A Design for Learning

By Kenn Taylor

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection
Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

The architecture of learning spaces within cultural institutions has followed a similar trajectory to learning as a whole within them. Even ten or fifteen years ago, education was frequently viewed as something marginal and add-on, to be fitted in wherever space was available, as long as it wasn’t intrusive and didn’t affect the ‘core’ work of the organisation. Inevitably, this meant that the spaces provided for education were equally marginal. If any dedicated facilities were available at all, it was often in unwanted rooms hidden far away from main areas and usually fitted out in an ad hoc way. Places unloved except perhaps by those who used them as participants or practitioners.

This really began to shift with the plethora of new cultural institutions that opened in the New Labour era. One of my previous employers, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) has a renowned education and engagement programme. Yet when it opened its brand-new permanent site in Liverpool in 2003, arguably the first in the UK to have given deep consideration in its design for displaying media art, dedicated spaces for learning programmes were not envisaged. Consequently learning activity had to be creatively undertaken in whatever space was available, be it computer labs, reception areas or within gallery and foyer space. While this to an extent prevented the ‘ghettoisation’ of education, having to use such spaces around wider programming and commercial imperatives inevitably reduced the flexibility and scale of what could be achieved.

While FACT didn’t have a dedicated education area when it was built, it did however contain a flat for visiting international artists – since removed for office space. This highlights perhaps the shifting perception of what the priorities of a cultural institution should be in the relatively short period of the 2000s. As more and more arts centres of various forms opened during this time in more diverse and deprived areas, increasingly they had to prove their worth beyond narrow circles of existing interest and any potential impact from creating a new ‘signature’ building.

Now in an era of harsher scrutiny, there has been a shift in focus from supporting artists and their work to that of engaging the public with art. Today it would be largely unthinkable to open a new publicly-funded cultural facility without providing a learning programme and space allocated for it. In the current climate for funding, this space may be small and learning staff may have several other functions, but in most cases education and engagement is now part of the core mission statement the majority of public cultural institutions.

As this has occurred, so the space allocated to learning within the architectural fabric of institutions has shifted. A clear example of this is the Design Museum, currently in the process of leaving its home since its founding in the 1980s in Shad Thames and moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the heart of West London. The overall footprint of the museum is being expanded, but of particular note will be an increase in the space allocated to education from 90m sq to some 600m sq, including a dedicated design studio.1 This is a clear example of how far museum education has come in a short time in terms of the recognition of its importance and need for space.

There has been a change though not only in the amount of floor space given over to education, but in the design of learning spaces within the wider architecture of institutions. Education rooms have come a long way from the often-windowless magnolia spaces of old. Funders who are backing an institution at least in part on the basis of education want due attention paid to it in the buildings that they finance, and this has been reflected in many recent new builds and refurbishments. For example, BALTIC in Gateshead, which opened in 2002, has since added the Quay Learning Space, which hosts a range of activities and showcases work by schools and communities, at the heart of the gallery in full view of visitors. This was of course though, a post-opening retrofit.2

Now it is typical for heavily-designed, prestigious earning spaces to occupy some of the best spots within a cultural venue, elevating the status of education within the architectural hierarchy of institutions. For example, the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, is the largest new build museum in the UK since the V&A opened in 1909. The Museum of Liverpool has several education spaces, but its largest, Education Area 3, occupies one of the most dramatic locations in the building. Constructed out of almost floor-to-ceiling glass, it places learning activity in view of visitors on the inside and outside of the building as well as giving those taking part stunning views across the ever-changing skies and river of the Mersey estuary, with sun and distractions easily blocked when required by electric blinds. These changes in design also reflect the shifting uses of education spaces to a degree. Once, learning in cultural institutions was largely about formal sessions for school children, along with perhaps the odd lecture. Now, learning facilities can find themselves being used for everything from youth panels to family craft workshops,reminiscence sessions with older people and evening talks in British Sign Language.

This has seen an increase in the creation of dedicated spaces aimed at specific audiences in some organisations. For example, when the Wellcome Collection in London first opened its new public venue in 2007 the only learning space provided was a general performance and events area. Now, as part of a large expansion programme, they are developing a dedicated youth events studio. The new studio will be an activity space for people aged 14 to 19 to engage with the Wellcome Collection and produce work that contributes to the organisation’s programme. Consultation with both staff and young people who would use the space was carried out by external facilitators, with the young people visiting learning and youth spaces across London. The main outcome of these consultations was a set of reports which were used by architects involved in creating the space to refer back to at the design stage.3

This is wise. Despite this improving design, location and space allocation, not all new education spaces function as well as they might and so often this stems from a lack of serious consultation with end users – be they education staff or participants. In some cases it seems also that the prestige of spaces has started to become a little removed from the reality of a learning facility – inevitably a changeable, messy, ‘live’ space.

From my experience of cultural education facilities in numerous venues as a staff member, freelancer and participant, I have developed a few ideas around what goes into making a great learning space. The key concept for me is that of flexibility. Learning spaces will inevitably be used for a myriad of activities, often for things that they were never envisaged for, as priorities, programmes, technologies and audiences change. Designing a space for a specific audience or activity can be great, but care should be taken to future-proof things. How quickly has a suite of Macs come to seem a little antiquated in the face of tablet computers?

Sizeable open plan spaces are great and flexible. However, cavernous spaces can sometimes be overwhelming and distracting, so if a space is large, the ability to break it up, with sliding doors or moveable partitions, is invaluable. In this respect Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini had it right when they created the Pompidou Centre in Paris back in 1977.

Quay Space in Baltic
Quay Space in Baltic

Lighting is another vital and often over-looked component. Natural light wherever possible is desirable, especially if, for conservation or display purposes, other areas of an institution are dark most of the time. However, views outside windows and people peering in can also be distracting and unnerving for participants. Windows can also detract from showing videos, slides etc, so suitable and reliable blinds are a must. Strong lighting is also vital when working with disabled audiences, for example partially sighted people or visitors who lip-read or use sign language who rely on clear sightlines. When artificial lighting is used, the ability to raise and dim and split lighting into sections is easily achieved and really increases flexibility. Similarly the easy availability of points for power and data cables throughout a space is simple and vital but too often overlooked.

Soundproofing is another issue. I have witnessed in several venues the distracting sound bleed from audio-visual exhibits into education spaces, while the inability to cut off areas from public address systems can also be hugely undermining to activities. This is a wider issue in galleries in general, but has a particular effect on learning provision. It also highlights the wider challenges exhibition designers and architects face when trying to create new displays simultaneously as a building is being constructed or renovated.

The fittings and furniture of an education space are also important to its success. Flexible storage solutions and durable, lightweight, collapsible or stackable furniture is a must. While we have come a long way from piles of uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs, unfortunately what has replaced them is too often fragile, easily marked, heavy and awkward. A piece of furniture may look great, but if it needs two people to move it, is impossible to get paint off and difficult to store when not needed, it is of little use in education spaces. A kitchen space with running water is also a big plus. A dishwasher and a dedicated separate sink for washing paint pots is great, but somewhere to at least fill a water jug and wash out a cup might not be glamorous but it is very useful.

A great learning space should also have some capacity to display things. Even something as simple as magnetic paint or a display board can be preferable to heavy cabinets and inflexible hanging systems, though these also have their uses if space and budget is available. Retractable screens and integrated projection units can also be good, similarly interactive whiteboards. However the flexibility of a white wall with hard-wearing paint should not be underestimated.

This leads us into interior decoration. While magnolia walls can be un-stimulating, too much going on in a design can be distracting from whatever activity happens to be taking place. A blank canvas to a degree allows creative activities to fill the space in their own way and for a future project to start the process all over again. Walls don’t have to be bare, but again, flexibility is the key to success, and the design of such spaces should respond to the overall design context, be that a radically shaped piece of ‘starchitecture’ or a refurbished older building. That said, the tendency for architects and those commissioning them to place education spaces into the ‘awkward corners’ of a building’s footprint once the ‘core spaces’ have been allocated has sadly not disappeared completely.

As learning within cultural institutions has moved towards the core, we have seen education and engagement programmes increasingly influencing or in some cases even becoming the ‘mainstream’ offer in certain sections of institutions or for dedicated periods of time. For example, the young people in Tate Collective and Student Ambassadors from University of the Arts London are involved in programming the June editions of the popular Late at Tate events for other Tate visitors to consume. Late at Tate has recently been moved into the overall Young People’s Programme and there are plans for Tate Collective to be involved in all such future events though to a lesser degree than the June sessions.4 It has become a norm for engagement teams and participants to influence or even create content for core exhibition and programmes, and displaying community produced work or curated objects in main galleries is now rarely questioned. As a phenomenon, this is to be welcomed, as it helps to validate the contribution made by those taking part as well as demonstrating their perspectives to other audiences and staff within an institution.

The recognition afforded by becoming part of the ‘core’ is undoubtedly valuable. However, such integration should not be at the expense of having dedicated space that is always for learning and engagement. Space away from public observation, precious objects and carefully laid-out displays is vital. Somewhere there can be a degree of freedom to experiment, where mess can be made and ideas, and lunch, can happen. Somewhere also that anyone who might be nervous about being in a cultural venue can have respite from often busy and stimulating galleries. Without this, the ability for learning and engagement projects to generate interesting new perspectives and new work will be reduced and what is contributed to the core will inevitably be diminished.

Even in institutions which now have plenty of well-designed, functional learning space, a potential new undermining of their use has emerged. Flexibility in such facilities may be the key to their success, but it can also be their undoing. In small institutions it can be vital that such spaces have uses beyond education, for everything from meetings to packing leaflets or temporarily storing objects. However education now often has to fight for space with revenue generating activity. This is to an extent inevitable in a time of reduced public funding and while a happy medium can be found, it could represent difficulties on the horizon. Larger institutions may have the luxury of dedicated spaces, but how long will such fine, purpose-built learning facilities keep education as their core function during the ever-increasing need to host commercial events, which themselves demand suitably ‘prestige’ spaces within institutions? We have come a long way in the architecture of spaces for learning within cultural institutions, but it is important that education programmes and the space they are afforded don’t slip back during these times. When it comes to allocating, designing and fitting out facilities for learning, it is crucial that education professionals are part of the conversation at the beginning. That way they can advocate at the highest level for the needs of both audiences and professionals and make sure that spaces are suitable, stimulating and practical. Active involvement of educationists is also perhaps the best way to ensure that once such facilities are created, they can continue to be used for their intended purpose and enable participants to continue to make interesting contributions and generate new perspectives in the organisations they are learning in.

This piece was published in engage journal 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture in summer 2014.
Notes
1. Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design
Museum, email interview, 3 February 2014
2. Wheeldon, I. (2012), ‘The Culture of Staff in &
the Contemporary Arts Centre’ in Thomas, E. (ed)
BALTIC Learning on the Frontline. Gateshead:
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, p.67
3. Clare Carlin, Youth Programme Manager: Public
Programmes, The Wellcome Trust, telephone
interview 11 February 2014
4. Laura Turner, Assistant Curator: Young People’s
Programmes, Tate Britain and Tate Modern

A Tate of the North

A look at Tate Liverpool as it approaches its 25th birthday with new director Francesco Manacorda.

By Kenn Taylor

Much has been written over the last few years about the proliferation of new art galleries in the UK regions, especially the north. Often this is seen to have started with Gateshead’s Baltic, which opened in 2002 in a huge converted flour mill on the Tyne waterfront. Much has also been written about the viability and role of such institutions, particularly those located in deprived areas, especially since the public sector cutbacks have ensued.

Before all of this though, there was Tate Liverpool. One the first attempts at creating a modern art gallery in a post-industrial setting in the UK, and certainly so in the north, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. In that quarter century, modern and contemporary art has moved from the fringe of elite culture to something approaching the mainstream while the idea of using culture as a regeneration tool has both risen and fallen.

In an era when the Imperial War Museum has a branch in Tameside and the V&A is building one in Dundee, it might seem common sense to have a Tate gallery in a northern city, but at the time, it was a radical idea. In the early 1980s Sir Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, began formulating a plan to create a ‘Tate of the North’. Bowness later reflected, in a letter now in the Tate archive, on the project’s beginnings: “We made it clear that we wanted if possible to find some great 19th century building that had lost its original purpose, and would lend itself to conversion into an art gallery.”

Having met with positive responses about hosting the gallery from cities across the north, he visited them all, reaching Liverpool last. There he was given list of potential sites to explore by Merseyside County Council. He recalls: “At the end of a stormy and blustery winter’s day we arrived at the Mersey, had a quick look at the Liver building (not suitable) and then went into the totally derelict Albert Dock. It was immediately clear to me that this was the place.”

Pushed along by the then ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine as a key regeneration project for the city in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth Riots, the idea made rapid progress and in 1985 Liverpool-trained James Stirling was commissioned to design the new gallery in the dock. His work left the exterior of the Grade I listed warehouses largely untouched, but transformed the interior into galleries suitable for the display of modern art. The building opened to the public in May 1988.

There was some scepticism about this ‘branch of the London art world’ opening its doors in Liverpool, yet in the decades since, the gallery has firmly established itself as part of the city’s cultural landscape. Under its last director, Christoph Grunenberg, Tate Liverpool developed from a relatively quiet branch to holding some of Tate’s biggest exhibitions, including Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna and Picasso: Peace and Freedom. Although some visitors from London and other exotic places occasionally asked gallery staff “Why on earth is this up here?”, Tate’s presence was a factor in Liverpool winning the title of European Capital of Culture in 2008. The gallery’s hosting of the first Turner Prize that year helped to pave the way for the current system of a regional venue every other year.

At the end of last year Tate Liverpool appointed a new artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, to steer the gallery through its next phase. The 38-year-old has previously been curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, curated various pavilions at the Venice Biennale and ran the Artissima international art fair in his native Turin. Manacorda acknowledges the importance of Tate Liverpool’s legacy: “Tate Liverpool was a pioneer in making modern and contemporary art accessible to a wider audience outside London. The results it harnessed have no doubt provided inspiration for the creation of institutions such as Baltic in Gateshead, Nottingham Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield.”

He feels that it was not just the regions that were influenced by the opening of Tate Liverpool, but London as well:  “The commissioning of a prominent contemporary architect to convert a monumental piece of industrial heritage into a contemporary art venue was very successful in Liverpool. I am sure this influenced the decision to transform the abandoned Bankside power station into what we now know as Tate Modern.”

In the immediate future Manacorda’s focus is on the Liverpool Biennial, the largest visual arts festival in the UK, which opens this week. Since the Biennial’s inception under the stewardship of a former Tate Liverpool director, Lewis Biggs, the gallery has played a major part in it. Manacorda says: “Tate Liverpool’s relationship with the Biennial has been very good since the Biennial was established in 1998, and I would like to continue this. The Tate Collection is a great asset which allows emerging artists to look at history in an innovative and unconventional way.”

Tate’s contribution to the festival comprises two elements. The first is a new commission, ‘Sky Arts Ignition: Doug Aitken – The Source’, in which Aitken asks a variety of creative practitioners including Jack White, Tilda Swinton and Mike Kelley where their creativity comes from. The work is situated in a glass pavilion situated outside the gallery designed by David Adjaye. Manacorda comments:  “I think it is a great piece and it has been a real privilege working with Doug. The work makes a very important point manifest, that conversations are one of the most important sources of creativity.”

There will also be a new Tate Collection display entitled Threshold, featuring a wide range of artists from Martin Parr to Gilbert and George: “The show was curated by Sook-Kyung Lee as a response to this year’s Biennial theme of ‘Hospitality’. She took a very rigorous and imaginative approach to looking at how both inclusion and exclusion can become social, political and economic tools that manifest in a variety of, not always visible, ‘thresholds’.”

As Tate approaches its 25th birthday in May 2013, plans are already in place to mark the occasion, though Manacorda will only reveal a brief amount at the moment: “We are planning a major re-hang of the Tate Collection at the gallery to coincide with our 25th anniversary. We will be reflecting on the past twenty-five years, using the re-hang to do something different, exciting and revelatory with the collection.”

Nearly a quarter century after its inception as part of a plan to regenerate Liverpool, I ask Manacorda what role he sees the gallery playing now in a city in many ways transformed, in many ways still struggling: “Tate Liverpool was at the forefront of re-imaging the city’s industrial heritage through culture, helping people project new meaning into it. Culture has literally and metaphorically moved into the empty industrial space following the economic evolution of the North in recent decades. Tate Liverpool has a larger audience than other regional galleries, which means that while we have a loyal and growing Merseyside audience, we are also able to attract audiences from further afield. This of course is what brings regeneration effects to the city. We bring visitor spend to Liverpool and work in partnership with organisations across the city to make it a focus for cultural tourism.”

Though he sees the gallery as having a deeper role than just being a tourist magnet: “In addition to considering the economic effects of regeneration, we also consider the other beneficial effects that art can have on people’s lives. Art can speak to people and become an emancipatory tool for people to innovate, question and reinvent. Tate Liverpool’s role is to bring international, top quality practices to Liverpool, activating a conversation between the local and the international.”

Finally I ask, as Manacorda settles into his new role and can start influencing the programme on a deeper level, what is his vision for the future of Tate Liverpool? “I see the museum as a space for learning that provides the public with edifying experiences, critical space for reflection and access to the enjoyment that art can grant. Since Tate Liverpool is a modern and contemporary art gallery, I’d like to involve artists in reinventing how we look at history.”

This piece appeared on The Guardian in September 2012.

Why George Shaw should have won the Turner Prize

    

By Kenn Taylor

I always take an interest in art’s biggest bauble, the Turner Prize, and usually have my favourite entrants, but for once, in 2011, I was actually excited about a nominee. It was through the prize I learned about the work of George Shaw, comprising of paintings, in Humbrol enamel model paint, of seemingly insignificant places in the area of Coventry where he grew up.

Occasionally, something just speaks to you. I’m not from Coventry and my feeble attempts at Airfix as a child were limited, but his representation of abandoned pubs, bent fences, tatty lock-up garages and scrappy woodland appealed greatly to me. There was a personal recognition that the landscapes he was painting looked similar to where I grew up, but more importantly, and why I wanted him to win the Turner, was that his work felt so representative of where the UK is now as a country.

This is not to disparage Turner winner Martin Boyce’s work, which I also like. However, Shaw’s paintings seem much more significant, almost like a stark acknowledgment of a Britain brought back down to Earth after what Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend brilliantly referred to as ‘The Cappuccino Years’. The time when we pretended everything was getting better in new modern sophisticated Britain, when really they were getting worse, covered only briefly by froth on the surface now swept away.

Coventry, like pretty much everywhere outside the South East of England, has suffered economic decline, in particular in its once thriving car industry. However Coventry’s decline was not in a dramatic, easily aesthetic way the likes of Liverpool and Glasgow did in the 1980s; cities picked apart by so many ‘social realist’ photographers and documentary makers.

Coventry’s decline was slower, almost unknowable. A breaking apart, due to various factors, of economic, social and cultural ties, something that has now enveloped much of Britain, from Dundee to Burnley, Ipswich to Plymouth. Shaw’s Coventry is neither the ‘gritty’ inner city like East London, places for the latest crop of art students to colonise, nor the ‘quaint’ leafy suburbs, but the area in between. Places where the hope of the post-war settlement, of new housing estates and modern factories and a better, more stable, more egalitarian world has decayed. Places confused, liminal, unsure of what anything means any more or where things are heading. The Britain that I know, the Britain David Cameron hasn’t got a clue about.

That’s not to say ‘The Cappuccino Years’ that led us to now didn’t have their plus points. For those of us in the arts it was a boom time. Galleries expanded and spread, audiences grew and diversified, there was cash for ambitious projects, and art entered more into the arena of mainstream culture. Now though, when I look back on so much of the work that was created at this time, at least that which dominated the public consciousness; the infamous Young British Artists, all those big public sculptures and the Tate Modern Turbine Hall projects. Grand visions assembled by armies of fabricators with money no object. Even if I like such work and still value it, I can’t help but think back into art history.

Back to the turning of the 19th century into the 20th, of the Fin de siècle, the Viennese Secession, the beautiful decadent work produced at the zenith of a culture that would soon collapse in on itself. A high point before everything that was solid melted into air, transformed by technological advances, war, depression, revolution, social change and scientific discovery. I look back and ponder that we might now be at a similar point again.

The sheer lack of monumentalism in Shaw’s work seems to me to represent the UK now. A country humbled from its arrogance that its laissez-faire, sado-monetarist system should be embraced by the world and that real industry could be replaced by finance and the ‘Cool Britannia’ cultural industries. Shaw shows instead the reality; a Britain cracked, dog-eared, confused, battered, half-shod, but in a way that is sublime and truthful rather than bleak.

His use of Humbrol model paints is also resonant. An everyday product that most people must have used at some point as children, Humbrol was once manufactured in Hull. Now it is produced in China and its old plant stands abandoned and boarded up. Hull being another place in the UK that has suffered slow, quiet, decline, ignored by those in the ever faster spinning wheel of the City of London, a wheel that has now fallen of its axis.

It was great seeing musician and former graffiti artist Goldie on Channel 4’s Turner Prize coverage from the Baltic in Gateshead. The very fact that the Turner prize was held in Gateshead, shown on Channel 4 and partially presented by Goldie is a positive product of the last ten to fifteen years, of art’s increasing popularity and expansion out of the capital and, to an extent, out of elite circles. Goldie’s open enthusiasm for fellow West Midlander Shaw’s work was also great in contrast to fellow presenter Matthew Collings, looking like Karl Marx and talking the usual jargon.

Shaw at least has been given a solo show in the Herbert Museum in Coventry, and like all Turner nominees, should see his work grow in popularity and price even though he didn’t win. Hats off to Martin Boyce, but we’ll see in decades, who was making the more important work, the work that captured the spirit of our age.

This piece appeared at a-n Online in January 2012.