engage conference

Louisa Penfold and Nicky Sim attended the recent engage conference in Glasgow. Nicky Sim ran a workshop in collaboration with practitioners from the Whitworth, Manchester. The Whitworth are part of Circuit, which is the research context for Nicola’s PhD on partnerships between galleries and youth organisations. Nicky posted a storify about the workshop on the Circuit website. Louisa writes about her conference experience here.

Peer-led. Disadvantaged. Youth. Collaboration. Co-production. Participation. Partnership, Engagement. Experiential. Unlearning. Agency. Flicking through the conference brochure, the key themes of the 2015 Engage conference were immediately apparent.

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The scene was set in the opening speech: the growth in diversity in communities across the UK has come at a time of increased funding cuts to arts organizations across the sector. This has resulted in many arts organizations and galleries struggling to incorporate the broad demographics that reflect the diverse communities in which we live. The arts have been increasingly marginalized in the school curriculum meaning that sites of informal learning, such as art museums, need to play an increasingly important role in providing arts education in the community. As a doctoral student who has recently relocated from Australia to the UK, my interest in the attending the conference lay not so much in hearing about the dire state of youth and funding in the arts, but about what individuals and organisations were actively doing to address these complex concerns.

Central questions presented to attendees included: how can organisations make equitable relationships with youth that authentically project their voices through partnerships and programs? Is it young people or institutions that benefit from such peer-led programs? How does involvement in arts organizations help youth make decisions outside of these institutions?

Key-note speaker Darren O’Donnell, Artistic Director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, presented on the company’s human-centred threatre/activism/arts performance projects. Boarding on the line of utopianism, O’Donnell advocates for breaking the cycle of social concern leading to excessive precautioning and safeguarding of children. These result in a standardized formatting of what children and youth are able to do in society. Learning is the result of different people coming together and creating new knowledge. The solution being children’s and youth programs to be built upon a framework of human-centred experience. Projects O’Donnell discussed included Haircuts for Children, a performance piece in which children are paid to run a hair salon in which they give free haircuts to the public. Through the design of the performance, the relationships between children and adults is reformatted, creating a new social space and dynamic between individuals.

I found the findings of Dr. Esther Sayers’ doctoral research into youth programs at Tate in the mid-2000’s particularly noteworthy and slightly disheartening. Her research found that much of peer-led programming excludes youth voices and rarely diversifies gallery audiences. Dr. Sayers’ pointed out the complex challenge of creating equitable relationships between youth and art galleries as a result of hierarchical structures within institutions and amongst peer groups. In order to genuinely integrate youth voices into institutions, alternate hierarchies that place youth as an integral part of the structure need to be put in place. Such fundamental reconstruction of institutional hierarchy calls for a need of support from directors. I couldn’t help but notice the lack of gallery directors attending the conference.

However perhaps the most substantial and detailed research on the experience of youth and arts institutions is yet to come. Dr Roz Hall presented on her research on the experiences of those working on the Circuit program. She called for the need to incorporate the evaluation process of youth programs from the conception of the project and not just a ‘tag-on’ at the end. Such research requires the involvement of everyone working within the project (managers, junior staff, artists, youth, directors, audiences) and not just those with the ‘loudest voices.’ Evaluation does not need to assess the outcomes and impact of a project against specific criteria but rather seek to identify what we know about youth work and how we know it. The dissemination of findings amongst the broader community is crucial to help inform the programming of other institutions in the future. As a sector we need to work collaboratively to share our challenges, experiences and successes in order to make relationships between youth and organisations more authentic, ethical and meaningful for the community that they aspire to serve.

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