Before the Turner Contemporary opened its doors in 2011 it employed a philosopher-in-residence that would not only help train staff to be more confident and communicative but would also work with children and adults as part of its learning programmes.

Molly Molloy, learning officer at Turner Contemporary says that philosopher-in-residence Ayisha de Lanerolle brings discussion, interesting questioning democratic conversations, philosophical enquiries and that the gallery has found that this improves communication and conversation and makes people feel that their opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.

Education is at the heart of everything that we do and our aim is to make art as accessible to everyone as possible

Turner Contemporary learning officer, Molly Molloy

Turner Contemporary’s philosophical approach extends throughout its learning programme, which is based around the use of practical philosophy, which also sees its staff trained in philosophy for children, which is delivered by educational charity SAPERE.

This is the foundation on which all its many learning and education projects can flourish and reach their potential. “Our school learning programme offers navigated tours from the learning team who deliver our programmes based around discussions and questioning and communication, rather than overly focused on art history and right or wrong answers,” says Molloy. “Education is at the heart of everything that we do and our aim is to make art as accessible to everyone as possible.”

In the past six years, the gallery has focused on being welcoming to all visitors and involving the local community in the projects as much as possible, even if they are catered for children, there are opportunities for residents to see the children’s work at special open events. In that time it has welcomed 2,554,735 visits (averaging more than 400,000 a year). And empowering schoolchildren by giving them an opportunity to get involved in the gallery’s programmes has been key to laying the foundations for the future success of both the children and the organisation.  The past three exhibitions, JMW Turner: Adventures in Colour (8 Oct 2016 – 8 Jan 2017, Entangled: Threads & Making (28 Jan – 7 May 2017) and Every Day is a New Day (26 May – 24 Sep 2017), the gallery has attracted a total of 343 school and group visits, which totalled 9,648 under 25s.

One of the gallery’s most successful projects has been Art Inspiring Change, which was launched in January 2016 and is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The project provided an opportunity for primary school children to become leaders in the community with a brief to transform derelict sites in Margate with art work. They collaborating with politicians, artists and members of the community to create something meaningful for their home town.

Art Inspiring Change looks first and foremost at a child-led approach to learning that involves working with four local schools,” says Molloy. “The schoolchildren in the project took on the roles of young arts leaders and they selected their own artists to work with, which meant interviewing them and choosing the one that best suited their aims. They then chose a part of the town that they wanted to regenerate and created works for four different sites and they had a big launch in July, which attracted the attention of the local community.”

Part of the project involved the children pitching their ideas to councillors at Thanet Council chambers, visiting the Houses of Parliament and also taking a tour of artist Phyllida Barlow’s (who has featured in the gallery) studio in London. “Art Inspiring Change is putting children in the lead and we can then learn from them. The way this project has empowered that group was really successful – I think their enthusiasm also brought new visitors into the gallery.”

But it’s not all about the children and Molly and her team try and find opportunities to encourage adults to engage with the gallery as well. Alongside the Art Inspiring Change programme was a project with parents called Creative Enablers, which saw a team of 30 local parents create their own event, manage the marketing for it and take part in a training course, which dealt with body language, first aid, confidence building and different art techniques.

Another programme that has involved adults is On Margate Sands, (a partnership project between Turner Contemporary, Tate and the Heritage Lottery Fun), which is part of the build up to the exhibition Journeys with the Wasteland, which opens in January. The exhibition is based around TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, which he wrote at the shelter opposite Margate train station. There are lots of references in that poem to mental health and the gallery has worked with local organisations including the Garden Gate project, a community garden for vulnerable adults living in the community with mental health issues and learning disabilities.

“We delivered off-site sessions with them and they held an exhibition at the gallery and more recently we have worked with NHS in-patients in Canterbury on a project linked to Journeys with the Wasteland. Because each exhibition is new and not permanent, as we don’t have our own collection, so much of the learning programmes are designed around each show. So that means a new set of workshops, school sessions, outreach and a new tour.”

A project that exemplifies the gallery’s dedication to attract as wide a range of the community as possible is Blank Canvas, which is an intergenerational group bringing together old and young to work together.

Blank Canvas at Turner Contemporary is an intergenerational project

Through engaging and thought-provoking projects, trips to London galleries and twice monthly meetings, the group exchanges ideas, experiences and reflections with each other, as well as working towards creating a group art work. Blank Canvas participants have met artists, run workshops and made a real impact on the gallery’s future.

A lot of the gallery’s projects involve the exhibitions but others, such as the Studio Group Commission, are specific projects where the community will work with a local artist connected to the gallery to make a work that can then be displayed. This year the gallery unveiled a major new commission, The Three Graces by Kashif Nadim Chaudry taking pride of place in Sunley Gallery near Turner Contemporary’s entrance.

The Three Graces by Kashif Nadim Chaudry and the Turner Contemporary Studio Group

This gallery has a pool of local artists who work on its schools programmes and other projects such as Art Inspiring Change and the Studio Group, and this summer it ran a traineeship with local artists interested in working in education, some of whom are part of a growing group of creatives moving to Margate.

The gallery is also very involved in its outreach, says Molloy, and has a strong relationship with the local schools with, for example, Art Inspiring Change being part of their outreach programme with the learning team visiting schools and the schools also visiting the gallery.  As well as this a programme called Start, which is funded by Children and the Arts, brings teachers into the gallery for sessions around the current season of exhibitions and looks at ways they can link that back to the curriculum.

The gallery also creates online resources for teacher that include lesson plans and themes, and also continues the gallery’s philosophical aspect by presenting philosophical questions about the exhibitions and ways to start discussions. So if the teachers cannot make it into the gallery for a full educational session they can still work with the resources and visit when they are free.

“We are also thinking about how we can become sustainable by finding new ways to generate money to fund our ideas, which will include different ways of working and collaborating with new partners.”

One project that could lend itself to an expansion into the community is Portfolio, which is an annual Kent-wide art competition that is run in conjunction with Canterbury Christ Church University and is open to every school child in the county (with different catergories for each key stage), their teachers, trainee teachers and school staff and attracts 200 entries a year.

Portfolio is an annual Kent-wide art competition that sees schoolchildren and their teachers submit artwork based around the gallery's summer show

The Portfolio project is always based on the gallery’s summer exhibition and the shortlisted artwork is displayed alongside it. This year the summer show was Every Day is a New Day, which focused on how society uses creativity in everyday life and how creativity can make a difference. There is also an awards ceremony, which takes place at the university, which sees people travel from all over Kent.

“We are always trying to extend our reach and get funding to create more projects to bring people into the gallery that haven’t been before. We are very passionate about child-led learning and looking at ways we can develop that but also adult-led projects.”

In 2019 the Turner Contemporary will be hosting the Turner Prize, which will be an opportunity to get more people in the community talking about contemporary art and visiting the gallery to engage with it. “We have found that when we have more contemporary shows such as Phyllida Barlow, older visitors find that harder to engage with through our research through Canterbury Christ Church University and visitor surveys. We have been looking at ways to develop that into a conversation with those people and hearing their views.”

The fact that some elements of the community find it difficult to engage with certain exhibitions goes to show that learning and experiencing new things may not be for everyone but providing these opportunities for schoolchildren and adults in towns like Margate can really make a difference in giving the community a sense of place and the potential that that brings with it for positive change.

This case study is part of an In Focus feature on Education in Museums.

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Quick Facts

Since opening in 2011, Turner Contemporary has welcomed 2,554,735 visits

It hosts three major exhibitions each year

The past three exhibitions, JMW Turner: Adventures in Colour (8 Oct 2016 – 8 Jan 2017, Entangled: Threads & Making (28 Jan – 7 May 2017) and Every Day is a New Day (26 May – 24 Sep 2017), the gallery has attracted a total of 343 school and group visits, which totalled 9,648 under 25s


This case study is part of an In Focus feature on Education in Museums