Empowerment through Art: The Practice of Art Gallery Educators in Aotearoa
Dr Esther McNaughton
What is the shared pedagogy which exists within art gallery education for schools in Aotearoa New Zealand? From 2016 -2019 I undertook a PhD research project which aimed to identify whether there was a coherent national approach to learning in art galleries in Aotearoa, and if so, to describe it.
I used a three-phase process comprising a comprehensive overview by survey and six practitioner case studies which provided in-depth understandings. These were followed by two focus groups which helped to make sense of the findings. This was insider research, as I had long been a gallery educator and had established relationship with many of the participants. This allowed a collaborative approach to the research. New Zealand art gallery educators were able to ask themselves what the important things were that they added to student learning and to refine their understandings through dialogue with peers.
The findings showed four main influences which give art gallery education in New Zealand a distinct flavour: firstly, Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC) governmental funding, with its particular performance criteria (approximately two-thirds of New Zealand gallery educators worked in LEOTC funded venues at the time); secondly, the fact that New Zealand art galleries are cultural institutions which operate within a constitutionally bi-cultural nation; thirdly, New Zealand art galleries are often situated in small, regional cities (approximately two thirds of gallery educators worked in regional cities or smaller at the time of the survey), and lastly, that students are generally taught by professional educators rather than docents.
Gallery education in New Zealand occurs within public art galleries, which are cultural institutions of local communities. These often-memorable settings were in themselves seen to activate students’ learning. Although the nature of these galleries varies strongly across Aotearoa, with their history, size, location, staffing and collections as just some of the points of difference, there was sense of purpose which was a strongly shared by their educators. Despite many participants citing isolation, a coherent praxis was demonstrated across Aotearoa, where student-centred learning using authentic artworks in the gallery context inspired thinking and creating, particularly around cultural identity and other significant ideas.
The following recurring themes emerged, and these flowed throughout the study. They were the importance of:
- The development of ideas through art, particularly to promote cognitive flexibility in students.
- Engagement in learning; motivating students through means such as the senses, emotions and prior experience.
- Artmaking as an intrinsic element of most gallery learning programmes.
- Flexibility in the use of the setting, content and approach to learning, to ensure programmes are suited to the varied students who visit, and to be able to respond in the moment to the needs of the situation.
- Collaboration and mediation with the many stakeholders who have a part in gallery education; this was significant partly because student learning was seen to occur socially.
- Communication: the art gallery was considered a particularly good setting for discussions about important ideas and giving students the language to express their ideas was seen as empowering.
- Developing ownership and a sense of community as a significant aspect of the role of gallery educators. The strong student-centred focus ensured that their communities and local experiences were included as part of lessons.
- Professionalism for the sector of art gallery education. With the absence of a national professional body (at the time of the research), career structure or union, professional connections with others in the field had an important role but had to be sought out.
Compared to in-school education, the gallery educators believed they were freer to use flexible approaches, and to cover significant subject matter relating to society, communities and the individual students themselves. They stressed democratic learning and believed empowerment to be beneficial for their students, essentially seeking to develop engaged citizens able to actively express themselves.
My research identified the value of enhancing bonds between art gallery educators across Aotearoa New Zealand. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided this opportunity. During the 2020 lockdown, national meetings of this group commenced by online video conferencing, and at the time of publication they had become regular. This seems a very positive initiative which can only build on the strong philosophical basis of this professional practice which was demonstrated in my study.