Art is popcorn for the brain

Becky Parry reports on a research visit.

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In March I was successful in my application to undertake a research visit to Finland. This was part of an EU funded Cost Action: THE DIGITAL LITERACY AND MULTIMODAL PRACTICES OF YOUNG CHILDREN (DIGILITEY) and included visiting colleagues in the University of Helsinki and Tampere. In this post I share my reflections about an exhibition I visited at the Helsinki Art Museum.

The Helsinki Art Museum is part of a broader complex which includes a cinema and various shops and fast food outlets. One of the shop fronts in the complex is an exhibition space in which manikins were positioned with buckets on their heads. This work by Jouko Korkeasaari: Mystical Rapture certainly caught the eye of the passer by, drawing them in from the cold and snowy streets.

Perhaps due to their extreme weather the Fins are very geared up for the layers of coats, scarves gloves etc and provide plentiful and free cloakrooms and lockers. As tourists we paid (teachers are free) and had a quick look at the Tove Jansson gallery before heading up to the Modernism exhibition

On the way in we found ourselves drawn to these post-it note style invitations to visitors to participate in a range of activities.

For me these simple suggestions are importantly different to the achingly dull worksheet often found in museums and galleries. Although they offer clear instructions, the outcomes are open ended. If you have a go you might become part of an art work or be inspired to devise a new movie.

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The Modernism exhibition Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and the International Dimension was designed by Marcel Schmalgemeijer and included an array of artefacts from everyday objects to brand new buildings, photography, engines and glassware. My personal favourites were a series of chairs and dresses beautifully lit so that I couldn’t resist trying to capture them and the interesting shadows they created on my camera phone. As I did so a murmur gathered momentum and I wondered if I had done something wrong, but it turned out that there was a live musical performance beginning in the gallery – one of three musician’s creative responses to the exhibition was being performed live. It felt rather amazing to just encounter this unexpectedly and I enjoyed wondering around gazing, peering and pointing whilst the performance filled the gallery spaces.

I compared the exhibition to a recent one I had attended in the UK which has been bugging me ever since. It seemed to me to be too focused on one artist and too focused on what the work said about art, rather than what the art said about the world. This exhibition presented social history, geography, politics and economics alongside architecture, art and design. It was accessible and beautiful and I had the urge to try and capture it, albeit on a mobile. It was something I wanted to share and talk about.

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On reflection I wonder about the museum’s use of the phrase ‘art is popcorn for the brain’ – signs in English declaring this were hung all over the café, shop and entrance. I understand the link to the cinema, to accessibility and enjoyment but pop corn is such an ephemeral thing and I am not sure the analogy works entirely. Pop corn is light, fluffy and pleasurable and this exhibition could certainly not be dismissed as that. The exhibition seemed to me to be designed with a determination not to assume that the audience knew about Modernism already and was rich with contextual, explanatory  material which presented a narrative but avoided cliché (and wasn’t only speaking to the art critics that might appear on specialised radio programmes). It was concerned with giving the audience exhibits they could imaginatively engage with because they included the everyday and they included everything from rugs to aeroplane propellers. I returned to a frequently asked question I have about what art museums are for. This set the scene for my visit, providing an opportunity to think about what education, especially for the very young, is for. I was reminded of the work of Elliott Eisner and his suggestion that:

The arts celebrate multiple PERSPECTIVES. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to SEE and INTERPRET the world.[1]

This is something that young people from the CRACL’s centre’s  TALE project have been telling us for the last year they most value about doing art. Art museums then, are not just about art, artists or art critics they are about the everyday and should inspire us to read and redesign the world critically and creatively.

[1] The NEAE has a great summary of Eisner’s ten lessons the arts teach here: https://www.arteducators.org/advocacy/articles/116-10-lessons-the-arts-teach

Circuit longitudinal research – some emerging results

Becky Coles and Pat Thomson report some emerging research results.

What did Circuit mean to the young people who engaged with it most deeply? We set out to answer this question by following twenty-one young people from Circuit’s ‘core’ or ‘peer’ groups in four galleries. We asked about their everyday lives and their experiences of work, education the gallery and art practice, through five ‘waves’ of interviews over two years.

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One of the exhibitions some of our participants were involved in at First Site.

As might be expected, our participants came from relatively well educated and well-off backgrounds: seventeen had a parent who was doing at least skilled manual work, administrative work or running a family business and seven of these had a parent doing highly paid work; thirteen had a parent with a degree and four had a parent with an Art degree; seventeen participants were themselves studying or had studied an arts subject at college or university. Yet there was considerable variation in how privileged these young people were.

It is generally agreed among those who research employment in the cultural and creative industries that getting jobs is hard, so it is not surprising that six of the young people in our study had been unsuccessful in getting the work they aspired to on graduating from University. For those who had families they could live with, this was less of a problem than for those who did not and who became reliant on gruelling regimes of badly paid work and insecure housing.

A majority (16) participants wanted careers in the creative and cultural industries and nine wanted them specifically in the art world. But while three were doing vocationally oriented degrees and six were planning how to negotiate career paths while still in education, others had been blocked from doing so by a lack of financial resources or a lack of awareness or knowledge. An equal number – six – were not following a plan but working their way up into paid positions, starting with voluntary work. Achieving financial security in the future was a significant concern for some participants (six), all of whom came from less well-off backgrounds or lacked a family they could live with. While four expected professional work in the arts to provide security, two hesitated to fully commit to the precarious and competitive work structures of the art world.

Participants who did not aspire to careers in the arts or creative industries either felt no need to plan because of the family support they could rely on – two, for example, felt free to become totally absorbed in their art degree for its own sake – or they saw professional roles as incompatible with their independent art practice or entrepreneurial ambition. Two quit education, favouring the informal support structures of the art world and creative industries. While twelve participants had their own ongoing art practice, two also said they could not call themselves artists because they did not make a living from their work. Although four had used their art practice in paid work at the gallery, no participants expected to make a living from making art.

It was a pleasure and a thrill for participants to do something for other people and to feel part of large and powerful institution. Circuit made up for the lack of professional work available to them. Eight found Circuit a comfortable place to socialise, particularly when they were going through difficult social experiences elsewhere. All but one however, had also felt obliged to do some Circuit voluntary work they didn’t enjoy or weren’t sure about because they felt committed or indebted to Circuit.

Circuit also helped our participants find out about career pathways, learn workplace skills and integrate into art-world sub-cultures. Seven had made decisions about their education based at least in part on discussions with people at the gallery. Circuit also helped participants work their way into jobs. Five went on to get professionally paid work in a gallery on the basis of their work with Circuit. Two, however, had tried to do this and failed. And six others had found regular non-professional paid work at the gallery, or occasional work as they were needed, which provided them with income and a continued connection with the art world.

 We are following up the participants in a few months to see what they are doing ‘post Circuit’.