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Looking back: Dialogues – Towards Change events in Brighton and Milton Keynes

13th Dec 2019

We all have a right to culture, but what barriers do people face in our region if they want to work or participate in the visual arts sector?

Currently visual arts audiences, programmes, boards and their professional workforce are far from representative in the South East, a region where 15.7% of the population is disabled and 9.4% Black and Minority Ethnic (ONS 2011).

November saw the first two of our three-part consultative event series, Dialogues – Towards Change, calling for ideas to address this gap. The discussions investigated how our network might best champion rights and representation in the region’s visual arts sector and asked what action we should prioritise. Many new connections were made by bringing together a diverse group of artists and organisations to share their experiences and scope actionable change. Breakout sessions showcased examples of innovative practice and encouraged discussion.

The events were guided by ten questions, including:

  • How could artist professional development initiatives be better designed for artists from under-represented backgrounds?
  • How could established institutions work to foster new diverse-led visual arts organisations and artist collectives in their area?
  • How could organisations develop more diverse audiences and engage neglected communities?
  • How could we diversify workforce and board recruitment in the visual arts sector, and support more career routes for artists and arts workers from diverse backgrounds?
  • Where is there unconscious bias in the visual arts sector, and how could it be reduced?

Artist Placemaking, hosted by Phoenix Art Space in Brighton, examined how creative places such as Brighton can be shaped by a more diverse artist community, exploring artists’ agency and representation in the cultural community.

Chaired by artist, and Chair of Shape Arts, Tony Heaton, this event was developed by, and featured, two Brighton-based visual arts leaders: Liz Whitehead (Fabrica) and Alli Beddoes (Lighthouse). Liz and Alli kicked off the presentations by setting the context of rights and representation in relation to placemaking, and the creative and cultural community in Brighton.

Guest speakers included artists Jo Offer, Louella Forrest and Desmond Lake from Rocket Artists; an inclusive group of visual and performance artists who challenge barriers around art, inclusion, diversity, learning and communication. Rocket Artists believe all people should have access to the arts and that it is valuable for artists of all abilities to make work together.

Another speaker, Jamila Prowse, talked through her experiences of working as a younger, ’emerging’, curator of colour, navigating working in high pressure arts roles while having ongoing mental health conditions. Jamila proposed that, by working towards a more supportive and flexible working environment, we will invite in thinkers from a wider range of backgrounds.

Kate Davey, Step Up Coordinator for Outside In, gave a presentation about their Step Up programme, which provides training and professional development for artists facing barriers to the art world. The scheme aims to challenge who is able to take up positions of authority in the artworld by equipping artists with the skills needed to take up employment, self-employment and voluntary opportunities in the art world. Kate was joined by artist Jackie Bennett, who talked passionately about her experience taking part in Step Up courses and in assisting the course tutor on various courses.

The event concluded with a panel discussion, and agreement among artists in the room to come together to look at reclaiming spaces in the city, pull together existing resources and make use of the expertise of organisations like Rocket Artists and Outside In.

Tony Heaton called for ‘a radical shift’, urging institutional leaders to embrace a shared approach to allow more diverse people to be part of their ecology. In a comment from the floor, Colin Hambrook of Disability Arts Online explained how they use Skype as a way to offer accessible mentoring to artists.

 

Inclusive Practice, our second event, took place at MK Gallery in collaboration with Project Art Works and their EXPLORERS conference. The session put neurodivergent artists and makers at the centre of the conversation in a collaborative, inclusive and progressive event examining rights, institutional empathy and how to support and nurture more diverse practice in contemporary visual art.

Chaired by consultant Dominique De-Light, the Dialogue was developed with Kate Adams MBE, Artistic Director and CEO of Project Art Works, and featured presentations from MK Gallery, Phoenix Art Space and Photoworks, as members of our network who have also partnered with Project Art Works through the pioneering EXPLORERS project.

Kate Adams emphasised that an element of the EXPLORERS project has been to provide the partner institutions with the resources to be able to support artists with complex needs and make their programmes more inclusive. The approach is about supporting individuals to engage on their own terms, observing how they interact and whether or not they consent or dissent to the activity. Valuing their artwork and their mark making is also key.

Bethany Mitchell, Curator of Inclusion at MK Gallery, shared the development of their Art and Us programme, weekly sessions of art explorations for families with children with complex needs. Through the lens of family experiences told through their own words, and organisational learning over the first 18 months of programme delivery, she highlighted key points for reflection in relation to access, barriers to participation and diversifying audiences. “We see the audience not as a group but individuals who all want to go on their own journey. Their individual ideas need to be respected and we need to be malleable to respond to them.”

Shoair Mavlian, Director of Photoworks, spoke about commissioning and photography club, two core aspects of their programme, relating how Photoworks has rethought both of these in their In Focus programme to develop an inclusive commissioning model and inclusive photography club.

Also contributing to the afternoon was Anna Farley, the first recipient of Photoworks’ In Focus commission, an opportunity for a neurodivergent artist to make new work for exhibition.

CVAN South East has commissioned researcher Farhana Ghaffar to produce a short report from this listening process, capturing the breadth of audience conversation, which will inform the development of a new phase in our network’s activity in the South East.

Join us for the final Dialogue on Participative Institutions on 17 February at Modern Art Oxford.

Dialogues – Towards Change is funded by Arts Council England.

Image: Dialogues – Towards Change: Artist Placemaking at Phoenix Art Space. Photo: Miles Umney.

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