Culture is one of the fundamental human rights

Culture is one of the fundamental human rights
Art Based Dialogue. Photo: Gintarė Grigėnaitė

Interview with Eglė Nedzinskaitė,
educator and curator of educational programmes at the National Gallery of Arts

Interview by Kotryna Markevičiūtė
Translated by Skirmantė Cairns

Vilnius, 2022

While today many art institutions declare their ambition to become inclusive and open, the question remains how and at what scale this can be done? Curatorial, management strategies can be relearned, visitor numbers monitored, yet one of the first people within these institutions who should be asked, what needs to be changed and why, are the art educators. Through their first-hand knowledge gained at daily interactions with visitors, art educators are autonomous critical bodies, using the term of Carmen Mörsch, that both represent the institution and have means to reflect it critically. Eglė Nedzinskaitė has been shaping the educational department of the National Gallery of Arts in Vilnius since its opening 13 years ago and remains one of the most active art education practitioners in Lithuania. She has been involved in long-term collaborations with variuos social minority groups in Lithuania and together with colleagues pioneered many important art education projects. In this interview, Eglė elaborates on her past and current activities, shares her reflections on the social role of art museums and their current politics of inclusivity.                                                                                            

NGA archive photo

Kotryna: Eglė, together with your colleagues at the National Gallery of Art you have been developing the educational department since 2009 and working with many different projects and audiences. In Lithuania, art educators are not systematically trained, and it is usually people who come from various art practices and who have independently gathered the required experience that become educators. It seems that in this work, theoretical knowledge is first acquired through practice and real experiences. Therefore, I would like to ask you, how do you understand the work of an art educator? What qualities, characteristics, functions of the educator seem most important to you?

Eglė: I would say the longer you work, the better you understand that education and art education practice are not so individual. Just like in curatorship, trends exist, and turns and discoveries occur. The same goes for art education; we can see such movements and influences. Unavoidably, education trends are dictated by the leading art institutions, such as British or US museums. Yet, what became most apparent to me through the years is that the main task of the educator is to establish the link between works or an exhibition as a completed object and the viewer. An educator must know both sides really well, not only should they understand the work or the exhibition, but they should also know how to access different audiences or different people. That is the most important.

Kotryna: The National Gallery of Art hosts one of the most important permanent collections of Lithuanian 20th and 21st century modern and contemporary art. It also presents up to 5–6 temporary exhibitions annually and offers a range in terms of formats and topics. Some of these exhibitions are more historic, others – focus on contemporary arts, or discursively react to the relevant questions of contemporariness. Do you, yourself, feel the difference whilst working for example, with historical and contemporary art exhibitions? With what works/exhibitions do you find your work to be most interesting?

Eglė: I do not have a settled favoured genre of exhibitions, as each time I work on a new exhibition I am motivated to find unique ways to see and present it. This way of working is the most interesting to me and allows me to not become bored with monotony, where if we decide to do it one way, we will always do it like this. Each new exhibition requires a new approach. And you know, it is not necessarily true that there is a separation between traditional and contemporary art, because both have a range of forms of expression. Maybe contemporary art is more diverse. Some people, however, find it easier to understand realistic art or recognizable images like photographs. But this can also be a drawback because understanding a piece of art solely based on recognizing the object depicted may not fully grasp the work's intended meaning or idea.Interestingly, children are often drawn to abstract art as they think in abstract terms themselves and don't need historical context to appreciate it. They connect with the spatial structure of the work immediately. Therefore, the nature of my work very much depends on the audience, on the knowledge, the opportunities one has, as well as on the specific artworks.

What is interesting when working with contemporary art, is that the creation of the piece of art and ways to understand it are related in a malleable manner. Educational activitiesthat work with the reconstruction of a specific artwork’s creative motifs can help people understand the piece and unlock its ideas.Through this process, we can see how the artist's thought process is linked to the creation of the artwork. In historical context when talking about realistic painting, technical proficiency may have been highly valued, but it is not necessarily crucial to our perception. With contemporary art it seems the opposite would hold true, but no. Practice is an inseparable part of such art making. People need tactile actions. I consider practice to be a broad term that includes not only hands-on activities, but also discussions, conversations, and the exchange of opinions. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, when working with senior groups, creating a specific object and taking it home afterwards is a very important part of the activity, without it, it is very difficult to attract this group. Ultimately, it comes down to managing expectations and understanding what each group is looking for.

That Strange Art. Photo: G. Grigėnaitė (2021)

Kotryna: I had the opportunity to participate in visual thinking meetings that you organised together with art educator Karen Vanhercke. It was really stimulating to try and experience the work of art by rejecting any advanced knowledge, which is often quite difficult for art field professionals. Of course, the group was very diverse, so different insights, improvised interpretations that were heard during the engagement really encouraged me to see the works from the most unexpected angles. This experience reminded me how truly important it is to talk during exhibitions, to share insights and not to shut off in an individual experience. Is it difficult to make the viewers talk, and if so, what is your experience in this practice of understanding the work through conversation?

Eglė: I have been interested in Visual thinking strategies for some time now. After studies at the Vilnius Academy of Arts I became increasingly curious about how different viewers understand and see my own paintings. Already, when working as an art educator, I had the opportunity to witness the positive impact of this method while working with people suffering from dementia.. Even though when working with this specific group the method is modified somewhat, the foundation and the sequence of the conversation development is the same. Factual information about the work of art must be discovered, then steps towards associations and interpretations are taken. When working with individuals who have dementia one simply needs to provide more information about the work, offer some keywords that can facilitate a productive discussion. It was exactly when working with individuals with dementia that I experienced how effective it was in encouraging participants to engage with the artwork and share their interpretations, only during a guided tour, participants engage in the process independently. The method shows that most of what art historians and professionals study and formulate, already exists in the actual work of art. Even a person, who is interested very little in art or is not interested at all and has no theoretical foundations, can see a lot in the work, if you ask the correct questions and guide them towards that insight. The artwork has the power to accost a person, and the educator’s task is to ask appropriate questions and to offer the most suitable guidance.

Kotryna: In this way the viewer is given the confidence in their own personal interpretation of the work?

Eglė: As a facilitator using Visual thinking strategies it is important to guide the discussion towards the actual work of art and prevent interpretations from straying off topic. The expressed opinion must be encouraged with facts.Thus this method not only helps with looking at art but also trains critical thinking. The beauty of this method is that it provides tools that can be implemented in various settings. As a result, viewers become more confident in their abilities and empowered to engage in discussions grounded in factual evidence.

Visual literacy, or the ability to understand and interpret visual information, is still insufficiently developed in society despite recent improvements. Visuality is the main medium through which we experience the world. However, only marketing professionals truly study how to understand the effect of visual information,and how to manipulate visual information for purposes of persuading others. Yet skills on how to read visual media, how to respond to it are lacking. Even the Vilnius Academy of Arts students are not taught on how to explore their own work. It seems that everything which is visual is de facto understandable and all of the visual information is a priori grasped and understood on its own. Here arises a mismatch, when people come to the exhibition and dismiss the artwork as "nonsense" without realising that they lack the knowledge to understand it. These are the shortcomings of our education system.

Kotryna: For many years you have been developing a continued cooperation with various social groups, you draw attention to a fully-fledged understanding of art for groups of people with various needs, and their involvement in cultural processes. At this time, you are developing activities for children with dyslexia, and engaging people on the autism spectrum, previously you also worked with individuals with dementia, as well as developed projects for those who are blind and visually impaired. In Lithuania most of these groups still experience quite significant social isolation, therefore your work seems particularly relevant and valuable to me. How do you see this work of yours, can art education contribute towards reducing the social gap?

Eglė: It is not like I wanted to work with these groups the most, but maybe these interests have formed over time. The museum has collaborated with the Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired since 2002, and essentially through a single person who worked there – Cultural Project Manager Lina Žaltauskaitė (previously – Puodžiūnė). In each organisation the presence of such a person who understands the value of culture, how it is needed by the community, is critically important.

At first glance, visual arts between blindness or visual impairment is almost a contradiction, thus it is very interesting that our collaboration is so long lived. Through these years we have published art cards, organised a sculpture exhibition of touchable bronze originals, contact improvisation workshops focused on experiencing space, and in 2018 and 2019, with composers Matas Drukteinis and Agnė Matulevičiūtė we opened two sets of the tactile exhibition Blind Date, where we presented relief replicas of the artworks from the National Gallery of Art’s permanent exposition. Four replicas remain as a permanent, inclusive part of NGA’s collection. Later together with the Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, we have prepared a tactile catalogue To Know the Art through Senses. Modern and Contemporary Lithuanian Art, where exhibits of different museums are complemented by audio descriptions. The catalogue is used as a part of an experiential educational activity, which we deliver in collaboration with the Theatre of Senses and the musician Gediminas Žilius.

It is difficult to invite any isolated group, a contact person from the group is always required. How the museum can renew itself, by establishing contact with specific communities is very complex. Most of them are still very closed-off. As an example, in Vilnius, in one of the prestigious micro-districts, some apartment buildings are built as a separate area for families of social risk . This type of planning results in the creation of ghettos where children at risk grow up. Vulnerable groups form in isolation and are not exposed to cultural phenomena. Maybe now the situation is gradually improving. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of distrust, resistance, they feel it themselves. They feel best in their own closed-off safe groups.

Many think that when presenting visual works to the blind and visually impaired it is enough to provide a tactile experience, however, the auditory part is no less important. For example, those reliefs from the Blind Date without audio description simply do not work. Often the blind and visually impaired note that many things may not be adapted for them at a museum, but if there is an audio version, that already ensures certain accessibility. On the other hand, it is wonderful that those reliefs at the National Gallery of Art exposition are interesting to all visitors, not just those who are blind or visually impaired. There are various people in the community of the blind and visually impaired, for example those who lost their sight later in life. Among them there may be people who are very knowledgeable about art. For example, once when visiting Homer Museum (Museo Omero) in Ancona, Italy, a Renaissance sculpture replica exhibition with a group of blind and visually impaired individuals, a few of them could tell a lot more about Renaissance art than I could.

Broadly speaking, in this work, it is important not to generalise people according to their abilities, visible or invisible disabilities, because they in no way describe what they are interested in or what they are capable of. That is why it is still difficult for me to work with schoolchildren because they come as a class, where they are required to be similar, and even though I understand that they are not the same they are expected to react, accept things similarly, and behave well, to listen and do what they are told. It is such nonsense. Then teachers point out which student is the most stupid, from whom you should expect nothing. Such situations are very hurtful because vulnerable children are affected by art the most. You see the result with them the quickest, and it is great when they start really seeing the artwork.

Schoolchildren, particularly teenagers, reveal themselves differently when they come to the museum voluntarily. For example, an educational project for teenagers That Strange Art, during which the participants prepared an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, lasted two years. The most important thing that I have learned from this project is confidence – when you provide space for youth to talk about what is important to them and trust them, they do everything and take care of all. And while preparing an exhibition there was plenty to do. 23 youths from 13 standard local schools of Vilnius worked in teams of curators, architects, designers and marketing specialists, and collected works, wrote texts, created the architecture of the exhibition, visuals, researched the audience and delivered a marketing campaign. After a year of work they opened the exhibition Where Are the People?, and a year later we published a catalogue that was also prepared by them. Of course, the participants did all of that with assistance. The teams were supervised by mentors. Meetings with artists, art historians, exhibition architects took place, but decisions about what the exhibition will be, what works will be included, how it will look, what events will take place were made by the schoolchildren.

Blind Date. Photo: Gintarė Grigėnaitė 

Kotryna: Historically the function of museums was closely related to the creation of a symbolic social gap and its consolidation. In Lithuania to this day, it exists in some form, as a large proportion of society does not have the habit of visiting art institutions, and feel uncomfortable, timid in them. Despite talks that continue for years about the need to open up, to ensure social equality, to think about accessibility and to involve, expand the visitors’ opportunity and expectation profile, the situation has not changed much. It is enough to visit Lithuanian museums and to look around who visits them most. How important, in your opinion, it is for the museum to remain self-critical for its own past and present? What are the essential changes in contemporary museums? What are the greatest challenges?

Eglė: During a discussion that took place recently one of the participants expressed that the museum is a completely neurotypical institution – suitable for neurotypical people. In other words: intended for a person without any disorders, without depression, hyperactivity or similar. So maybe in this context there is an attempt to see where those boundaries of neurotypicality are and will the museum really fall apart if something non-neurotypical would take place within it. It seems when we try more often we see that it won’t fall apart.

For me, such changes are visible somewhat. When I began working here, it was the greatest tragedy if children would run through the vestibule screaming. It was the greatest tragedy, especially for the invigilators, because the space ought to be silent, everyone ought to walk nicely and quietly. The current situation is different than before, and even if something loud happens, the reaction is not as negative as it used to be. Still, there are boundaries in place, and these might be removed if people had more knowledge about atypical situations and weren't afraid of them. For example, when speaking about people with autism spectrum disorders – if the museum staff understood that when a child jumps around and moves their arms like wings, it is not unusual behaviour but rather a way to focus on tasks, similar to how we all have our own ways of concentrating, then they would not be afraid of such atypical behaviour. With knowledge and understanding, the staff would not perceive such behaviour as a potential disaster.

However, it is important to note that there should still be limits in place to prevent the museum from becoming a playground where anything goes. Museums should not be solely focused on entertainment and should have confidence in the power of art to engage visitors. For example, creating a game about art can be an effective educational tool. I would like for activities in the museum to lean towards its essence, so that it is about the works of art, exhibitions, creativity and ideas. While museums can be social spaces, the foundation should always be on exhibitions, collections, and the unique access to artists who offer a separate field of knowledge and exploration. Our collection was created by so many people, with much energy and ideas that turning it into some “bargain buffet” simply isn’t worth it.

Based on my experience working with groups that have historically been excluded from museums, I have found that solutions tailored to meet their needs often have benefits for all visitors. What is crucial, if you want to provide something tailored for a specific group, is to directly engage with that group and ask what they want and need, rather than assuming we know best. We tend to think for others, but it can be a total misreading of their needs. It is most important to understand and communicate, that it is not a sacrifice, on the line of –we allow you in, or sweeping statements that we will improve your life and so forth. It is more about what we can give to each other. Working with various audiences has taught me many interesting things. For example, the blind have taught me it’s possible to hear architecture, to feel space without seeing it. They have shown me how to navigate space using senses other than sight, and taught me many wonderful things.

We are a budgetary institution, and culture is included in the United Nations Human Rights Charter as one of the fundamental rights. Even judicially speaking we have to provide this right to people. And it is not about whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not, it is simply a question of capacity and capability. However, it is important that such a wish is not only in the museum, but that the community itself, would have an internalised demand. Museums as institutions should transmit that they want to be open, that people can address them. Of course, according to capability, we cannot include all groups, address all of them and work continuously with everyone. Therefore, it is very important that such demand exists in the target group. Mutual decision to communicate is very critical here.

NGA archive photo