Trouble on the art trail

THE Art Gallery of Ballarat has found itself caught up in the contentious political debate surrounding climate change and global warming.

Right-wing commentator and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt last week said an educational art trail discussing environmental themes in the gallery’s collection showed the institution had “been taken over by global warming propagandists”.

Developed in 2009 in partnership with Ballarat-based water and environment groups, the Four Elements Art Trail asks school students to consider global warming, energy supply and the environment when looking at six artworks by painters including Johan Bennetter, Tony Cran and David Davies.

Each of the paintings depict scenes in the environment, including a raging ocean, sunburned landscape and wild animals and is accompanied by a special description with discussion questions. 

Conservative journal Quadrant kicked off the controversy last week by posting a blog entry by Tony Thomas on its website. 

The post mocked the educational trail and linked its content to the federal government’s carbon tax and policies of the Australian Greens.

In a post titled “The Fine Art of Scaring Children”, Mr Thomas renames the exercise as “the kiddie-art climate trail.”

Art Gallery of Ballarat director Gordon Morrison said the response to the trail had been “universally positive” with only one negative comment received in a gallery visitors book.

He said the trail had been used regularly by tour guides in 2010 and 2011.

“Its aim was to support the gallery’s role as an educational institution by providing prompts for using works in the collection as starting points for debate and discussion,” Mr Morrison said in a statement on Friday. “Works of art have long been used in the classroom as reference points for many topics.”

Mr Morrison said one of the core roles of cultural institutions was to connect communities with debate on important social issues.

University of Melbourne arts education expert Susan Wright said art was one of the most powerful teaching tools.

“Children often surprise adults with their ability to deal with abstract concepts and by developing this through art and ideas we can see them learn through different means,” she said.

“Art connects with emotions and imagination. It seems to me a perfectly appropriate use of the gallery’s collection.”

The Courier sought responses from representatives of the artists included in the trail, but none responded before deadline.

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