For the love of art

Photo of Alice McAuliffe in front of statue

UTS Art's Education and Outreach Coordinator Alice McAuliffe

In summary: 
  • An innovative, hands-on UTS Art project is attracting high school students from low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds to university through visual arts education
  • On-campus workshops are held with the students and their teachers are supplied with take-back classroom materials which are tailored to the curriculum
  • The Bangara Dance Company have been involved in dance workshops

It’s all about creating aspiration, but with a difference. A UTS Art project is helping attract high school students from low socio-economic (low SES) and Indigenous backgrounds to university through visual arts education.

Over the last 20 years, the number of low SES students in Australia enrolled in higher education has remained static at about 15 per cent – a poor figure considering this group makes up a quarter of the broader population.

In 2010, the Federal Government announced that by 2020, they would ensure 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments would be from a low SES background.  Supporting this is their allocation of $108 million over four years for new programs linking universities with low SES schools and vocational education and training providers.

Bonnyrigg High School students participating in the UTS Gallery art outreach program

Bringing contemporary art to young minds, as well as sparking a desire to complete tertiary study, is UTS Art’s Education and Outreach Coordinator Alice McAuliffe.

McAuliffe has been leading in-gallery workshops as part of UTS’s Widening Participation Strategy (WPS), which aims to improve access, participation and retention of low SES and Indigenous students.

“The objective is hands-on learning. We get students from disadvantaged schools onto the campus and create an environment that’s fun and interesting, but also has relevance to what they’re learning,” says McAuliffe. She believes raising the aspirations of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds is the first step.

The program’s workshops give students a creative space to explore art. Along the way, students build confidence in their own ideas and capabilities; reflecting McAuliffe’s own belief about the value of participatory practices.

“I’m interested in art forms that include direct audience interaction. It’s not just creating an object that sits in a gallery and can be used in a commodity market. It’s about making work that actually has a social relevance or, in some way, connects with other human beings.”

The education program targets Year 9 and 10 students and revolves around the UTS art exhibitions. Their first workshop last year, based on Alex Davies’ installation The Black Box Sessions, placed the students in a technologically mediated environment where live action was blended with pre-recorded performances.

“Although they’re all studying visual arts, for a lot of the kids it was their first visit to a gallery – and this show went far beyond the usual ideas of what a gallery is! After talking with the students about his ideas and his career as an artist, Alex then taught them all about the technology and they got to make their own mixed-reality films. The kids absolutely loved it.”

For each workshop, McAuliffe also puts together an education resource that ties in with the visual arts syllabus for the school teachers. The extra resource enables them to continue the art education back in the classroom.

“It’s one thing to talk about installation art in the classroom, but it’s another to have seen it, to have met the artist and to have made something yourself. The students feel empowered by the experience; they gain an understanding of the artwork and the historical and theoretical environment it sits within. The teachers have said to me it’s incredible – they constantly refer back to the workshops they do here because it’s such a hands-on thing.”

An artist herself, McAuliffe says the positive feedback is satisfying. “I love the arts and I think culture is so incredibly important. I try to create a space that is an alternative to the classroom environment using a more context-driven, exploratory approach.

“I try to show the kids the bigger picture about what the artists are doing and build their skills so that they can approach what they see more deeply. Obviously we need to link it with the school’s syllabus and there are certain things we need to try and get across, but conveying that information by creative means is important to me as an art educator.”

The challenge of creating this bigger-picture thinking is compounded by the fact many of the visiting students have never been to the city before. Many are refugee children for whom English is a second language and whose parents have had a limited education.

“Our aim is to plant the seed of university education in their minds by bringing them into a creative and accessible space on campus and showing them that university isn’t a big scary place.”

McAuliffe is always trying to think of new ways to break down the visual arts syllabus and make it more relatable. She recounts a workshop last year that tied into the Creative Accounting exhibition, which focused on money and the economic system. The students explored ideas about commercial exchange and how value is perceived between the handmade versus the mass-produced.

Bonnyrigg High School students with their eBay cupcakes

“We brought someone in to teach the kids how to decorate cupcakes. They’re something all kids have eaten and bought cheaply at the shops, but through the workshop they really developed a sense of the skill and time involved in the making of these things. The students chose the six best to put on eBay, decided on the price and how they were going to pitch them.”

To help improve Indigenous enrolment in particular, McAuliffe has been working with Jumbunna to connect with EORA Tafe and Tranby College, the local Indigenous tertiary institutions. The renowned Bangarra Dance Company have also been involved.

“Bangarra dancer Daniel Riley McKinley choreographed a piece based on a series of photographs by the late Indigenous photographer Michael Riley. We’re lucky that several of these works are on loan to the university’s art collection. We wanted the students to understand a person can respond to or ‘read’ art in multiple ways; in this case through movement. We brought students in to see the photos and a short film showing snippets of the dance piece and an interview with the choreographer. The students then took part in a dance workshop as well; it was a lot of fun.”

It’s this alternative way of thinking that McAuliffe says has attracted extra UTS funding, enabling the gallery to widen the project and target more local schools and community groups this year.

“The WPS is such a big project with lots of programs across the university. What I’m trying to do is show the students that UTS is an option for them by creating a positive and creative introduction to the campus.”

Photographer (A McAuliffe): Joanne Saad. Photographs of Bonnyrigg Public School students supplied by Alice McAuliffe.