at the Engage Summer School 2012 which provided a space to consider and debate these questions. The Summer School took in a two day conference, Its All Mediating hosted by Kiasma Museum of Modern Art.
In order to deliver measurable social impact, we learned from Tate Liverpool’s Lindsey Fryer that partnership and mediation are essential, but to beware the weasel words! On the other hand, the value placed on arts education by Helsinki city, was celebrated by Eeva Mussari of Annantalo Arts Centre who described Helsinki school children’s free two times five entitlement. Helsinki Art Museum’s Kaisa Kettunen highlighted the shifting roles of the arts educator, as she explained her work as an educator who is also head of customer services. Kate Self, of Ikon Gallery Birmingham, led a thought provoking discussion of the relationships between curatorial and educational practice in Ikon’s Slow Boat programme. Finally, Maija Tanninen, Director of Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, explained that effective education is all about finding the right beer!
Weasel Words – Lindsey Fryer, Head of Education at Tate Liverpool, summarised for an international audience the unprecedented attention enjoyed by arts education under the UK’s previous political administration. Tony Blair’s New Labour rallying-cry of ‘education, education, education’ combined with Ken Robinson’s All Our Futures report drew focus and funding towards creativity in the curriculum. The case has been made for the value of arts education programmes to non-arts partners (health sector, prisons etc.) and the evidence of social and economic impact has been gathered. This has led however to an overused terminology that risks sucking the meaning from the projects it is used to describe. ‘Creativity’ Fryer suggested, has become a weasel word, undermining the work with which it is associated. She expressed concern that the phrase ‘social impact’ might similarly begin to lose its clout. Warning against cynically motivated attempts to evidence social impact, Fryer reminded the conference that educators cannot be tasked with relieving society’s ills. We can however, be confident that our contribution to society is access to and ownership of cultural heritage. So, as learning comes under intense scrutiny, educators therefore need to step up and work together with our strategic partners in order to truly achieve social impact. Indeed, for the arts educator: it is all mediating.
Two Times Five – The city of Helsinki places high value on the arts in education and Eeva Mussari, Course Planner from Annantalo Arts Centre, described the ways in which her work is subsided. In Helsinki every school child is entitled to a course of two hours of art education at Annantalo Arts Centre over a five week period. Young people can continue to pursue an interest in the arts in their own time through subsided free-time courses.
Shifting Roles – Helsinki Art Museum’s Kaisa Kettunen described the educator’s role as ‘advocate for the audience’ and educators have a role in every exhibition team at the Museum. Interestingly however, Kettunen’s role is as Head of Education and Customer Services which gives pause for thought about the dynamic roles of educators. Audiences are engaged with the work of the Helsinki Art Museum in a number of ways. Notably the Tennari Youth Group have begun to develop confidence in the Art Museum having initially thought such places were “just for ladies over 40, sipping champagne”. The group have found their voice through their Ten Minutes with Tennari YouTube films in which they interview the museum’s current artists.
Curator, Educator or Both? – Kate Self, educator with Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, described Slow Boat, a youth programme moving into its third year. Activity takes place on a canal barge in keeping with Ikon’s rich history of contemporary art on Birmingham’s waterways. Kate talked about the way in which artists are chosen to work on the Slow Boat project, and how closely this process resembles curatorial practice. Slow Boat’s artists are selected not for their educational experience but for their research-based practice styles. In its most recent cycle, Slow Boat has been working with artist Sarah Browne.
Sarah has chosen the theme of ‘scarcity’: scarcity of resources, of tools, of ideas and opportunities. The theme draws inspiration from some of the social and political parallels between today and the 1980s, and the way in which 1980s anarchistic radio resonates with contemporary online media.
Kate foregrounded the similarities between educational programming and contemporary art curatorial practices at Ikon. This opened a rich vein for discussion: How should an artist be contracted for educational work when the brief is so open? Is researching an artist and their work key to successful educational programming? Is it a problem for educators to work closely with the same artists as their curators? Do educators tend to favour local artists and curators those from farther afield? If so, why is this?
Finally Kate talked about the way Ikon as an institution continually absorbs its socio-political context. As Birmingham loses its youth service, educators at Ikon expand into roles as youth workers, tasked with addressing issues such as unemployment. Whilst education programmes speak to these wider agendas, they remain at Ikon, very similar to artistic practice. The group were led to consider, is education process-driven whilst curating focusses on product?
Finding the Right Beer – Maija Tanninen, Director of Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, began her presentation with an image. She showed a vintage Carlsberg advertisement in which Finland’s design classic, the wildly curvaceous Alvar Aalto vase, is filled with lager. The strapline? “We couldn’t see the beauty of the object until we filled it with our favourite beer.” She suggested this is the role of the educator or mediator: in our quest to help audiences engage with our exhibitions and collections, we are all in the business of finding them the right kind of beer.
Thanks to the European Commission’s Grundtvig Programme for generous funding.