Sculpture into schools

A Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019 project, supported by Arts Council England, Leeds2023, Ernest Cook Trust and ArtUK

The Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI) with Art UK, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute took an artwork from Leeds’ sculpture collection into a school for a day. As part of a longer project for YSI, this initiative took different forms but had a similar impact on the community of the school. Challenging to organise, with the mechanics of transportation and security requiring a good deal of care, getting up close to an artwork through a pop-up style engagement, generated an energetic learning experience, and a degree of magic.

Yorkshire Sculpture International is a festival of sculpture in Yorkshire, bringing together formally for the first time four galleries in the region – Leeds Art Gallery, the Henry Moore Institute, the Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Its engagement programme ‘A Year of Sculpture’ began Autumn 2018, the festival opened June 2019. Within the engagement programme each gallery embarked on a long-term project with one school through external funding, and within this through the support of Art UK took one artwork into the school.

Participating schools were identified through a competitive process. Leeds Art Gallery was matched with Blackgates Primary Academy on the borders of Leeds and Wakefield, the Henry Moore Institute with Abbey Grange Academy in Leeds’ city centre. In line with teacher, pupil and project-artist interests the two initiatives took very different shapes, but both involved pupil selection of an artwork taken into the school for a day.  The processes of artwork selection were designed and organised in collaboration with the teacher leading on delivery of the project, and with curators of the sculpture collection who produced a shortlist of possible options.

The short-list initially proved a challenge to generate. What was easy to transport and display safely was not necessarily appropriate as inspiration for a learning experience, requiring something that was ‘instantly captivating’. The question of what could be ‘captivating’ for young people in a school where time is short is interesting. Could it be a recognisable artist name? A familiar form of sculpture, or something very different? Is it a question of scale, the very small or the giant?

To a certain degree the need for the artwork to be ‘captivating’ is at odds with the habitual message that art can support long and thoughtful interrogation’, which frames learning opportunities at our two galleries.

For the Blackgates Primary Academy sculpture in school selection process, the project artist Emily Binks and gallery staff reviewed the shortlist of artworks put together by the sculpture curator and identified five that would be offered as choices to two Y4 classes. The classes would be choosing an artwork for the whole school, something which they took far more seriously than was anticipated (one young person was very keen on a particular artwork because he felt that the younger children would enjoy the animal that was part of it). In small groups, each class identified three words; one for very good, one for in the middle and one for not so good. Words were matched to three of five images of sculptures to produce three options for each group. The most popular were discussed and voted upon, leaving one from each class as clear choices. As a strategy for ‘fairness’, a preferred sculpture was eventually identified by both class teachers. In the end the second choice was taken into the school as the potential risks in transportation and installation of the ‘preferred option’ proved too difficult to overcome. Alison Smith and the Henry Moore Institute project artist Zara Worth, together with the Abbey Grange Academy lead teacher, took a different approach and maximised on communication strategies within the school. Two Y9 classes received information about three sculptures, including the artist’s connection to Leeds and the link to the project theme ‘technology and voted for their preferred choice via i-Pads and in situ software.

Becoming the hare and learning through the body. Image: Naimh Peters

On reflection it is interesting to think about the relationship between the artwork in school and project artist interests, and in turn, between the project delivery and the point that the collection sculpture entered into learning ‘conversations’. Neither project artist was required to directly use the collection sculpture as inspiration for their work within school, but by being involved in the process of short-listing and selection, connectivity emerged. The point at which the artwork entered into each school project was significant, in both cases not at its beginning where it would have logically acted as the ‘starting point’. At Blackgates Primary Academy The Cricketer (1989) by Barry Flanagan acted to involve the whole school in thinking and talking about sculpture and celebrate creativity and playfulness, whilst at Abbey Grange Academy AG-5 (1958) by Eduardo Paolozzi provided the frame for celebration of the artwork made by the Y9 groups.

Curator Nigel Walsh in conversation with young people from Abbey Grange Academy. Image: Nick Singleton

Both sculptures were not passive within the contexts into which they were introduced. Although not formally presented as such, the artworks made the ‘learning facilitators’ visible as artists. For Emily Binks, this connectivity drew attention to encounters with everyday objects as 3D experience and the use of found objects within her sculpture and for Zara Worth, her interest in technology and experience of it. Collection artwork, artist facilitator and the activities of participants brought together through a sense of connection, fostered a sense of co-production of ‘meaning’. This dynamic navigated the instrumental use of collection artworks as illustrations of learning content or as artworks for veneration. Instead, the sculptures inhabited the space of the school as curated objects in keeping with gallery works. For a moment the school was a gallery at its best, it initiated and supported an encounter with an artwork and affirmed the work of all taking part as artists. What is extraordinary, is that this was achieved amidst the detritus of school life, and architecture designed with a different purpose in mind. Perhaps we can understand this better by recognising the work that needs to be done to think through the ‘staging’ of artworks in settings outside of the gallery, as well as the skills necessary for understanding what supports meaningful encounters with art.

Getting up close to AG-5 by Eduardo Paolozzi. Image: Nick Singleton

Thinking through this case study led Alison Smith and I to identify seven questions we would like to ask each other about the experience, selecting three each for an answer. Space dictates that only one answer can be shared to offer a slightly different perspective on the taking of artworks into school experience.

AP to AS. How did you organise participation to maximise upon the impact of the sculpture in school?

We were really lucky to be working with Ruth Bose, the art teacher at the school, who was a brilliant collaborator on the project. Along with her colleagues, Ruth’s commitment and buy-in to the project meant that we could arrange a series of activities to have maximum impact on the day. We hosted a two-hour making workshop with Y10, making miniature sculptures using discarded technology, an assembly with 270 Y7 pupils, and an outdoor workshop making large scale cardboard sculptures with Y8’s. All of these sessions also involved a visit to the ‘gallery’ which we set up in a large foyer area, with a guided tour of the two sculptures. The afternoon involved a ‘private view’ with refreshments for the Y9 pupils who’d been involved in the project and their parents. We also got some of the Y9’s trained up by the curator Nigel on the Paolozzi piece, so they felt confident talking to staff and parents about it. Forward planning and collaboration between myself, the artist, Leeds Art Gallery staff and the school was essential, as we had so many different things going on in one day, including the crucial job of transporting and installing the sculptures on site that morning.

The Cricketer by Barry Flanagan in the school hall at Blackgates Primary Academy. Image: Daisy Wright

AS to AP. Did the different age groups you worked with respond to the sculpture in different ways?

Gallery staff and volunteers worked with every class in the school from the Nursery to Y6. We wanted to devise a playful space for engaging with the artwork that would work for everyone and was sensitive to the sculpture. In conversation with Emily Binks we began to settle on an idea of papering the floor of the school hall and placing the sculpture at its centre. We wanted to draw attention to the use of the cricket stumps as a relatively familiar object and the oddness of a hare striking an energetic looking pose on top. We also wanted to pay attention to the specifics of the materials used to make the sculpture and the process of casting metal. Further we needed to consider the range of preferred learning styles, especially those that are non-verbal – I am very excited about talking about art, but not everyone is the same. To support all of this, Edd Gallagher, my work experience placement and sculptor, cast familiar everyday objects in plaster. Students Bella Quirin and Naimh Peters sourced cheap everyday items such as buckets and lampshades for use alongside soft toys purchased some time ago as family interpretation for a Joseph Beuys’ exhibition (I liked this connection, it felt like it ‘sang’ to Barry Flanagan’s use of the hare).

We took from Studio stores very large pencils that are a little tricky to hold and use to sketch. This is a long way of saying there were lots of things we could use to support playfulness with the artwork using the papered floor as the ‘stage’. Groups responded differently because they explored the artwork and materials in a variety of ways. The starting points were the same as the line of enquiry (materials, meaning and personal response), but we went on different learning journeys depending on the class in-the-moment. Sometimes we’d pick up on the movement of the hare through our bodies, sometimes we asked questions we would like to ask the artist, sometimes we selected and combined objects to make 3D artworks. I guess there was room for individual response, but the focus sculpture and the pre-selection of tools alongside the thinking through of an enquiry, shaped what took place.

The impact of the sculptures in each school was significant and mitigated against the challenges in getting them there. For those yet to do this we recommend considering the following factors: adequate insurance; the security of the artwork and participants; art handlers that understand school organisation and its everyday life; access to schools and to gallery stores before or after typical opening times; consideration of collection management protocols; the portability of artworks including the production of carry cases; staff for the education activity and for the care of the artwork; event timings and school management of the day; training for school staff; learning before and after the event to maximise the experience; and navigation of the likely interest in promoting the event, for example through online platforms including social media. Top tips would include, avoiding school drop off/pick up times and working closely with a curator who can bring their own interests to the day.

Whilst it seems very important to continue to assert the value of visits to galleries by schools and personal and collectively experiences with art within gallery spaces, a collection artwork taken into a school can do something magical for all those involved. There are dangers in this model, for example, the artwork could become an illustration of an in-school theme, become caught up in the glare of the genius cult and rarefied, or act simply as entertainment. Perhaps, there are merits in these possibilities. For those of us who have contributed to experiences where an artwork has become at one with the school for the day, where the excitement and thrill of being immersed in thinking, taking and making inspired by art, it can be strangely ‘magical’, especially for those not used to using this word.

The YSI Sculpture in Schools loans were delivered in partnership with Art UK’s Masterpieces in Schools initiative as part of their national sculpture project.

Amanda Phillips
Learning and Access Officer

Alison Smith
Engagement Curator