Young At Art
Brigitte Rozario 
Children from Mont Kiara’s Garden International School at an art exhibition in Galeri Petronas
CHILDREN in an art gallery almost sounds like that proverbial bull in a china shop. If not monitored and controlled, both situations could result in much damage and great losses. Additionally, in a country like Malaysia, where art is still seen as highbrow or a luxury, introducing children to art galleries is hardly a priority.

However, in the Klang Valley, this trend is increasingly being bucked. The government and private galleries recognise the need to inculcate art education from a young age. Some have art tours while others have workshops to engage the young. These are not activities they take lightly, recognising that young audiences are vital for the growth of the arts in the country.

Leading the way is Ilham Gallery, which from 2015, has been organising art tours for preschoolers. The tours lead the young visitors through the gallery, accompanied by their parents, to introduce them to art and themes. The children are shown not just paintings on the walls but also sculptures and installations. Relevant activities are also conducted to make the tours engaging and interactive.

Gallery director Rahel Joseph explains that the idea is to expose children from young so that they grow up being familiar with art and its display area.

“Gallery spaces can feel very alien and intimidating. There’s that feeling that you don’t understand what’s on the walls or it’s something very elitist. One of the problems here is that we don’t have a gallery-going culture. You’re not going to get a situation where people are lining up to go and see a show or where people are willing to pay to go in, which often happens abroad.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight here,” she admits. “I think things like this need to be developed organically. It’s not just about making the numbers. If you really want to develop or change something, you have to put in the work. You may not see the results in the next few years, but I think you will see it eventually.”

Art professional and cultural entrepreneur Datin Shalini Ganendra is also actively working towards that goal. She believes that positive experiences create a curious learning environment, which leads to better engagement with the world.

“Since all subjects are potentially connected, children should be encouraged to ask questions, answer questions by themselves, and engage with others in a discussion,” says the proprietor of Shalini Ganendra Fine Art (SGFA).

Recognising the need to be inclusive, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) took it a step further by having focus groups before even building its Museum and Art Gallery. The result is the highly interactive and educational Children’s Gallery.

“We teach them about art, drawings, creative ideas... and we give them a free hand,” explains Maheswari Thanapalasingam, deputy director of Museum, Art Gallery and Knowledge Management Centre at BNM. “We provide activities for them so that they have a feeling of being exposed to culture, which is very important now, rather than just lepak-ing all over the place. We’re trying to inculcate the art gallery habit in them, and we think that when they are exposed at a very young age, they will take it along with them when they grow up and become adults,”

According to Ratna Siti Akbari, Galeri Petronas’ manager of Art Collection, art is not just about artworks and creativity. “Art is all around us, and teaching children to explore and appreciate art is another way of helping them develop cognitively. It allows for that sense of adventure. It provides for that explorative and experimental manner of learning and hands-on experiences. It’s not just about taking the abstracts and learning textually. Here, you are involved visually, textually, and physically. I think that is very important. Art allows for the development of the cognitive ability beyond comprehension via reading, and I think that’s vital.”

She adds: “Art also allows for that subjectivity to happen. You’re not looking at it from one direction, but you are allowed to explore the art, and you deduce and analyse. That happens even from a young age.”

All the galleries agree that the first task is getting the children to visit art spaces. Some believe that having engaging programmes is the way to entice parents to bring their young ones to the galleries.

BNM’s Maheswari explains that before the children tour the gallery, they are briefed on how to behave and informed of the do’s and don’ts. While vandalism is a risk, it is one all the galleries readily accept. In most cases, it is not the children who damage the art.

Hazlini Harun, BNM’s manager of Museum, Art Gallery and Knowledge Management Centre, explains it aptly: “Some of the visitors are from rural areas and when they come here, it’s something new and they see exhibits that they’ve never seen before. So, in the excitement, they might get carried away.”

Creating artworks based on an exhibition at Ilham Gallery

Most of the galleries have workshops and programmes during the school holidays targeting children. For the past seven years, SGFA has conducted a free quarterly Art Hug programme to reach out to kids. Visiting curators, artists, and its own gallery team make up programme leaders who introduce new perspectives on art practices and art movements. The children are allowed to explore art and express themselves.

At the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG), the peak season is between Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. That is when the gallery has busloads of children from government schools visiting.

NVAG Development Board curator of exhibitions Tan Hui Koon admits there is constant interest in children’s programmes. “There’s always a huge demand, especially from the grassroots. Those who come for our programmes are not the usual artsy crowd. They are the grassroots who don’t usually go to shopping malls, preferring to take their kids elsewhere,” she says.

The NVAG engages children through its Kelab Seni Disini, which encourages arts collaborations between the gallery, schools, artists and the community. According to Mohd Daud Abd Razak, NVAG museum assistant in charge of the education programme, activities are also held in conjunction with the exhibitions.

“The artist might have classes or workshops for youngsters as well as adults, using the medium in his or her exhibition. It also gives children an opportunity to meet the artists,” he says.

Galeri Petronas also takes the workshop route. In addition to visits by groups of schoolchildren, the gallery also offers kids a hands-on experience at its art camps, allowing them to feel the textures of materials and understand the differences between paper, wood and plastic.

Lamenting the lack of prioritisation of the arts in schools, the galleries admit this is something that needs to be looked into and worked on through a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Ilham Gallery’s Joseph doesn’t think it is a pipe dream. She believes Malaysia can have a gallery and museum-going culture. “I think we can get there one day if programmes are targeted at kids now. All that change has to happen when they are young. It’s not like all these kids are going to become curators or artists but I do think that encouraging kids to think a little bit out of the box and to be articulate is important. Whatever happens later, whether they become lawyers or accountants, the fact that they have something else to enjoy is just one other thing that gives them pleasure in life. It’s not a bad thing.”

BNM thinks Malaysia is well on its way down that cultured road. Hazlini provides last year’s visitor figures to prove it: “We had 75,000 visitors and about 40% were children.”

“We think we’re getting there,” opines Maheswari. “Parents are driving this demand. They realise they need to instill some kind of appreciation of art and culture at a very young age, so that children are grounded and focused on positive things.”

Change is inevitable and many parents are already riding those waves of change. They know that exposing their children to arts and culture will help them develop a more balanced outlook, which could help them excel on an international platform.

Having been with Galeri Petronas for more than 20 years, Ratna has witnessed the shift in interest in that time. “It’s catching on in Malaysia. Parents are now looking at trends where creative input is becoming the currency. Automation is important, but what is more important is how you develop the artistic cognitive intellection. This is not only in fine arts, but also in music, industrial design, performing arts, architecture... anywhere the creative genius takes its path,” she says.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 241.