Behind the scenes: 120 students on an art gallery tour.

Arts educator Rebecca Shanahan takes a behind-the-scenes look at working with children and teachers.

It’s the millionth stinking hot Sydney morning in a row and I’m kind of regretting the decision to ride my bike to the AGNSW where I’m a casual artist educator. It’s a new role for me. After 20-odd years as a practising artist teaching art in the tertiary sector I was made redundant. As both state and federal governments seem determined to eviscerate tertiary art education in NSW (TAFEs may have had all the sexy slash-and-burn exposure so far, but check out the plans for the uni art schools) a move into gallery-based education seemed smart, in more ways than one.

Kids like the ones I’m meeting up with today will be making arts funding decisions when they grow up. If we can encourage them to love art now, the country’s cultural producers might not have to spend so much time e-x-p-l-a-i-n-i-n-g that culture is i-m-p-o-r-t-a-n-t further down the track. Oh, and it’s cool in the gallery. Once I reach that archival air-con blasting out and those pale limestone floors stretch before me, things improve.

Today I’m helping to wrangle 120 primary school kids who’ve come to experience the gallery. It’s all about the experience now. While the no-touch rule still holds and the infrared sensors work overtime, the volume level has long departed ‘gallery hush’ and arrived at, say, ‘airport.’ The kids sound like seagulls bobbing around on the elevators. The elevators are a big hit. Definitely a collection highlight. “Look! The gallery has elevators inside! And they have a painting of the elevators above!” (That would be Frank Stella’s Khurasan Gate variation II, 1970.)

The eternally chilled Louise, the AGNSW’s Open Gallery coordinator, fearlessly takes all 120 kids through a discussion about what art is. (Have you ever seen 120 kids in an art gallery all at once? Thought not.) Twenty-first century kids are all about discourse and they’re totally across pluralism: art can be anything at all. “You just spill it out of yourself! You spill it right out!” In another group, a boy shoots up his hand to answer the question of what art is. “It’s an easy way to make some quick money.” The artists in the room flicker their eyelashes at each other ironically and wonder where the kid got his intel.


"Why do we get pencils and not erasers?" Images via iStock. 

Later, I’m with a bunch of HSC students in the AGNSW component of the Biennale of Sydney. They’re engaged and boisterous, and they photograph or film every gallery they enter before they look at the actual work. We talk about the Mella Jaarsma work Dogwalk, 2016, that merges animal skins, tails and hooves with more recognisable clothing. “Prom dresses!” the kids shout, falling about hysterically, trying to get a rise out of me. To their faint disappointment I run with the analogy, but they do lift their faces up from the Facebook glow to listen.

This default mode of continuous partial attention and endless mediation through screens is up there with mozzies on my personal irritation-o-meter.

And yet, as an artist who works with video and photography, some of the best creative activities I’ve done with these kids have used smartphone cameras.

Like the bunch of 15-year-old private school boys who started off asking the cost of every painting and ended up improvising filmed performances in the Daniel von Sturmer installation that took on time, space, reality and perception. They left saying they had really enjoyed themselves. In an art gallery. I think they were as surprised as I was.


An Iraqi girl in the HSC group says urgently that she hears Iraqi music. She grabs her friend, also Iraqi, and doing that “I’m not running, I’m walking quickly” thing they shoot past me through the galleries, honed in on a sound no one else can hear. Eventually I find them in front of a video, unwilling to move. “It’s Iraqi!” Over and over again, responses like this from so many Australian kids born outside this country remind me why diversity and inclusiveness are so important at every level. For these two girls, the AGNSW just become a node in their personal network of belonging and familiarity. It’s on their map now.

On another occasion, at an evening drawing salon, a handsome man in an expensive haircut and suit sits in moody isolation, drawing furiously for hours. I think he’s sending out serious leave-me-alone vibes, but when I speak to him briefly about what he’s doing he is as shy and eager as a child.

Kids are always up for drawing. They generally question me first at length about why we give them pencils but not erasers. Since you ask, because there are no errors. Only trials and tests and having-a-go. If you keep rubbing it out and starting again because you want it to be perfect, you could end up with a blank sheet of paper and a pile of rubbings. (See Robert Rauschenburg.) Interrogation complete, the kids will willingly collapse full-length en masse onto any floor, anywhere, with a piece of paper. It immediately renders the coolest, most minimal installation somehow homely, like a living room. A junior Occupy movement, busy children sprawled out drawing in a public space assert a sense of ownership that I hope will help them to perceive that this is their gallery, now and in their adult futures.


Later that week I’m working with high school teachers on professional development related to a photography show. They’re on a massive high. Uninterrupted looking at, discussing and making art in adult company is better than a dance party. Especially when you’ve reshuffled multiple schedules, filled out a bunch of paperwork, faced management indifference and busted-a-gut to get here by public transport.

They pounce on ideas and techniques, ferociously test out possibilities and interrogate me about recent developments. We finish up with a slide-show on a blank wall in the dim Asian galleries, connecting the smartphone photos they’ve just taken to a cool little data projector that looks like a shrunken Rubik’s cube. “I’m exhibiting my work in the Art Gallery of New South Wales!” says one, and they all crack up.

They’re indefatigable, these guys. They’re eternally hopeful and give endlessly to their students. Later I send them a bunch of links that might be helpful for their students: the disadvantaged ones with no cameras or laptops at home, or facilities at school, but who want to make photographs and videos. Because they will be the ones who want to say something badly enough that they will find a way to say it. And if just one of them gets there, then my horrible sweaty bike ride will have been worth it.


This story was originally published on Art Guide Australia and has been re-published with full permission. You can see the original article here.