Where does art education stand today? Interview with art educators in the Baltics

Over the last five years, education and community-involvement practices have gained increasing importance in Baltic contemporary art institutions. Some major art centres and galleries have been rapidly expanding their education departments, professionalising them with educators and mediators who now work at full capacity, so that the ‘social’ and ‘educational’ become daily practices in the presentation of contemporary art. Not only does this shift purposefully make art education a more visible part of the regional contemporary art scene, signifying positive changes towards a more inclusive and mediated experience of contemporary art content, to speak in policy terms, it also reveals an attempt by art institutions to shake off the remnants of the ‘elitist institution’ label, and transform themselves into meeting points for knowledge production and participation.

In the light of these changes and new long-term goals, contemporary art institutions find themselves orbiting policy areas of culture and education, which, at least in most post-Soviet countries, have always been politically separated. How are contemporary art education practices affected by this situation, and what can be done to foster integration between the arts and official education? Despite the increasing role of education in contemporary art institutions, in most cases these programmes are still seen through an instrumental lens, primarily serving curatorial and other institutional goals, such as attracting greater visitor numbers. Do contemporary art educators see their function gradually transforming into what the art education practitioner and researcher Carmen Mörsch[1] calls ‘an autonomous critical body within art institutions’? In what other ways can we apply the practices and knowledge of art education to our lives?

To discuss these themes, I invited four educators who are currently involved in educational programmes in major contemporary art institutions in the three Baltic States: Annely Köster, curator of educational programmes at Tallinn Art Hall and Sally Stuudio; Māra Žeikare, curator of educational programmes at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA); and Kamilė Krasauskaitė and Vilius Vaitiekūnas, who joined the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius recently as curators for the newly established educational and community involvement programmes. The idea to convene these interviews was inspired both by the rapid development of contemporary art education practices, and at the same time, by the lack of public dialogue surrounding the field. Like any start to a new conversation, it only attempts to map out and introduce some of the main ideas and pressing issues surrounding the little-discussed field of art education today.

Adele Must,What makes being so good, 2020, collage, Sally Studio Artschool.

Let’s start with the educational programmes each of you is currently developing, at the CAC in Vilnius, at Tallinn Art Hall, and at the LCCA in Riga. The way art education is employed and incorporated into institutional practice differs in each contemporary art museum, centre or gallery. How would you describe the education programmes in your institutions? What are their core directions? Is there a specific method or longer-term strategy you currently work with?

Annely Köster: Sally Stuudio started collaborating with Tallinn Art Hall in 2015. Our public and educational programmes address different groups, from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, all with the purpose of widening the reach of art and supporting the understanding of it. We are currently working on updating the strategy of educational programmes, with the goal of tying them even more closely to the primary school curriculum, and creating a situation where schools develop a positive ‘addiction’ to contemporary art.

Māra Žeikare: The LCCA’s art education programme consists of four parts at the moment: the Art Mediation programme; the educational programmes For Kids and Families and programmes for students, artists and art professionals; the Evening School (reading workshops); and our international Summer School. The educational programmes For Kids and Families that I am responsible for started in 2015, as an integrated part of the exhibition programme. The same year, we started workshops for contemporary art education, which are mostly for adults, artists and art professionals. The international LCCA Summer School is an annual art camp for emerging artists, curators and students. It is a one-week-long event, full of lectures, creative workshops and artist presentations. Finally, on the Art Mediation programme, we have a group of twenty art non-professionals, specially trained mediators, who work in our exhibitions. We organise regular meetings with art mediators, and introduce our programmes to them. They work in exhibitions; and also, together with artists, they carry out educational programmes in schools.

Vilius Vaitiekūnas: Instead of having one fixed strategy, the educational programme developed at the CAC in Vilnius reacts to current social and cultural processes, as well as our exhibition programmes. It follows the social situation in Lithuania, and attempts to address the needs (or at least how we see them) of education and the school system in Lithuania. In response to this, we design our programme every half-year. We try to make the institution accessible, both physically and according to the different approach people have: we focus on various audiences, and on those who have no experience of going to the CAC.

To add to this, there are a few core directions that at least I see as necessary to follow in order to fulfil the goals we have set for each educational event. The first is to develop long-term collaboration with other institutions which primarily work with different social and cultural groups: refugees, the elderly, teachers, etc. For instance, for our current projects, we are happy to partner with the Artscape Arts Agency, which helps us to integrate refugees into our events; and another partnership with the Association of Education Centres in Lithuania also allows us to reach schoolteachers all over Lithuania.

Is there anything specific about contemporary art, perhaps its broadness or inter-disciplinarity, that helps or complicates educational processes? Do you think education in contemporary art institutions differs from that at, for example, heritage sites or historic art museums?

Māra Žeikare: Due to the diverse use of the media, contemporary art is also a great ‘excuse’ to learn about physics, chemistry, mathematics and technology, making them easier to understand and relevant to life. This year, the Latvian educational system is moving to a competency-based educational model, and I can see a lot of benefits where examples of contemporary art can be used as tools in the integrated learning of different fields of studies (such as science, the social and natural sciences, history, ethics, etc). But the problem is that teachers can hardly see this potential of contemporary art, and there is no institution that will consistently work in this direction. As an independent institution, the LCCA can be free to make educational materials, but at the same time, we are not a museum.

Vilius Vaitiekūnas: We see contemporary art as an extremely valuable tool that can be used in education, and it is a constantly evolving process. More and more research is done by artists and art educators that is not entirely based on an academic structure, but is driven by more intuitive forces. So one of the main goals is to show that these opportunities exist in the field of contemporary art. I believe that specifically contemporary art and the scope of activities that it embeds, the different strategies used by artists and the emphasis put on intuitive thinking, have an undefined, ephemeral educational potential, which we may not be able to reflect as it is produced, but we may confer trust and agency on it to educate us. This is the reason why there is so much enthusiasm for this work!

Annely Köster: It is certainly different in terms of organising, as well as content-wise. The exhibitions in museums are generally long-term, allowing for the preparation and production of thorough educational programmes, and reaching many young people over the course of several years. The exhibitions at Tallinn Art Hall run for two or three months, which presents an entirely different challenge: everything must be created the right away, in an attractive and understandable manner. Then again, contemporary art is hard to define, and changes quickly, demanding that we really look at life around us, and incessantly ask questions and think. Contemporary art often reminds us of research in the social sciences, including many different fields, and making initially invisible grids of connections visible. So with the help of art, we can create connections both within and between fields, to understand culture, science and the living environment as a whole, and to develop creative thinking and communicative skills. Therefore, in our programmes, we opt for both the intrinsic value and the instrumental capacity of art. 

Artist Anda Lāce in her masterclass of large-format paintings and performance art for Latvian school-children. (c) Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019

In Lithuania, and in most post-Soviet countries in general, art education has been (and still is) developing mainly ‘outside’ the official education curriculum, and rarely includes contemporary art practices. Do you agree with this opinion, and how does this separation between contemporary art and official education affect your work? Does it make it more challenging?

Māra Žeikare: Yes, it is the same situation in Latvia. Art education in schools, even art schools, does not include examples of contemporary art in its programmes. The tradition of teaching the visual arts is at least twenty to thirty years old. The Art Academy of Latvia started its curators’ programme in 2019, but it comes under the Art History Department. The professors are still very conservative about every initiative when students choose to write their BA or MA theses on contemporary art subjects. The LCCA is the only institution in Latvia that purposefully researches artists that are less well known in Latvia, still to be discovered, or undeservedly forgotten. The biggest challenge is talking about contemporary art with people who know nothing about it. And I have a feeling that 99% of Latvians are like that. That’s why education is so important, and why I love our art mediators programme so much, because we are learning together, and we share our knowledge and inspiration further, with teachers, children and teenagers. We are always open to dialogue, and there is always an art mediator available at our exhibitions.

Kamilė Krasauskaitė: As has already been mentioned, in developing this programme, we communicate with other educators and partners in Lithuania: we started consulting with representatives of the Lithuanian school education system, the Association of Art Teachers, and the Association of Education Centres in Lithuania. We discuss with them the relevant issues relating to art education in Lithuania, and what we can offer as an institution. We talk with educators from other institutions about the importance of art education in Lithuania, its connection with art lessons at school, how they are prepared, and what is included in the curriculum according to official documents from the Ministry of Education in Lithuania. We also discuss what qualification improvement programmes are currently available for art teachers, and how they can update the knowledge and methods they use to educate children. There is also a question: how to activate art education not only in the main cities, but especially in the regions, where teachers might be less motivated.

We can see that the way the programmes are designed for schools is very institutional, very strict. However, contemporary art should be seen as a live process, a live dialogue which requires a lot of trust, in yourself, in the artist, and in the direction this dialogue takes you in. Contemporary art encourages us to share our opinions; and in the Soviet tradition people were taught that there was only one right version. Even we (the generation born in independent Lithuania) were taught at school how to interpret texts; but there was always a right way to do it, and we were not allowed to present our personal interpretations, which in most cases would be seen as incorrect.

Vilius Vaitiekūnas: With regard to art education usually developing ‘outside’ the official school curriculum, and rarely including contemporary art practices, there are a few things to highlight. When talking about art education, we also have to include dance, theatre, the visual arts, music, and writing practices. I would group these subjects under art education, because, according to Merlin Donald, the father of the study of art as cognition, they all activate reflection and imagination: a combination of cognitive accounts that are crucial in making personally and culturally reflective artistic production.

From my experience of getting acquainted with art teachers in schools and reading the curriculum of art classes, I feel it is not well discussed and verbalised why art classes are needed, and there is a lack of discussion surrounding art education. Having said that, I see that at least in the Lithuanian context, it is easier for art education to establish itself outside the school curriculum, since there is much more space to experiment with different educational strategies, and there is less bureaucracy.

With regard to audiences, it is crucial to somehow demystify this ‘skill’ to connect with art, that it is difficult to achieve. For me personally, one of the pleasantest experiences comes from working with the University of the Third Age. The main goal in working with this audience is to show how they can relate to contemporary art, how it is relevant to them, how it can fulfil their social and cultural needs, and how it simply plays a role in their lives without them even specifically noticing it. There is an issue that contemporary art in Lithuania is still perceived very much as elitist. So this prejudice is another big challenge that needs to be addressed.

Annely Köster: I do not quite agree with your proposition here. Art education has consistently been a part of primary education in the post-Soviet period, and the discourse of contemporary art has been well covered in primary and high schools for more than ten years now. A much bigger challenge is to get the fifty plus audience to attend contemporary art exhibitions. Many are otherwise very interested in culture, but when it comes to art they prefer a classical painting exhibition.

Around ten years ago, there was a significant shift in the national curriculum regarding teaching art in Estonia. This means that of the sixty-three obligatory courses in high school, two are art courses, which is around seventy lessons altogether. The first course is centred around the changes in art over time, while the other one focuses on the birth and development of contemporary art. So we could say that a framework has been created on the legislative level. Additionally, synchronised with these changes, the art teacher MA curriculum of the Estonian Academy of Arts has been updated, and we have organised teacher training courses. Despite this, not all teachers agree with the changes and the new curriculum, and continue teaching as they always did.

Between 2011 and 2017, we organised the international contemporary youth art triennial Eksperimenta! with the Sally Stuudio team. It aimed to motivate students and teachers to pay greater attention to the more contemporary manifestations of art, and how art relates to society. Latvian and Lithuanian students also participated, and I have to admit that the exceptionally high standard of their work stood out. Eksperimenta! is finished now, because it is a great financial challenge to organise a big international event well, and, unfortunately, we did not manage to create a sustainable financial model to support it.

Artmediation at Tallinn Art Hall, Annely with Gracie. photo Annely Köster

What was your own personal route towards this profession? Is there any art education training available in the Baltic region that you recommend attending or which you attended yourself? Do you think that having a professional training in the arts (curator, visual arts, art historian etc) is enough to work in art education?

Annely Köster: That is a very long story, and we can talk about it another time. I would just like to mention that I founded Sally Stuudio in 1991. And in the first years of the studio, we also made art-themed television programmes for children. There was a time when everything was possible, and the media avidly took up the topics of art and education. It was easy to get into the news. In 1996, I was invited to create educational programmes for the Estonian Museum of Art, and in parallel to running my studio, I also ran the museum’s Education Department until 2002. In 2008 and 2009, I led the process of updating the art section of the national curriculum. In 2009, the preparations started for organising Eksperimenta! Between 2011 and 2014, I ran the art teachers’ MAcurriculum at the Estonian Academy of Arts, and also today I would happily recommend this curriculum to young people: you can get a good, wide-based education, which allows you to work in both general education or in art schools and museum education. It’s also very important to know your way around the topics of psychology, pedagogy and andragogy. Currently, all teachers in Sally Stuudio, as well as in the Kunstihoone educational team, have graduated from the same curriculum.

Māra Žeikare: After my art history MA at the Art Academy of Latvia, I took over the position in the LCCA from my colleague Linda Veinberga, also an art historian, who started the educational programmes at the LCCA. Before that, I worked on different projects at the LCCA: I curated an exhibition about the artist Juris Boiko, worked on researching and publishing about the NSRD, and many other projects. At the LCCA, you have to be ready to do everything, the development of educational programmes is only one thing I do. I am also responsible for our library and digital collections, a webshop, and publications. Small everyday administrative tasks, fundraising and the administration of current projects and financial reporting, are part of my daily routine, too. In Latvia, most art education specialists come from different fields, not necessarily pedagogy. There are great Latvian contemporary artists (like Linda Vigdorčika, Vika Eksta, Anda Lāce, Eva Vēvere, Ivars Drulle, and others) who work in art education. One of my projects at the LCCA is contemporary art master-classes, led by ten different artists. I think it is not enough to train professionally in art education, we all grow together with these projects: artists, me, and art mediators. I have two children myself, so I can say I am learning together with them too. It is not easy to work with educational programmes, but it is a great, unique challenge. A lot depends on the personality too.

Kamilė Krasauskaitė: We have both just come back after living abroad for a while, so we don’t know enough to say if there are any university programmes for art educators in the region. We are both artists actively practising with communities and social inclusivity, so education comes very naturally. We often apply knowledge to art education programmes that comes from our artistic practices. These inner processes can be very helpful in our professional development. I think that the knowledge also comes through participation in a dialogue, when you become an active member of an art field and an art community.

Vilius Vaitiekūnas: It would be interesting to think about a potential university programme for art educators, but I would not feel confident speculating what should be in it.

To conclude, over the years, educational and social aspects have gained increasingly more importance, and contemporary art curators and artists are more preoccupied with issues concerning visitor involvement, and see them as ‘prosumers’ rather than just passive consumers of art content. We also see the roles of art educator and curator gravitating towards each other. The art educator is no longer just a facilitator, but a figure who is constantly informing curatorial work, and sometimes a co-curator. How do you think the role of education will change in the future? Can it expand? Do you see any more radical shifts in the field of art education and its (re)positioning both inside and outside art institutions?

Annely Köster: Yes, I see very well what you mean! The purpose of art education as such should be understood as having two levels: firstly (including all students), cultivating citizens who think critically, creatively and boldly, and who are competent consumers of culture; and secondly (for some students), teaching future art professionals. Art institutions need to pay attention to both levels, and refrain from excessive simplification, for the sake of popularity and high visitor numbers. I completely agree with you when you say that the art educator is no longer just a facilitator, but a figure constantly informing curatorial work.

Māra Žeikare: I think educational activity is the future, not only for museums. Specially curated events based on artworks and permanent collections is the only way we can maintain a fresh point of view and reach new audiences. My vision is that we continue to provide art education programmes at each exhibition, and that we have an accessible proposal for contemporary art activities available to every teacher in Latvia. That is why we have started to develop a new initiative: an internet platform for all Latvian (in the future Baltic) contemporary art institutions, www.laikaforma.com. We came up with this idea in the first hackathon in Latvia for culture and art during the Covid-19 crisis, and received a special prize, because the platform answers the lack of a unified platform where everyone can get an overall look at all contemporary culture institutions in Latvia. This is also the first platform in Latvia where contemporary educational tools are accessible for teachers, parents, etc. We really need a place where our creative ideas can meet people who work daily with our children: parents, teachers and progressive school directors.

Kamilė Krasauskaitė: Officially, our titles are curators of education and community engagement, which partly answers your question. As curators, we are responsible for including various initiatives in exhibition programmes at the CAC. However, I think the line between the curator and the educator can sometimes be really thin. For example, this June, Vilius and I initiated excursions in the CAC sculpture garden. With these tours, we also performed a kind of activation of the public space, not only of the CAC yard, but also the city. During the excursions, we invited people to think why, for instance, there is a sculpture garden at the CAC, but there is no parking lot; which is better; and so on. These initiatives partly show why it is very important for an art educator to see situations critically from different angles, and constantly move between different positions.

Vilius Vaitiekūnas: Even the title of art educator is a complicated one, and it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what an art educator does. I believe that curators can inform educators, and vice versa; both can also participate in each other’s activities in a valuable way. Art education is a team effort by the whole institution, not only educators. By this, I mean that different team members bring a different knowledge of art to be used for educational purposes. Maybe we should stop calling each other curators, educators or mediators, and just let our activities manifest and signify what we do. Regarding the future roles of education in art institutions, I believe it is hard to speculate, since the cultures, traditions, staff and views on art differ in each institution. I hope there will be more emphasis on education, but that shift would need to come with some compromises and agreements between art institutions. I can see that more emphasis in different art institutions is being put on educational activities, which is great, but concentrating mainly on educational activities can be harmful to the other qualities that art institutions represent. So institutional output needs to be balanced.

[1] Mörsch, C., Sachs, A., Sieber, T. (2017). Contemporary curating and museum education Bielefeld: Transcript.

Artist Modris Svilāns in his masterclass of Kinetic art for Latvian school-children. (c) Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019

Artist Arturs Virtmanis in his ship-making workshop for kids and families, SURVIVAL KIT 8 Festival. (c) Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2017

Education activities at CAC, Vilnius. Photo Kamilė Krasauskaitė

Education activities at CAC, Vilnius. Photo Kamilė Krasauskaitė