22 Jun 2010

At the Art Gallery

We are justified in according ...(Picture Talks)... a place in our school programme, by our definition of education as "the science of relations." In these lessons we aim at putting the children in touch with the great artist minds of all ages. We try to unlock for their delectation the wonderful garden of Art, in which grow most lovely flowers, most wholesome fruits. We want to open their eyes and minds to appreciate the masterpieces of pictorial art, to lead them from mere fondness for a pretty picture which pleases the senses up to honest love and discriminating admiration for what is truly beautiful - a love and admiration which are the response of heart and intellect to the appeal addressed to them through the senses by all great works of art.

...Let us then ask, What is the fundamental idea of our scheme of Picture Talks? It is, I take it, our conception of Art itself; not as the luxury of the rich, the plaything of the idle, the fetish of the would-be "cultured," but as a means of expressing man's noblest dreams, deepest thoughts and tenderest fancies. This conception has been variously expressed in various definitions.

Thus: - "Art is the incarnation of a soul of truth in a body of beauty." "....the beautiful expression of thought tinged by emotion." "....the second revelation of infinity....across the mind of man." "...a second creation: man's will calling a thought into material existence, and his judgment pronouncing it to be very good."

Some of us well remember the joy that filled us when - ... perhaps by a few illuminating words spoken before a picture that we liked vaguely, but with no notion of its deep meaning - we felt, as it were, a new sense given to us, a magic book unsealed, a wonder world discovered. Shall we not hasten to share this joy with the children entrusted to us? And does not our knowledge of the life and potency of ideas teach us how to impart the secret spell, the "Open Sesame" which each individual soul must pronounce before it is permitted to taste this joy?

Miss K. R. Hammond PRArticle Volume 12, No. 7, July 1901, pp 501-509
We happened to find ourselves outside the wonderful Bendigo Art Gallery today.

Well, actually, to be entirely honest, we were at the Gallery Cafe, if you really want to know. Jemimah and I were eating gourmet pizzas; Daddy was polishing off the risotto. It was delish - as always.

When you are that close to an Art Gallery, I'm afraid you can't just walk away. The pull is just too great. There is a magic book inside those walls; a wonder world to discover. I feel a need to share the joy. We went in. Just for a minute.

Children love Art Galleries. True. What you need to do though is to bring the magic to life - to unlock the pages of the picture book - to impart the secret spell. Galleries are not stuffy and boring. They are full of magic. Childhood magic.

We've been visiting galleries for a long time. We know the Bendigo Gallery pretty well. The trick for us, I think, is to let Jemimah set the pace. She decides what we will see, and it is she who decides when it is time to go. Sometimes we wander freely around the whole gallery; at others we spend our time looking at just one exhibit. It is up to her. That doesn't mean that I never guide and direct, of course. When we pay money to see an international exhibition then we naturally spend more time than usual, for example. Even then though, we roam about according to what catches Jemimah's eye. Similarly, when we visit a gallery to see art painted by our current term's Picture Study artist then we look specifically for his or her work alone. Those visits are structured, school type trips, not magical ones.

Today we played the One Picture visit. "Pick one picture, Jemimah. Your favourite. We'll make a quick trip inside to see it." She chose McCubbin's The Pioneer first. This classic piece of Australian art had been visiting the gallery in recent times, but alas it has returned home to the National Gallery of Victoria and so we were out of luck. Her second choice was Hilda Rix Nicholas' beautiful painting In the bush. You can see it here. It is quite luminescent in reality. Last time we saw this picture it had been mounted as part of an exhibition of Rix Nicholas' art. The lighting was exquisite. Today it looked different, and Jemimah wanted to understand why. Isn't it great when you can explain the way the hanging of a painting affects its appearance because the child wants to know rather than you wanting him or her to know! After a few minutes looking at the painting and discussing the way she had used a backlighting technique to such good effect we were set to go. We had achieved what we wanted from our visit.

As it turns out we did stay a little longer. The lure of a textile exhibition - Sunday's Child - a selection of christening gowns, infants’ dresses and bonnets from the 1850s to the 1950s from the Victorian Embroiderer's Guild’s collection was too amazingly good to pass up.

Then we left.

Do you visit art galleries with your kids? What have your experiences been like?

In the mean time, without being an authority on children or on anything actually, here are a few tips that work for us:

  • Children have short attention spans. Be ready to leave when your child shows the first sign of being ready. Even when you've paid to enter. Don't let boredom set in.
  • Visit a variety of galleries and look at different styles of art. Jemimah likes contemporary art very much. To me it is overrated, but what does my opinion have to do with it?
  • Don't feel an need to see every piece of art. Wander from piece to piece. The need to see an exhibition systematically and in order may work for you, but it is not the only way to appreciate the works.
  • Read out the labels on certain pictures. Often they contain information that will contribute to your child's enjoyment.
  • Many displays designed especially for children are drivelly twaddle. Others are wonderful. The National Gallery of Victoria dual labelled a number of the pieces in last year's Dali exhibition, one set for children and another for the...ahem...more mature. Given Dali's sometimes questionable subject matter and lifestyle, this was appropriate, and controversial topics were successfully avoided. I will admit that an an almost mature big person, I enjoyed the fact that the more appropriate sanitised art was already laid out for me. I don't need to know everything that goes on in an artist's sometimes warped and tortured mind.
  • If your child is struggling, design quick treasure hunt challenges as you look at the art: Find five pictures with animals in them. Find four pictures depicting winter. How many pictures show no signs of man? Which do you think is the artist's favourite colour? Which is your favourite picture? Can you find two pictures of the same view? How many different animals can you find? Can you find a house with a red roof? You get the idea. This can be very good fun, and can occupy a child very effectively if you want them to look more at a certain group of works.
  • Allow children the freedom and the time to discover something new, and remember to look at it with them.
  • Answer their questions. If you don't know, the gallery staff probably will.
  • Asking a child to look at a picture and then tell you about it using the same methods we employ in Picture Study is also enjoyable to kids that are used to doing this.
  • Remember to take time to look for paintings that your children recognise. The pictures that you have studied become good friends, and it is really exciting to find the original hanging on a gallery wall. If you child is not familiar with many pieces of art and you know you will see a particular picture during your visit, then you can show it to them on the computer screen or in an art book before you go.
  • Try the One Picture visit described above. We do this a lot. You can always go back.
  • Remember to explain the etiquette of the gallery visit before you go. Remind your children that they will be asked to stay at least a foot from the paintings, or behind the line marked on the floor if there is one. Explain that you never ever ever touch a sculpture or painting. Ever. Not even when you're grown up. If they run they will be asked not to by the gallery staff. Tell them!
  • You know your children better than anyone. Look out for things you think they will enjoy. Even if you know their parents probably won't. You never know, you may just be surprised when your visit to the collection of skateboard photographs turns out to be the highlight of your week. Galleries are really clever at putting together interesting displays of ...well... just about anything nowadays. You might discover an interest in common with your child!
  • Take home a souvenir of your visit. A beautiful catalogue of a favourite artist's works is a real - and expensive - treat. Less costly is a post card or two to add to your child's collection. The reproductions in Jemimah's Picture Study book are much treasured already. Imagine her collection in a few more years!
  • Remember that a visit to an Art Gallery is supposed to be a wonderful treat not a boring drudgery. Make it special. Make a visit to the Gallery Cafe for some treat-appropriate food or a babycino. Make it fun.

Above all, remember that your aim is to share the joy of art with your children. If it is not successful today then there is always a next time.

Enjoy it. We do.


  1. Wow, this is awesome! We have never been to an art gallery, only because we haven't really had the chance and because we live so far away from anything. We do visit the gallery on the web though and look and picture books.

    I guess over the last couple of years, following a CM approach I myself have learnt and come to appreciate art on a whole other level, so to now go to an art gallery, will be the perfect time for I have the passion and desire to teach my children about great art.

    Thank you so much for the great tips...we will be around art very soon...YAY!!!

  2. What a wonderful list! This would make a great article sometime for a certain children's literacy magazine...(The Chook sees literacy everywhere!)


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...