Visual Literacy

2002-2016 “Seen but not heard”

The attached article Fostering Adult Literacy in Art Museums was published in 2004 in the Journal of Visual Literacy for the International Visual Literacy Association. It offers a synopsis of my Masters in Museum Studies Thesis at John F. Kennedy University, Berkeley, California. Reading the article afresh today, I am, once again, struck by how loaded words like “literacy” and visual literacy are.

How varied their interpretation can be depending on the context. Overclaiming the benefits and/or transformative impact of visual art, by pointing out the interconnection between language development and visual literacy, can be precarious. Rather, articulating nuanced perspectives by what we mean in visual arts practice about our understanding of visual literacy and how we are experiencing it happening live in Project 20/20 best exercised as reflective practice.

It seems timely to post the article here today and to remember the early stages of this research. We are about to embark on a new phase of work for Project 20/20 with a Visual Thinking Strategies Beginners Practicum Training and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Reflecting and remembering as we continue to move and progress offers us space for more realistic expectations to emerge.

By Liz Coman

Journal of Visual Literacy

Children and Young People “Artistic Agents for Social Change”

Agents of Change

Children and young people have immense capacity for joy, communication, and understanding of the layers that exist within truth. They have a natural sense of empathy when presented with human frailty and are hard-wired with a desire for generosity and fair play. Children and young people experience and live with conflict familial dis-ease, poverty, social and cultural exclusion. Age, ability and cultural tradition scaffold their being and sense of belonging. The present day imaginings and creativity of children and young people, speak of a future that we, as adults, cannot imagine. From a very young age children naturally express this artistically, visually, verbally, and through movement and dramatic re-interpretation of their daily goings on. As art makers and art audiences in their own right, children and young people share with us, their human experience.

Project 20/20 commissions contemporary visual artists to make original work for young audiences and facilitates innovative mediation processes for children and young people’s to experience contemporary Irish visual arts and artists’ practice. Our approach to this work is set with constructivist pedagogy, and is informed by the theoretical framework of aesthetic development formulated by Abigail Housen student of Howard Gardner, deviser of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Housen was the child of art historians at Boston College of Fine Arts, and growing up in a house surrounded by artists and art, her research question was this is What Happens Cognitively When Someone Looks at a Work of Art.

The focus across the different visual art strands of Project 20/20 is on unlocking the children’s voices as citizens and viewers, fostering a love, understanding, confidence and competence in looking at visual art and how contemporary artists make work. Learning to look slowly offering permission to wonder, be curious, ask big questions, discuss these ideas as a group, accept that art can be ambiguous..unresolved..that every opinion is valid..that gallery spaces are for all members of the public albeit they have particular and peculiar rules and histories that are sometimes invisible.

Why is looking at contemporary Irish art important?

Over 60% of the students the primary schools in the neighbourhood of Dublin 1 are not born in Ireland, English is not their birth language, Irish art history or even western art history is not their history.

Many of the children we work with in Project 20/20, up to one year ago, did not know The LAB Gallery, even though they may have walked by it everyday. Working in collaboration with The LAB’s Curator, Sheena Barrett, we invited a team of artists, art educators and a philosopher (Lynn McGrane, Seodin O’Sullivan, Katie Fitzpatrick and Aislinn O’Donnell) to begin to help us to build relationships with children, teachers and parents living in our local neighbourhood. As a result, we have been learning a lot about how the intrinsic values of contemporary art connects with the children in their everyday lives.


Dublin City Council’s objective is simple for children to access quality artists and arts experiences that are present in their local neighbourhood. Working within the context of a local authority allows our curatorial and pedagogical framework to build a community of practice slowly and be flexible around how we build relationships and resources over time. Therefore, our approach is different to formats found in traditional museums and galleries.

In Project 20/20, the adults who collaborate with children and young people, in the classroom and gallery, are brave enough to believe that children and young people are capable and competent in telling us about what they see. We are brave enough to try to look and listen closely. We are brave enough to try to let go of the things we love if the children we work with don’t like them! Making this shift requires time and space for reflection and levels of risk taking. It requires us, as adults, to be open to learning and receiving critical feedback. It requires artistic ambition. We are brave enough to try and to fail and to try again.

We begin this blog for Project 20/20 in the hope that new technology will support how we can pro-actively come together to deepen our understanding and connection directly with children and young people’s artistic voices in Dublin 1. Project 20/20 marks a philosophical shift, from children and young people as cultural consumers to active collaborators, and this blog aims to share our different viewpoints on how we, as adults, support this to happen.

Project 20/20 carves out the possibility of children and young people as agents of their own cultural experience. It highlights the social mix of local and new communities in this neighbourhood and builds confidence and pride by highlighting the positive in the area in terms of character, history and artistic community. It reflects the progressive intention of the local schools and communities and challenges anti-social branding. It fosters connectivity between contemporary visual artists living and working in the area and local schools and allows time and space for a new pedagogical practices to emerge for contemporary art and formal education. We hope it will impact how our neighbourhood nurtures their young population and influence how we, as arts and cultural organisations, teachers, youth service workers, early childcare providers, artists and local government, make decisions, holding in our collective, creative imagination a neighbourhood rich in arts and culture led by children and young people and for children and young people.

By Liz Coman