I must confess that I came to the world of art galleries and museums grudgingly, and with deep suspicion.
My research over the years had been with women artists and community educators who used the arts as provocative, pedagogical, and activist tools. This was a world of dance and drama, paint and poetry, fabric and film, music and mime. It was alive and fresh, filled with energy, imagination, hope, creative critique, dissent and disobedience. And I was content.
However, increasingly over the years, these women began to suggest I look to the ‘formal cultural sector’ as a space of critical and creative practice. But to my mind, museums were not light but dark, ‘death by a thousand artefacts’ and system over-dose on the spoils of too much war.
I imagined dust, decay, neglect, privilege, hyper-reverence and deadening silence. Moreover, for someone who works within a framework of justice, equity and systemic change, and all that entails pedagogically and institutionally, art galleries and museums deserved their reputation of exclusion, elitism, sexism, colonialism, and a host of other ‘isms’.
They present an aura of ‘neutrality’, but we all know they are anything but. They have chosen whose knowledge and histories count, whose art is worthy of display, and have controlled viewing and pedagogical processes with academic precision. Janes (2009) adds that their total exclusion from any literature that focuses on solutions to societies’ most pressing social problems is proof of their total irrelevance.
Yet nothing if not curious, and fortified by my trust in the women encouraging me in this direction, I contacted an education officer at a major art gallery and set up an interview. Upon arrival I was met by what amounted to Corinthian columns and chilled marble, manifesting all my negative assumptions, I remember thinking smugly.
But there too was the woman education officer. She took me to her office, gently maneuvered me into a chair, and served me a cup of tea. She then proceeded to unfurl a series of startling collages. These artworks had been made by a group of young adults (17-30) with whom she had worked over a summer. The project began with a walk through the gallery to contemplate, interpret and debate various artworks. This was followed by a series of workshops to create their own works. These starling pieces of art critically illuminated, and called in to question, the deeply conservative ideological framework of contemporary Canada, the horror and abuse of past acts and manifestations of colonisation, the paradoxical use of war as a ‘tool of democracy and peace’, and the fear-mongering and surveillance practices of the post-911 world that are eroding our human rights.
The problematic ‘isms’ entrenched in museums and art galleries still remain, and we must continue to illuminate, and challenge them. But we must also recognise that over the past 20 years, some astonishing changes have occurred.
The static, negative images I carried to threshold of that gallery bore little relationship to the activities within. Against a backdrop of elitist tradition, in an environment of heavy conservatism, feigned neutrality and sexism – for most of the education staff is women – many educators are attempting to stretch and bend past pedagogical boundaries and provide opportunities for adults to engage critically and creativity, with complex social and environmental problems.
Yet according to Mayo (2012), these institutions still seldom feature on any lists of adult education sites. What is needed is for us, the adult educators on the outside, to transform our own thinking to correspond to these new cultural realities.
Darlene Clover is a professor of adult education and leadership Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Her research with public museum and art gallery adult educators and community practitioners in Canada and the United Kingdom explores how they articulate and enact a more critical pedagogy in these neoliberal times.