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Exploring the world within and beyond the gallery space

8th May 2019

Najia Bagi and Sara Lowes from the Creative Learning team at Modern Art Oxford spoke to us about how they encourage the local community to explore their city, and how they are engaging with digital technology to reach new audiences.

Modern Art Oxford provides a mix of participatory opportunities to bolster existing community projects happening in Oxford. Initiatives include Make Play: a co-led sensory project for early years children and their grown ups, and How Nature Builds: a making project with local older women that both informed and was included in the 2018 exhibition Future Knowledge. The gallery has a dedicated Creative Space where people can participate in a range of self-led creative activities and can also interact with Modern Art Oxford staff.

Their recent project ‘Activating Our Archives’ was designed to involve Oxford residents to explore ideas in Akram Zaatari’s work (exhibited in the gallery until 12 May), which considers how we present ourselves through online platforms and photographic archives. The group looked at how they could best employ social media and digital technology to create a live archive that would engage people who would not normally visit the gallery and give a voice to the wide range of communities who thrive around the city.

They had a positive response to their recruitment online given the breadth of their social media followers, and via community centres and other community representative who they reached out to. They brought together a mixed group of different ages, genders, backgrounds, and cultural heritage, and also a few international participants purely connecting to the project online via social media. This was the first time that they had used social media as a way to recruit participants and found it was really successful in engaging those who had not been to the gallery previously.

Local artist Sunil Shah was invited to lead the project; the artist and curator uses archival material and personal artefacts in his work to connect with people and to explore his identity within the city and beyond. He leads a project group that meets weekly during the exhibition period, where they both take and share often deeply personal photographs and moving images and then give each other feedback. They also share work and ideas through online digital platform Padlet and through takeovers on Instagram, where the #ActivatingOurArchives hashtag has really taken off and has seen people internationally getting involved. The group went out into Oxford and created a mini story of the day, and the participants internationally were invited to do the same in their locations (including Beirut and Rotterdam).

It was surprising that some participants joined the project who were not social media users and wanted to learn how to be more connected, which meant that the team needed to spend time training these people in how to share content on the different platforms. The project also inspired conversations on copyright and ownership, and an expanded idea of what constitutes an archive. Working as a group the participants have motivated, guided and inspired one another to share their work and make each other feel comfortable.

This is the first time Modern Art Oxford has delivered a project with such a digital focus and international reach, and as the organisation develops their programme for 2020 they are thinking about how to nurture and grow this model. The success can be seen in the encouraging feedback they have received from participants – one person mentioned how as someone who wasn’t from an artistic background, she hadn’t been able to find an avenue to be creative, and that through this project she had now met people with similar interests and had enjoyed hearing the different outlooks of people of different ages.

Modern Art Oxford also encourages participants to explore the city through the ‘City as Studio’ project, for people aged between 14 and 17 from local schools and sixth form colleges. Inspired by the recent Penny Woolcock exhibition and Zaatari’s work, they created photographs and moving image mentored by artist Kate Mahony. They also share ideas through a digital gallery on Padlet. The students undertake workshops to learn the basics of filmmaking, cinematography and sound design, then form DIY filmmaking teams. They film footage on their smartphones and create their own DIY rigs, to produce three minute artists’ film that shares their perspective on what the city means to them – revealing a city that is more diverse than the side tourists see.

‘City as Studio’ enables Modern Art Oxford to demonstrate to young people that the gallery is a public space for them to enjoy, whether that is to visit an exhibition or event, or just to hang out and have a coffee. Their Creative Space also offers informal learning opportunities and is where more meaningful relationships with young people can be grown through conversations about what they feel the organisation should be doing, so Modern Art Oxford can ensure that it stays community focused.

Sara and Najia’s top tip for keeping your audience coming back is: the consistency of your offer. Having a dedicated creative space enables people to build a relationship over time and to have conversations with staff. The more comfortable this can be, the more opportunity there is for this to become a long-term relationship. It’s key to listen to what your audiences have to say. Think about what your community can teach you!

Image: John Umney / Modern Art Oxford’s ‘Activating Our Archives’ group project.

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