Taking children to art galleries

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Their delight at spotting nudes and the honest questions they ask mean a visit to an art gallery can be best with kids

Zoe Williams and her children Thurston and Harper with friend Peter visit Tate Britain.
Zoe Williams and her children Thurston and Harper, with friend Thomas, in front of the ‘weird’ Cholmondeley Ladies. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

I took my children to Tate Britain in open defiance of the artist Jake Chapman, who says taking kids to galleries is a “total waste of time”. I think it opens up a different kind of conversation: at home, I often feel like I’m interrogating my children (What did you do at school? Who was fun, who annoyed you, what did the teacher say, how come you were sad?) and they’re always finding new and inventive ways to evade me. Gaze “not at each other, but in the same direction”, wrote Seamus Heaney.

We went to Tate Modern over the summer for a general look around; unhappily, I had taken them to McDonald’s on the way, and they each (my two and their two cousins) let go of a helium Happy Meal balloon in the Turbine Hall. “That’s probably the first time that has ever happened,” said an attendant, as we watched the balloons lodge themselves in the rafters.

Before that, I’d taken them to the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain, on which occasion my youngest, then three, insisted on wearing her cha-cha heels. Yes, I put my toddler in high heels, what of it? People actually went up to her and asked her about them. The problem on both those occasions was not my children, but other people. A drizzly Monday morning with no one else about was much mellower. I had my two – Harper, five, and Thurston, six, and Thurston’s friend Thomas, seven.

Immersing themselves, or not.
Immersing themselves, or not. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

Thomas took a puckish delight in pointing out everything that either was a naked person or looked like one: to the determined eye, it turns out, this includes all art. It took in Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer, the terrifying sculptures of Jacob Epstein, and everything byHenry Moore.

Thurston was keenly vigilant in case I saw any penises. Whether that was for my own propriety or because it would be embarrassing for the world to know that I might have seen one before, I have no idea. We all had a long chat by Frederic Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling With a Python – who would win? Could the python’s venom drop on to his arm and kill him, even as he throttled it? Everyone thought The Cholmondeley Ladies looked “weird”.

Confronting Phyllida Barlow's artworks.
Phyllida Barlow’s Dock: definitely awesome. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

Phyllida Barlow, whose exhibition is running until 19 October, is said to be good for kids – I personally think that children, like adults, have different tastes. Thomas and Thurston were really delighted by the scale of everything. They thought it was awesome. Usually when kids say awesome, I bleat: “No, actually, I think you’ll find, contrary to the Lego Movie, everything is not awesome.” But if you’re talking about raw awe, then yes, Barlow’s Dock is awesome. Harper was actively frightened by it, though – not so much the sculptures themselves, but that chaotic contrast between the tumble of everyday junk and the formality of the gallery. Broadly, I’d say that kids get as much from the absolute stone classics – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by Sargent – as they do from more mischievous works that people think children will like, such as Bill Woodrow’s Elephant. They don’t have that adult need to interpret, or be seen to interpret. And that gives them more freedom to immerse themselves, or not, as the work takes them.

I think, in other words, that children are actually better at going round galleries than adults – there is no doubt that they waste less time. But of course that’s premised on thinking kids are interesting in the first place. So I can totally see where Jake Chapman is coming from.

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