Auckland: Artists in training

By Danielle Wright

Four children under six in a pristine art gallery sounds like a recipe for disaster, but, as Danielle Wright finds out, there are 'safe' areas for families if you know where to look.

Nicholas Jones (5), Henry Wright (5), Daniel Jones (3) and Georgie Wright (2) have fun in the gallery foyer. Photo / Natalie Slade
Nicholas Jones (5), Henry Wright (5), Daniel Jones (3) and Georgie Wright (2) have fun in the gallery foyer. Photo / Natalie Slade

A big pink cushion begs to be jumped on in the corner of the room and giant alphabet letters, the perfect height for little heads to duck under, make the children's eyes sparkle in anticipation. That is, until we remind them it's all about looking, not touching, at the renovated Auckland Art Gallery.

A gallery worker whispers a suggestion to the children: "why don't you tip-toe around the gallery, yes, that will be fun children." We get the message and tear them away from the intriguing sculptures to head towards the more family-friendly areas.

We find just the spot in the foyer, where the vibrant flower chandelier created by the "bad boy" of Korean art, Choi Jeong Hwa, hangs tantalisingly out of reach above them.

"Going to an art gallery used to be a bit like going to the ballet - families would dress up for the visit," says Auckland Art Gallery's Community Learning Co-ordinator, Meg Nicoll.

"There's always going to be an element of not letting the kids go wild in the gallery, we have to protect the artworks, so we've created spaces around the gallery where families can create together, learn about the creative process of an artist or parents can drop the kids off in a studio class and see the artworks in peace," says Nicoll.

The family activities on offer range from the self-led "dry art" materials provided in the Learning Centre to the more facilitated studio classroom courses. In between, there are family trails and "drop-ins", as well as some sculptures deemed OK to climb on, such as the Jeppe Hein bench on level two.

Studio courses replace the Sunday art classes but with more structured four-part sessions. Children aged 5-8 have the morning slot (10.30am-12pm) and older children aged 9-12 can come along in the afternoon (1.30pm-3pm). These courses need to be booked and will vary in price depending on cost of materials.

The Learning Centre is just off the main foyer and lets children get inside an artist's head to understand the creative process, to experiment with artwork with many interactive elements, as well as being able to watch a video with an artist talking about their work. There are two activity tables with a challenge set up and children are encouraged to respond to what they see and give it a go.

The great thing about all the sessions is the art theory that goes with the hands-on experience. Our lesson involved having fun with wire and then seeing a giant wire sculpture to put into perspective this creative process on a much bigger scale - something both adults and children will find inspiring.

If you don't want to commit to a Sunday course, you can head to the front desk and ask where the free family drop-ins (for ages 4+) are being held. Each Saturday from 1-3pm families can drop in to the gallery and participate together in an artistic challenge such as collage-making.

"Family drop-ins are a moveable feast," explains Nicoll. "We aim to hold them in spaces that will mean the art we're making is inspired by the collection in some way."

Family art trails are planned; they will start in the Learning Centre and direct families to works of art where discussion questions are posed about the pieces. To really get the kids interested, ask for a Gallery iPad or download a free Auckland Art Gallery trail map app for your iPhone.

If all this pondering is making you hungry, there's a cafe, somewhat uncreatively called "Cafe", and an espresso bar, called, obviously "Espresso Bar", on the premises overlooking Albert Park.

If we were more organised parents, we could have brought a picnic and relaxed in the covered amphitheatre at the edge of the park - where the kids can let off steam with real trees to climb.

To recharge the batteries, take the kids to the tower room where there is a selection of children's art books, including I Spy NZ Art which will point children in the direction of pieces to find around the gallery.

Although they have worked hard to think of things for families to do here, it's still an art gallery, which means a "look, don't touch" approach.

The lessons have been created to make the least amount of mess - don't expect it to be a place to let the kids experiment with paint and clay for someone else to clean up.

The design is beautiful but a little impractical for younger children - there's so much glass for little heads to bump into and the bench sculpture that is okay for children to climb on is narrow and easy to fall off, as well as being quite close to the steep side of the building.

With its pure white edges, it's a wonder it's not off-limits to grubby hands and dirty shoes, but wonderful.

Still, the kids had a great time and it was a good way for us to explain the term "a feast for the eyes" while holding their hands tightly.

Planning your trip

The Auckland Art Gallery opens next Saturday, September 3, with usual opening hours being 10am to 5pm, except on Christmas Day. For the first two Saturdays it will be open from 10am to 10pm. Admission is free.

Check out the website for special events and school holiday workshops. Bookings essential, call (09) 367 1930.

Free activities for all ages September to November (10am to 5pm daily)

Drop into the Learning Centre with tools for hands-on art and inspiration.

Family drop-ins
1pm to 3pm Saturdays from September 17.

For kids aged 4 and up
Free drop in with family-friendly creative activities.

Holiday workshops
October school holidays (aged 5-8 and 9-12). $16 per child per two-hour session with a teaching artist.

Term-time studio courses
Sundays from October (aged 5-8 and 9-12). $72 per child per course of four sessions. Develop art skills over four 90-minute sessions.

Getting there

Part of any art gallery visit has to be the journey there - take a train, a bus or the ferry to make it a more exciting trip for your children. If you're driving, the closest car parks are on Kitchener St and Victoria St West.

Be in to win

I Spy NZ Art is an engaging introduction to New Zealand art for children, using images from the Art Gallery and Chartwell collections. Kids can study the images to find what might be "spied" in the artworks, including photography, painting and sculpture (the back pages include all the information parents or teachers might need to guide the kids' explorations). I Spy NZ Art, is published by the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki with support of the Chartwell Trust, $19.95 from the Gallery Shop.

Weekend Life and Auckland Art Gallery have two copies of I Spy NZ Art to give away.

To enter, visit www.nzherald.co.nz/weekend, fill in your details and enter competition keywords "Auckland Art Gallery" by Wednesday Aug 31.

- NZ Herald

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