Young people, galleries and cultural collaboration

20 March 2017

Programmes Manager, Louise Barnell, reflects on the Test Risk Change Conference

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On Friday 10 March, my colleague Annie Thorpe and I attended the Paul Hamlyn Test, Risk, Change conference at the Nottingham Contemporary.

The aim of the day was to debate and explore ‘... how the youth and gallery sectors can work effectively together in turbulent social and political times to challenge inequalities and champion young people’s cultural participation.’ The conference was framed around four years of learning from Circuit, a national programme connecting 15-25 year olds to the arts in galleries and museums by working in partnership with the youth and cultural sector. Led by Tate and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, it provided opportunities for young people to steer their own learning and create cultural activity across art disciplines.

The conference included discussions between youth practitioners, gallery staff and young people, with the aim of interrogating the authenticity of partnership, examining the agency of young people, and addressing the dynamics of organisational change. The main partners in attendance involved in Circuit included Tate Modern and Tate Britain; Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives and partners from the Plus Tate network; Firstsite, Colchester; MOSTYN, Llandudno; Nottingham Contemporary; Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and Wysing Arts Centre and Kettle’s Yard Cambridgeshire.

After a warm welcome from Kay Hardiman (Head of Learning, Nottingham Contemporary) and Anna Cutler (Director of Learning, Tate), we then heard from leaders at Paul Hamlyn, the Whitworth and the Tate, before Ernest Wereko gave his thoughts on being a participant in the Circuit programme. Ernest spoke powerfully about the 'possibilities of working in synergy with ideas and people to create change.’

When we worked together on Circuit, this wasn’t a simulation- this was real action in art and the power of collective ideas
Ernest Wereko - Tate Collective Member

After this, Raluca Moraru (Circuit Assistant, Nottingham Contemporary) introduced a provocation on youth, change and honesty. Her message was clear: if you can relinquish control and trust that quality work and creative change can work in an honest dialogue with young people, then it will happen. In spades.

The first discussion panel centred on the opportunities and challenges presented by working on Circuit as a practice in cross-sector partnership.

Nicola Sim, (Doctoral researcher, Tate/The University of Nottingham) started by looking at the challenges presented in democratic working with organisations and young people:

  • Co-usage of a gallery and museum space - spaces have power and budget, and there will always be inherent challenges with power imbalance between artist, curator, and participants.
  • Tensions between reflecting and being able to make mistakes - some sectors have a compulsion to prove targets and programme outcomes, which in turn can cause difficulty in creating meaningful organisational change
  • Working in the youth sector means that there are fewer resources, and embedding change and testing new ideas with quality and authentic outcomes in difficult in a landscape of public sector cuts
  • Attempting ‘pure’ democracy can create issues, as without structured outcomes like developing skills, overcoming disagreements, creative problem solving programmes are difficult to implement. Without a shared vision or clear objectives democracy, however well intentioned, can fail to result in quality outcomes for young people.

Charlotte Winters (Young Artist Kommunity member, and trustee, Firstsite) spoke about how ‘hard to reach groups’ or people with additional needs are often box ticked, exploited and brought out when they are needed. Gradual work with Firstsite enabled working towards a real collaboration. Galleries are spaces to overcome bureaucracy and transitory relationships built by care system and Local Authorities, but these sectors have very different landscapes. Organisations need to start with a question rather than an assumption when starting work with people with additional needs.

Calum Watts (Residential Social Care Worker, Crocus Fields) and Alice Thickett (Youth Programmer Notts Contemporary) thought that the Circuit model welcomed and allowed long-term work with artists and residents with additional needs with Nottingham Contemporary. Good partnerships between SEND students and organisations and schools were fostered and were crucial to breaking down barriers. Circuit was an important space to ‘develop ownership of space across sectors’.

Isabella Martin (Artist, Wysing Arts Centre & Kettle’s Yard) worked closely with young people in a youth ‘open club’ setting and spoke about challenges she faced. Isabella thought that creating an open space and relinquishing control when you need to achieve something was a core piece of learning from her experience, and that having a plan that was open and contributory yet solid enough to gather consensus was essential.

Just a gig in a gallery? Cultural democracy in the museum

In the afternoon I attended a breakout session with the Tate Collective - the young curators behind the events and programming behind the Tate - along with Young Artists co-curating with the Whitworth young contemporaries, the evaluator of the Circuit programme and the founder of Reprezent FM. The main question the session focussed on was: how serious are galleries about connecting with popular youth cultures beyond the visual arts?

The main points that were raised by the Tate Collective and Whitworth Young Contemporaries included:

  • Do we need to connect late events at galleries and museums to the collection for them to be relevant and impactful to young people?
  • If we connect programming to the art, perhaps it stops us from thinking critically about the work? Do we need to move away from associative curation?
  • Young people are interested in political issues and if we trust young people they will guide on the right content and outcome for what we are trying to achieve
  • Whitworth young contemporaries argued that the gallery is no longer just a space for art, but a space for debate
  • Young curators really value and enjoy relational art forms and want to interrogate them, so just programming gigs isn’t enough
  • But how do we sustain this trusted quality work, after funding ends?

The question of funding raised a tough debate on how young people should be paid for their time, and though programmes like Circuit have a great impact, the question of perpetuating unpaid work in the arts was raised by several young people in the group. We reached the conclusion that this must be an open debate and kept central to future agendas in collaborative community curation.

Powerful messages from discussions across the day:

  • Be democratic when collaborators need to have shared objectives, and ensure participants become their best selves
  • Everyone, including practitioners, needs to consider themselves as a participant when working collaboratively on arts projects, especially with young people
  • The term “hard to reach” is problematic. There is, however, a lot of potential in the word ‘collaborators’
  • Funders could help to understand rather than ‘solve’ problems. Funding bodies sometimes use static and unhelpful labels for groups they are working with
  • However, there is a tension with the above point. If we cannot use labels such as 'BAME', 'young people', 'LGBTQ', or 'LAC' then we perhaps cannot make progress in securing funds and rights for groups that need them
  • Risk taking and collaboration often culminates in beautiful work

All in all, Test, Risk, Change was a breath of very fresh hopeful air in a difficult political climate and an honest forum for game-changing debate in the sector. Bring on the next stage.

For more information on the programme and the research findings click here. Follow the conversation on Twitter via the #SparkChange hashtag.

Image credit: Rachel Escott