Stapleford Granary is owned and operated by a charity; the Association for Cultural Exchange. Education lies at the heart of who we are and what we do. But how does an Arts Centre educate? And what is a cultural education? Three years into her role, CEO Kate Romano reflects on the values set up by the charity’s founder 65 years ago, and what they might mean today.
Anyone who heads up a cultural institution carries a responsibility. Museums, galleries, concert halls and festivals constantly shape culture through their artistic choices, and in the ways that those choices are presented to audiences and visitors. Art and performance (the ‘objects’ of culture) are always exhibited, programmed and received through the tastes, eyes and ears, the rituals and behaviours of another culture; our own. There is no singular universal culture; the meaning of works of art of all disciplines is in an ever-shifting state of flux and transformation.
When I took on this job three years ago, I asked myself who and what an Arts Centre was for. Building an audience, creating an ambitious cultural programme, piloting new ideas combining the arts and business models has occupied my team, and we now have a thriving regional centre. But what I have learned is that the work doesn’t start with the art; it begins with our visitors. If I feel a weight of responsibility for the cultural choices we make, it's because works of art are expressions of human existence and we must make an imaginative effort to open these up to everybody. This is where the role of education comes in. But how does an Arts Centre educate?
In 1958, when pioneering journalist Philip Brooke Barnes founded the Association for Cultural Exchange (the charity who own and operate Stapleford Granary), he did so with a belief in lifelong learning and a resolve to make the world a better place to live in. His invention of ACE was a landmark, both in its role in cultural understanding and in visionary education. The study trips he devised were hands-on, experiential excursions; groups of people coming together in natural social settings to learn through discussion, debate and decision making. It was a progressive model of education, moving away from the traditional, literature-based type into a more socially-conscious one. It perhaps shares some commonalities with the groundbreaking educational philosophy of John Dewey (1859 - 1952) who believed that higher education must meet ‘public needs’ and that ‘culture’ had no meaning unless it could function ‘in the conditions of modern life, of daily life, of political and industrial life’. Dewey pushed for projects, field work and inquiry rather than recitation and memorisation. He resolutely believed that an experience between an individual and their environment resulted in learning.
Here are two perspectives about education in cultural institutions. They are both concerned with museums, but can be applied to galleries, concert halls and Arts Centres.
The first comes from Sherman Emery Lee. He was an American academic, writer, art historian and expert on Asian art and was Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1958 to 1983. He said; ‘merely by existing, preserving and exhibiting works of art, the museum is educational in the broadest and best sense, though it never utters a sound or prints a word’.
Decades earlier, Benjamin Gilman, curator, secretary of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1893 to 1925 and one of the founders of the field of museum education wrote: ‘An institution devoted to the preservation and exhibition of objects is not an educational institution either in essence or in its claim to consideration… by no liberality in the definition of the word ‘education’ can we reduce the two purposes, the artistic and the didactic to one. They are mutually exclusive in scope as they are distinct in value’.
Two superficially different views of education emerge. One view holds that cultural institutions are not educational institutions. The other believes that simply by presenting things to the public, everything the cultural institution does is educational.
The main function of museums and galleries has traditionally revolved around collecting, preserving, researching and displaying objects and art. Over the six decades since our charity was formed, greater emphasis has been placed on interpretation, learning and audiences in all types of cultural institutions. Both Lee's position and Gilman's are alive today in a variety of guises. Some curators have argued that more reading equates to less looking. Some feel that words can never convey the essence of a work of art. But both Lee and Gilman’s views suggest that the visitor / audience is something of a passive consumer of the arts, kept at a distance by perceived rituals, auras and reverence of art.
Our task at the Granary is to remove the things which isolate art and its appreciation, and allow people to respond to art on their own terms. In the spirit of our founding charity, I believe that education occurs when we play an active role in what we are seeing or listening to. This happens, initially, when an ‘experience’ takes place between a viewer and a visual artwork, or a listener and a piece of music. Each makes its own contribution, or transaction; an art work has to have something worth giving if it is to be fully received. Fully ‘experiencing’ a work of art enables someone to see rather than merely look, or listen rather than merely hear.
Experiencing art begins with the zest of the spectator, with scenes that hold the eye and ear; something to astonish, stir, affect or provoke. Art presented in an Arts Centre should feel special; a unique, memorable and transformative experience. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim described a particular ‘mood to marvel’ (Children, Curiosity & Museums, 1980) and advocates the cultural institution as place to ‘expect rare experiences and prepare us to be ready for them, to give us the feeling that beyond the entrances and stairhalls marvellous things are waiting for us’.
Once we are in a ‘mood to marvel’, the mind is open to learning more and becoming curious, using the emotions we felt as clues to what we might want to learn about art. Art itself doesn’t tell us what to feel or think; sometimes the emotional tone is hard to read. Not everyone experiences the same things, or wants to learn the same things. And putting a narrative beside art doesn't ‘solve’ art; one can’t experience a painting or a piece of music simply by reading about it. But a democratic approach to pedagogy, full of choice, based on individuality and the freedom and ability to express it, allows people to make their own decisions about what and how they learn.
The ‘experiences’ we facilitate here at the Granary are to do with which pieces of music we put together as part of our concert series, when a slighter piece of music can be made moving and interesting by revealing a process or a technique deployed in a recognised masterpiece. Experiences are made when photographs are displayed alongside paintings or poems, models alongside sculptures, or artist sketchbooks are available to flick through. Experiences are to be had in our magical discovery rooms and art trails for children, like cabinets of curiosity, with beautifully laid out things to touch, peer inside and explore. Experiences are created every time you come into the cafe, notice the art on the walls, listen to the playlists, or pick up a poetry book. Experiences are to do with the building itself; a warm, clean, comfortable and softly lit concert hall dedicated to listening; welcoming and easy open-access spaces, and the historical, rural setting which enables a relaxed visitor flow around the site. All of these encourage autonomy and wandering; a setting primed for discovery and expectation. Thoughtful and varied pedagogy can then enhance experiences; carefully written listings, illuminating information boards, artist talks, blogs, and our trademark ‘concert chat’ which replaced paper programmes and provides a personal, first-hand interaction between artist and audience. This should all be light-touch, so as to allow the initial response (astonishment, provocation..) to feed the curiosity, ‘as dyes come out of coal tar products when they receive special treatment’ said Dewey.
When Philip Barnes set up his adult education study tours, he created a peripatetic progressive model of education, furthering a curiosity for culture and lifetime learning. At the Granary, we have the opportunity to imagine what this model would be like in a fixed location for a new generation and a wide demographic. Whilst ACE takes travellers around the world to unknown places to gain cultural experiences, we can use the spaces and the environment around us here in Stapleford to display, curate and tell stories about art, powerfully introducing elements of surprise into familiar settings. Most important of all is the continual flow of visitors and the ways in which they engage with the arts at the Granary; a daily reminder that culture is found in real life, not just in arts institutions and that art becomes meaningful not because it ‘is’ art, but because it is vividly brought to life by the constantly shifting imaginations of those who experience it. A cultural education starts and ends with people.
Kate Romano, January 2024