“I didn’t realize I could see such an amazing painting here!” – Museums in difficult times

“I didn’t realize I could see such an amazing painting here!” I paraphrase a pupil on a visit to the museum that s ten minutes walk from the school. I visited the museum with one of my classes yesterday afternoon.

IMG_1192The last few years have been difficult times for many a museum. Maybe not so much for the flagship national collections that can be assured of drawing in the crowds to their highly prestigious exhibitions or remarkable collections. But for the more provisional museums, operating on small budgets seeking to make ends meet and still provide relevant and engaging exhibitions. For these institutions the all too familiar downturn in arts funding of recent times has been very much more challenging.

One such museum is the Jan Cunen museum in the relatively small Dutch town of Oss, the town where I also teach. Set in the grandeur of a nineteenth century town house it has provides a venue for a dose of art and culture for numerous visits with my classes over the past years. Thankfully it is still providing this opportunity as a couple of years ago the very existence of the Jan Cunen was on the line. Although with decreasing resources the possible programming of the museum has been greatly affected and as a consequence the chances for the teenagers I teach to see high quality, regularly changing exhibitions of contemporary art has been particularly reduced.

IMG_1194The importance of such visits is only too clear when you show up with a well prepared class to an appropriate exhibition, as I did this afternoon. We were visiting a single (albeit large) artwork in the context of the role of the remix in the artistic world. The work in question is Pizzeria Vasari by the Dutch artist Gijs Frieling. His painted installation is in essence a remix of a whole range of his own artistic interests and influences. The photos and film with this post give a little insight into the actual form and appearance of the piece.

To engage the attention of the class of fifteen year olds in this case I simply provide them with a list of references to look for, followed by a short series of questions to ponder concerning the ‘borrowed’ nature of Frieling’s imagery, the fact that much of his painting is carried out not by the artist but his assistants and the pure technical ability and ambition of the artist(s).

After that I had to do very little, answer an occasional question, point out particular details, but essentially the sight line of the pupils went up to the painted areas of the walls and they set about exploring this complex work.

This sort of firsthand engagement is crucial, to lift them away from the reproductions and online materials that we normally have to rely on. It brings a sense of wonder and connection that is difficult to simulate in the classroom and a recognition that art has a place in the real world. And perhaps here lies the importance of the provincial museum, it puts art and culture into the pupils’ own real world, the day to day world that they live in. Art and culture isn’t just for those days out in Amsterdam, Paris, London………

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