Contemporary arts’ role in the education system

Artist Deborah Curtis discusses contemporary arts’ role in the education system with

Image Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Image Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Earlier this month the coalition government announced devastating cuts to funding in both the education and culture sectors. With the onset of these cuts, I caught up with artist Deborah Curtis to discuss her organisation, the House of Fairy Tales and why she believes contemporary visual art has the potential to transform the way children learn about the modern world.

Set up as a joint project between Deborah and partner artist Gavin Turk, ‘The House of Fairy Tales’ is a “child-centred artist led” organisation specialising in educational events and workshops, all of which take an unconventional and narrative approach to learning.

“I have been working on ideas to do with children and education since my eldest son was born. Before this project I was working with another registered charity looking to build a creative centre for families in East London,” explains Deborah. “‘The House of Fairytales’ evolved out of a something Gavin and I set up separately from our professional interests and it re-awoke the mission I was on before.”

It is the educational nature of the narratives in ‘Fairytales’ which gives the project its name. “Fairytales are endemic; I was listening on the radio to how in British culture there are more ghost stories and fairytales than in any other. It’s surprising given how we are known for our scepticism.”

But far from dictating the direction of the project, traditional fairytales are just a spring board for Deborah and her team from which to think about stories as a form of education, or rather the importance of stories to the learning process.

“Really the project is more about the narrative nature of learning than fairytales themselves, but they’re a platform for making things transformative and magical,” says Deborah. “They give us liberty to take young people on a leap of imagination even with a non-fiction project.”

“I have always been interested in a narrative approach to learning which links children into visual culture and thinking around the subject – something contemporary art does really well. Artists commonly go on a journey of discovery throughout a project, which takes them through different media and processes,” comments Deborah. She relates the experience of the artist to that of the child playing make believe. “‘The House of Fairytales’ is a non-institutional learning experience.”

Although the project is described as ‘child-centred’, the workshops and events are open to and benefit all ages, enjoying success amongst children and adults.

“Naturally, we believe in it being an all age thing. We set up to do something high quality. Everything in our programmes from signage right down to the materials is carefully thought through. On the whole, children’s things tend to be low grade – primary colours and wax crayons – so we aim to give them something that has the articulacy of the adult world.”

Likewise, Deborah explains how adults find the project’s ethos refreshing, describing how their events provide escape from increasingly cynical ‘adult culture’. “We get a cross range of ages interacting with us. The place we set up at Glastonbury was the other side of the valley to the children’s area, and so we got lots of young people stopping by and saying, “it’s so cool here”.

We work with lots of artists and visual performers, and what they love about ­working with us is the child centred space. It’s a kind of nest where irony is only to amuse the performers, not to appeal to adults, and it has a resonance with the adults in the audience. So much adult culture is ironic and cynical these days, particularly in the art world.”

The team are always looking for ways in which to interact with the wider community. “The project is a bridge between artists and creative people, and education,” says Deborah.

“We just did this project about waterwheels at the Thames festival. To all intents and purposes, it was a non-fiction subject about engineering and ecology, but within that there were magical narratives going on with people in costume which brought the subject to life, and helps encourage this idea of being in a parallel universe.”

“At the moment, we are working on a major project with artist Daniel Lobb, who builds worlds within vehicles. He created a double height caravan we have been touring with. Inside it is a staircase, an old fireplace and even a chandelier – it’s like walking into a stately home. Daniel plans to create a small fragment of Venice on the back of a caravan chassis, which will start life in Venice, appear at the Venice biennale and tour back through Europe and the UK. The subject matter will be ecology, climate change and world trade.”

‘The House of Fairytales’ project is funded solely by Deborah and Gavin, who collect what revenue they can from big events. So how does Deborah feel about the cuts being made to public arts funding?

“In many ways the current climate is an interesting one for creative projects as well as being a difficult one. It makes you more focused on project sustainability. It’s nice if you can get subsidised but it doesn’t always make for the best.”

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