Take a Monet, a Turner and other paintings worth millions of dollars and lend them to schools for a day. It may sound like a looming disaster, but not to British organizers of a project bringing great art to kids.
At Addey and Stanhope, an ethnically-diverse school in south London, 11 and 12-year-old pupils had no idea that the artwork they had been studying was coming to visit them until it turned up this week, accompanied by a white-gloved expert.
“Everyone was like: ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’” said Holly, 11, bouncing up and down as her classmates swarmed around the Byzantine Lady, a striking 1912 portrait by British artist Vanessa Bell.
The “Masterpieces in Schools” project, which is backed by the BBC, includes 26 paintings — collectively worth US$22 million — that British galleries are lending to schools around Britain this month.
The insurance costs have not been disclosed — but security is so tight that organizers are unable to reveal the names of the paintings or the schools until the canvases are safely back in their galleries.
“First things first — this painting is worth an awful lot of money,” teacher Matthew Teager told the wide-eyed boys and girls as they filed into the drama studio to see the portrait. “You are not to touch it.”
Pupils had spent hours drawing their own versions of the portrait and learning about the history of its subject — the sixth-century Empress Theodora — as well as the artist, a member of the influential Bloomsbury Group of 20th-century intellectuals and sister of author Virginia Woolf.
As part of the government’s art collection, the Byzantine Lady has been displayed on the walls of ministries and embassies, and the children also wrote poems about the conversations she may have overheard.
Most wrote about major events they have studied in history class — the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
However, at this state-run school — where many of the pupils are black and more than a third speak English as a second language — many also chose to write about discrimination in their own city, as witnessed by an imaginary Byzantine Lady.
“I have seen the London black people being judged and abused, just because of their color,” one pupil read to her class.
For their teacher the project is about bringing art to children who might otherwise be unlikely to visit a gallery.
“This is about inspiring a real multicultural cross-range of kids into thinking: ‘Actually, I can go and see that,’” Teager said.
It is also about brightening up the curriculum — the Byzantine Lady has spilled into their English, art and history lessons, and when a curator asked questions about the Byzantine Empire, several hands shot up each time.
“I thought it was going to be boring, but it’s made learning history more interesting,” 12-year-old Rahida said.
The Public Catalogue Foundation, an art charity which organized the project with the BBC, said most of the paintings involved could be found in galleries nearby so that pupils could go back to visit them — although in the Byzantine Lady’s case, it returns to the government’s private collection.
“It’s really nice to see their faces light up,” the charity’s senior editor Rachel Collings said, adding that organizers hope to run the scheme again next year.
Ava, 11, was among several pupils who said the Byzantine Lady had inspired her to become an artist.
However, her classmate Tiesha was less impressed.
Cocking her head to one side, she said: “I think she should’ve done it a bit more colorful.”